Oh how the mighty have fallen....and fallen quickly. Just a few years ago I would have been chomping at the bit in anticipation of a new Konami soccer game. However, after the utter garbage that was Pro Evolution Soccer 2008, I approached PES 2009 with a great deal of trepidation. In fact, this was the first year in quite some time that I didn’t bother importing the Japanese version – I’ve been more than happy spending my soccer gaming time between FIFA 09 and the most recent J-League Winning Eleven game.
Fortunately, my fears weren’t met; PES 2009 isn’t the unmitigated disaster last year’s game was but at the same time I wasn’t blown away either. PES 2009 is merely the game PES 2008 should have been – fixed frame rate, fixed lag, a few tweaks here and there but, new game mode aside, nothing groundbreaking.
The biggest improvement in PES 2009’s visuals is the elimination of the awful slow-down that plagued last year’s game. That said, while the frame-rate stays rock solid throughout in-game action and replays, the overall flow of animations isn’t as smooth as the PS2/Last Gen versions and seems a bit robotic.
Player models are pretty much the same as in PES 2008 and are solid if unspectacular. The licensed kits are well done but player faces are hit and miss. Some, like David Villa for instance, are spot on, others are way off. I find it particularly amusing that Liverpool`s bald defender Andrea Dossena has long, flowing black hair in PES 2009, particularly since Liverpool are one of the few teams that Konami actually has an official license for!
Player animations were once an area of Winning Eleven games that blew away FIFA, however, they’ve been surpassed by EA Sports’ game and while there are a lot of neat touches and stumbles FIFA 09 has the game beat both in variety and transitions. They’re certainly serviceable but more or less identical to those found in the PS2 version of the game.
PES 2009 features 19 stadiums, many of which are licensed and include series stalwarts like Stade Louis II, Orange Arena and Camp Nou. Stadiums are very well done and I particularly like the new lighting effects and the way players appear moving in and out of the shadows cast by the stands. Weather effects are also very well done and I think the rain effects in PES 2009 are some of the best I’ve seen.
My favourite part of PES 2009’s visuals is, believe it or not, the TV-style presentation and cut-scenes. Substitution animations are far better than those in FIFA, as are the context sensitive (and player specific) celebrations that add a great deal to the atmosphere. The way the game occasionally handles goals that are called back for a late offside have been honed to perfection and I`ve had a few times where I`ve stuck the ball in the back of the net and jumped off the couch in celebration....only to see the linesman holding his flag up! The timing of the visuals is spot on and just like similar instances that occur in real-life TV broadcasts.
PES 2009 also features an official Champions League license and as such all the pre-game fan-fare you see in Champions League matches is present, as are the official TV-overlays.
One saving grace of PES 2008 was the decent commentary. Unfortunately, the commentary has gone backwards with Jon Champion`s script apparently written by a drunken 606 caller (is there any other kind?). If you`re down a goal at half time expect to hear an angry Champion admonish you for not making any substitutions. Mark Lawrenson does the color commentary but only makes 2 or 3 comments a match and sounds completely stoned when he does speak up.
The absolutely dreadful original musical tracks from last year`s game make a return, along with some new ear bleed-inducing songs. That said, there are actually some half decent remixes of the Champions League theme that play through that game mode and the game does support custom soundtracks.
In-game sound effects are awful with ball movement sounding like someone kicking a wet paper bag. Tackles are the most laughable as even the slightest shoulder barge sounds like a Brian Urlacher tackle. Even the menu sounds are off and the sound effect that plays when a game first loads up sounds like.....I kid you not....someone ripping a fart. Brilliant.
Crowd chants are mediocre at best but the game does support custom chants and if you get the PS3 version there are a number of really well done user-created chants.
Konami have always had problems with obtaining licenses and this year, despite the addition of a Champions League license, things have actually gotten worse as they’ve lost the official La Liga license!
