Today is derby day. Former footballing champions PES are looking to recapture their glory days and overcome the nigh-on unstoppable force that is FIFA. The referee looks ready to blow his whistle, and there's one question on everyone's lips: could this be the year that PES takes the title?
No. But PES 2011 takes strides in the right direction. Last year's game was a stilted and robotic affair, dogged by spasmodic ball physics and rigid animation. This year, player movement has been almost completely overhauled. Footballers no longer run like identical action-men, and a range of new motions brings variety to every back-heel and bicycle kick.
It's not just the visual side of the game that's more fluid, either. Manual passes now allow skilled players to thread a ball at any angle and weight, providing potential for putting together deadly moves. A series of feints and tricks can also be custom mapped to the right stick (a dual-stick control pad is a necessity for this game), though these are only truly effective when controlling world-class players.
The biggest improvements are those that fix the problems in last year's game. Take goalkeepers, for example: they're no longer insane. They stand in sensible positions, cover their near posts and even catch close crosses. Defenders, too, now stay in position, resisting their old tendency to dash after the ball like dogs chasing cars. Defensive AI has seen an overall improvement, with opponents fielding a hyper-aggressive style of play.
On the attacking side, however, I found my own players to be my worst enemy, with fullbacks failing to overlap and fellow forwards stubbornly refusing to make runs. I often found myself desperate for a FIFA-style 'initiate run' command to help crack a defence.
The UEFA Super Cup and the Copa Santander Libertadores join the slim list of licensed competitions, and each comes complete with a familiar overlay of basic managerial options, which provide a shallow but entertaining distraction from the games themselves. The impressive suite of customisation tools has been extended even further, too, with a stadium builder and emblem editor added to an already extensive package.
I could do without the stadium builder and the extra leagues if it would help to lend more atmosphere to the football itself. It doesn't help that commentary is laced with inaccurate statements, periods of complete silence and John Champion occasionally shouting “now!” for no reason. The quiet, fake-sounding crowds don't help, either: games simply lack that crucial match-day atmosphere. While PES 2011 plays an improved, if still slightly flawed, game of football, its greatest crime is failing to capture the drama and excitement of the beautiful game.