We find out how PES 12's new AI improvements and off-the-ball controls feel out on the pitch.
At this year's E3, Konami unveiled Pro Evolution Soccer 2012's new feature set, promising--among other things--improved animation, AI updates for more realistic player positioning, and tighter, more accurate controls. Last year saw PES catching up with its archrival FIFA, but not surpassing it--at least in terms of critical reception. Is this year's string of updates enough to see PES to glory, or is it destined for a humiliating relegation?
Before you jump into a match, PES asks you to create a player that you can make as realistic, or as horrifying you like. There are lots of customisation options, ranging from your player's body and facial characteristics, through to his kit colour and poses. Such is the wealth of options that it's all too easy to create some horrific looking players. There's a simple pleasure to be found in seeing a big-eared guy with a perm, blue goatee, and a bright pink strip run around the pitch, though, even if your opponents might not agree. On the more serious side of things, you also have the option of adjusting the level of pass support, i.e. the degree to which passes automatically home onto receiving players. This is a welcome addition, particularly given how tricky the new passing system in PES 11 was. Tweaking extends to the AI too, so you can specify if it should automatically pass, shoot, or clear the ball when you're not in direct control.
Customisation done, you move onto Training Challenge; a mode that carries over from PES 11 with a few tweaks. There are trophies awarded for each training challenge you complete--bronze, silver, or gold--depending on your performance. For example, one challenge has you taking penalties, with the goal divided up into three sections worth a different amount of points. The more points you score, the better the trophy you receive. Each challenge is divided up into difficulty levels, ranging from one to three stars. This means there's a lot to play through, so if you're the type of person that has to complete everything, expect to spend a lot of time in Training Challenge.
Most of the changes in PES 12 have been made to AI players on the pitch, via improvements to make their actions seem more realistic. The first is AI overlap, which is designed to improve the performance of players off the ball, so long as you've enabled AI assists. As we played the ball to an open area of the pitch, we noticed players running forward to receive it, making intelligent runs that allowed us to set up chances on goal. If you choose not to enable AI assists you're given greater control of players off the ball, allowing you to control two players simultaneously. Doing so is a little fiddly, though, requiring you to highlight another player by pointing the right stick in his direction, and pressing down on it to select him.
While this feature can be very tricky to use out on the open field, it really comes into its own during set pieces such as corners and free kicks. While lining up a corner, we could move another player in the box at the same time, making use of space and ensuring someone was on the receiving end of the ball. Further enhancements have been made to penalties, which are now much simpler to take. One button controls the height and power of the kick, while another controls the direction. By holding down R1, we could perform finesse finishes such as chips, something that would have required well-timed double taps of the analogue stick in PES 11. Also gone is the side-on penalty view, replaced with a more traditional viewpoint in front of the goal.
Various enhancements to dummy and diagonal runs made our time on the pitch more enjoyable, with our AI teammates drawing out defenders and running across the field, rather than just down one side of it. We noticed our defence was tighter too, with players marking the opposition, automatically chasing them down, and launching tackles. This extended to our team's formation. Players maintained position, allowing us to make better judgements and defend our half of the pitch with more confidence. Combined, the AI improvements made each match more enjoyable, with fewer goals conceded from frustrating AI mistakes.
While this year's updates aren't entirely revolutionary, they build upon the substantial improvements introduced in PES 11. Matches were smooth, exciting, and a lot of fun, feeling noticeably faster than FIFA. It remains to be seen whether PES can catch up with FIFA's excellent online features, but we were left suitably impressed, making this year's battle between the two football games that little bit closer. Pro Evolution Soccer 2012 is due for release on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC on October 14. Look out for more coverage on GameSpot soon.