As such, the only fully licensed leagues are; Ligue 1, Eridivisie and Serie A. The EPL is not licensed (only Manchester United and Liverpool have official licenses) while only 7 teams in the Spanish top flight have licenses. There are a number of random teams that do have licenses but not nearly enough to make up any single domestic league. The Bundiesliga is still shockingly absent, in licensed form or otherwise.
The consequence of having so many absent licenses is that the licensed Champions League mode is somewhat neutered when, after all the official pre-match fanfare and music ends, you see it’s a match between VAL NARANGJA and LONDON FC!!
At the very least, though the team names aren’t often official, the player names are licensed but even then Konami slips up with woefully dated rosters and, as of yet, no official roster update. This despite the fact that the transfer window closed three months ago!!! Consequently, Berbatov is still at Tottenham, Quaresma isn’t at Inter and a whole host of other inaccuracies.
Many of the international teams get butchered the most with no team license and no player licenses, and my initial excitement at finally being able to select Canada (a new addition to the game) was tempered by the fact I had to figure out who the hell the players were supposed to be – over the years Konami’s lawyers have ensured that the pseudo-names get harder to figure out than ‘Bekhem’ and ‘Coal’ in the original ISS Pro Evolution.
If you have a PS3 you can download some excellent user-created kits and rosters but that’s beside the point – Konami sells millions of copies of PES in Europe so you think they could splash some of that cash on licenses. Even if they couldn’t break EA Sports’ monopoly on the ‘big’ licenses like the EPL they could at least get a few South American leagues licensed rather than having the token Boca-River combo.
Licenses aside, the main modes of play in PES 2009 are; Champions League (play through from the group stages onward), Exhibition, Master League, League or Cup, Online and the ‘new’ Become A Legend mode. The Master League remains largely unchanged from previous years and I’m still at a loss as to why Konami doesn’t let you run more than 4 concurrent leagues.
The ‘Become A Legend’ (BAL) mode is PES 2009’s biggest addition and it’s about time that Konami carried over this excellent mode that`s been present in the past few Japanese J-League Winning Eleven games. Similar to FIFA`s ‘Be a Pro’ mode, BAL allows you to control a single player through the course of his career. However, rather than FIFA`s shallow 4 season mode where, by the end of your first year you`re already sporting attributes that would make Pele blush, Be A Legend is a far more realistic, and engaging career mode.
The first difference is that your attributes do not rise nearly as fast as they do in FIFA. Consequently you spend the first few seasons riding the pine and playing more of a substitute role. Which brings in another major difference – the fact that in BAL you actually do ride the bench, get subbed off for playing poorly, and sometimes don`t even make the game-day squad! Thirdly, there`s far more transfer activity and you can find yourself moving teams even in mid-season. You also have an entire career rather than a paltry 4 years like in FIFA. However, the biggest difference between the two competing modes comes in the gameplay department and I`ll speak more on that later.
Despite my praise for Become A Legend, I still don’t think it’s as good as the equivalent ‘Fantasista’ mode that’s present in the aforementioned J-League titles. The primary difference is that the Japanese mode features more leagues and teams and starts you off in the J-League 2nd Division such that when you finally do ‘make it’ to Europe it feels like much more of an accomplishment. Player attributes also seem to rise a bit slower which is something else I appreciate.
Online play has been ‘fixed’ from last year’s disaster and now features up to 4 players in a single match but I’ve still had a fair number games that have had some lag (compared to FIFA 09 which features practically zero lag even when you have 10+ players on the field). The online interface absolutely awful and still uses Konami`s asinine ID system. There are also far too many menu screens to navigate before you can actually get onto the field. Matchmaking takes forever and if you try to get random game outside of peak hours make sure you have a good book with you as you`re going to be waiting a while.
At the beginning of this review I said that PES 2009 is the game that PES 2008 should have been and no more does this apply than in the gameplay department. PES 2009 doesn’t reinvent the wheel but rather refines the gameplay from both PES 2007 and 2008. The result is very solid, very fun game but one that you definitely feel like you’ve played before.
