I bang on a lot about story. Themes, tone, emotional engagement, that sort of thing. For ten years and more I’ve been playing and replaying the same tales over and over again, looking for the intricacies in the writing and delving deep into Wikis when I can’t quite grasp why something happened, or why this particular fictional setting functions as it does. Games are art, they are valuable cultural contributions, and so on and so forth, etcetera, etcetera.
Naturally enough, therefore, the series I have played the most over the last decade is Pro Evolution Soccer, which, as a sports game, falls neatly into the ‘reviled’ category of many gaming forums. “People who buy the latest FIFA or Madden are just meatheads”, they say. “Why don’t you play this awesome genre-busting indie game instead? Actually, we know why – it’s because you’re an idiot who happily forks out £40 each year for the same game with a few transfer updates.”
In which case, call me an idiot, because I dread to think how many hours Pro Evo has leeched from my life in the last decade. I’ve weaned myself off it for a year now, thanks to a combination of dodgy revamped gameplay in PES 2011 and a need to spend time studying rather than winning the treble ten years in a row – but now I’ve got real problems. An early demo of PES 2012 has been released and I have a nasty feeling that I’m about to become addicted again.
The gameplay obviously has something to do with this. As is so often the case with year-on-year football games, I’m not quite sure what’s different, but the game immediately struck me as enjoyable where my first reaction to PES 2011 was disappointment. Now, for your enjoyment, a list of the things I’ve noticed about the demo. I’ll make this quick, but I know at least one reader who is interested in the nitty-gritty.
1. Goalkeepers are useless. This is an earlier build of the game (a demo of the final code will also be released in September, by which time this has to be fixed) but the keepers have been a problem for years now in PES and should have been fixed by now. At first I thought somebody was making a sly dig as David de Gea (I only ever play as Man U) floundered at the opposition’s every shot, but then the goals started dribbling in all over the place. When saving low, it seems keepers only ever fall over rather than dive.
2. Defending is hard. I immediately moved to the highest difficulty level and watched in horror as opposition players beat five of my men before scoring. The AI is a master of every trick, jink and dummy in the book and will make a fool of anyone who simply lunges in.
3. Aerial through-balls are too easy. Instead of easily cutting them out, defenders are content to let the ball reach its destination before trying to intervene, at which point it tends to be too late. As soon as the computer lofts a pass up, your control of the defender is seemingly overridden by the game’s AI. I hope this isn’t a conscious design decision to make through-balls a viable tactical option.
Despite these things, the gameplay still holds up. Something about the pace and flow of the game seems better and whilst that’s hardly a good analysis, I’m afraid it’ll have to do. I don’t think gameplay is necessarily the reason why I’m eager to get back in to PES anyway.
I miss the stories. There might not be a scripted one, but that never stopped me from creating them in my head, from the bigger stories of a club rising through up the table in the Master League mode, or guiding a player from obscurity to World Cup glory in Become A Legend, to the tiny rationales I invented for players suddenly dropping out of form, or the imaginary rivalries that I created between two players after a particularly crunching tackle. Just as I can apply a story to a free-form strategy game or add tiny little roleplaying touches to a game (such as always shutting doors, or walking rather than running in a temple setting), so I can invent narratives in a sport game. I love games with sweeping themes and writing, but I’ll always defend sports games against anyone who disregards them as soulless.