For many years the slightly ragged and unpolished Pro Evolution Soccer (PES) series had the edge over the FIFA games.
FIFA may have had all the glitz and all the licenses, but PES was the kid from the wrong side of town who played soccer with a passion that couldn't be matched by the posh one-dimensionality of FIFA's rich kids. It is that lingering romanticism about the PES series that makes the game's recent decline so hard to swallow.
Or, maybe it is not that PES has declined, but rather that it hasn't quite delivered on all that youthful promise. To use another footballing analogy, FIFA has turned into the all-conquering Manchester United while PES has evolved into Arsenal – sublime at times, but more often frustratingly disappointing.
Indeed, PES 2012, for all its imperfections, does offer some lovely footballing moments. Stringing together slick passing moves is relatively easy. Pushing ball's into space, spotting runs, and scoring beautiful goals is written into the game's very DNA. Like Arsenal, PES is intent on making the beautiful game beautiful. The underlying philosophy cannot be faulted.
Nailing the fundamentals
However, also like Arsenal, PES often fails to get the basics right – although the problem in the game is not defending from set-pieces. The player physics, ball physics, and the control responsiveness just isn't as good as it could have been. You just don't feel as immediately in control of player and ball as you do in FIFA.
So, even though you'll have the occasional moment of sublime footballing vision and geometric alignment, the moment-to-moment experience of PES is less engrossing. PES simply hasn't kept up with the state of the art when it comes to physics and player animation.
Partly as a result of the comparatively sluggish controls and lack of physicality, PES is a bit harder to get hooked on. It is not that the game is difficult – it is in fact quite easy, but it just doesn’t start feeling like soccer as quickly as FIFA does.
Tweaking a few settings
It was only once I'd ramped up the difficulty and switched off all passing assistance that PES finally clicked. Once it becomes possible to misdirect passes, the game suddenly feels much more realistic and fluid. The fact that passing assistance is not switched off by default is indicative of a slightly misplaced eagerness to please. It is also indicatative of the fact that getting the most out of PES requires some experimentation.
Off the field PES continues its upward trend of recent years. The menus are as pretty as those of FIFA and the ability to tweak tactics with a set of sliders remains as appealing as always. A decent soundtrack, various online options, and an official license for the Champions League fleshes out a reasonably extensive package.
The on-field visuals are also not bad with atmospheric weather effects and great player-likenesses. Whether by design choice or by technical shortcoming, PES's on-the-field visuals are not quite as sharp as those of FIFA. How you feel about this is probably a matter of taste.
Despite its imperfections, PES 2012 remains at least an 8/10 soccer game. Setting up attacking tactics for AC Milan in a Champions League match against Chelsea, switching to a counter-attack game plan at half-time, and then scoring a late winner on the break, is satisfying in a way games rarely are.
And indeed, when you manage to string five passes together and chip through for a striker to hammer home, you'll have no doubt that the guys at Konami understand what makes football beautiful.
But whereas their hearts might be in the right place, it is hard to look past the fact that they just haven't kept up with FIFA in terms of game physics and controls. And ultimately, it is this difference that makes FIFA the more engrossing and enjoyable game to play. Which is not to say Arsenal is not worth supporting, just, that they won't be winning the league this year.
Score: 8 out of 10