The biggest difference from last year’s disaster is that the game-speed has been toned down several notches to something far more manageable. It’s still not nearly as realistic as EURO 2008 or even the slightly faster FIFA 09 but it’s slow enough that you don’t feel like you’re playing pinball. As mentioned before, the frame-rate is also smooth throughout which helps with the flow of the game, even if the running animations do feel a bit robotic.
Also rectified are the ICBM-like long-balls of last year. Consequently, it actually takes more than 2 milliseconds to switch the ball from wing to wing. Long-balls aside, the Winning Eleven series has always had fantastic ball physics and PES 2009 is no different with so many different ways the ball can deflect, spin and bounce around the field. I think FIFA 09 upped the ante this year with the stunning ball movement displayed on crosses but overall I still think PES has better ball movement and definitely better shooting from distance.
As you’d expect from a Pro Evolution/Winning Eleven game the controls are very responsive and largely the same except now the R analog stick controls manual passing by default (without having to push R3). I like this change as I often had the R stick assigned to manual control in previous games. As a consequence ‘skill’ moves previously dependent upon the R analog stick are mapped to regular controls – i.e if you perform a 360 spin with the left stick while dribbling your player will attempt the same.
FIFA 09 has a stunning array of different dribbling and skill moves but the responsiveness of the controls in PES 2009 can’t be beat and as such I much prefer the one-on-one battles in Konami’s game.
A ‘new’ control feature much publicised in PES 2009 is the ability to pass the ball off to a CPU player and continue your run manually before getting the ball back. Despite Konami’s insistence this isn’t really much of a change from fully manual cursor control in previous games.
Individual player AI and abilities are where this series has always shone brightest and, despite the massive leaps the FIFA series has made, it is still this area of PES 2009 that makes it, in single player, a slightly more enjoyable game. The biggest area you see the differences in individual player AI is in the Be A Legend mode where you notice the difference between not only fast and strong teammates but also teammates with better off the ball movement and more awareness. This really makes the game come alive and you actually feel like a part of a team, rather than in FIFA`s Be A Pro where you feel like Ronaldinho playing with 11 year olds and every attacking movement goes through you.
While palpable differences in individual player abilities is an area greatly improved in FIFA 09, I think it`s PES 2009 that has the lead in this department as well and subtle differences between players on your Master League team are more apparent than in FIFA 09. For example, in my Manager Mode season in FIFA 09 I have both Paul Scholes and Wesley Sneijder in my midfield and, gameplay-wise, they`re practically the same player. Both very different from Rohan Ricketts (who`s also on my team) but I use both the same way. Comparatively, in PES 2009 Sneijder is a much better passer of the ball and a threat from free-kicks while Scholes is far better in the air and finds open space much better in the box. Very subtle differences for sure, but they can add up.
Online play, however, is a totally different story and 2 vs 2 maximum, combined with an asinine online interface and a matchmaking system that`s almost as bad as Gears of War 2 mean that I won`t be bothering too much with this game online. Sure games are better with respect to lag but when it does lag it`s the worst kind you can get with skipped frames up the wazoo!
Replay Value 80/100
The overwhelming majority of replay value you`ll get from PES 2009 will come from single player and local multiplayer. The Be A Legend mode adds a great deal of longevity to the game and the Master League, while antiquated, is still strangely engaging and I can never seem to rid myself of the lure of Valeny, Ximelez, and co.
Despite my gripes about the presentation, options and features PES 2009 still plays an excellent game of football.
Is it better than FIFA 09? I like to think they complement each other. PES 2009 excels in single-player with the Be A Legend and the Master League while FIFA 09`s Online Team Play is just amazing. However, the single player experience in FIFA 09, while not as engaging as PES 2009, is still more than good enough to take advantage of the plethora of licensed leagues and so I guess the answer to my original question is ‘no’. PES 2009 isn`t better than FIFA 09 and if you can only buy one soccer game this fall make it EA Sports’.