PES 2009: Pro Evolution Soccer (Xbox 360)
Football. It's the world's game. No, not the game played with a pigskin -- the real football, otherwise known as soccer. Konami's been producing videogames based on this most popular sport in the world for three console generations, and they've often been the very best. But in early 2008, Pro Evolution Soccer fell behind the rival FIFA series from Electronic Arts on high-definition home consoles. That year's PES on the Xbox 360 was disgraceful next to its predecessors, and especially alongside the brilliant Wii edition that reinvented videogame soccer with its unique pointer-based controls.
Fast-forward eight months and Pro Evolution Soccer 2009 has put the entire series back on track. It not only fixes much of what was broken in the 2008 game, but adds the phenomenal Become A Legend mode. This entertaining package is capped by a surprisingly catchy soundtrack.
Become A Legend is as revolutionary for PES as pointer controls were in the Wii version of PES 2008. It's a move to keep up with the Joneses (Electronic Arts has Be A Pro in FIFA), but one that's definitely welcome in this series. Rather than manage a team, you manage a career -- your own! You create a player from scratch, and have the ability to modify their appearance in great detail. If you have the Xbox Live Vision camera (nothing else seems to be supported), you can put your own face in the game (watch out for the lighting in your room, as it has to be just right to get your face properly lit). Without the peripheral, I had to build a face close to my own and succeeded rather well. Beyond the face, you can modify your run, dribble, shooting and free kick animations. Eventually, it really does look like you out there on the pitch.
All that setup is just the start, though. After playing in a single game, you receive offers from soccer clubs in your preferred division and begin the arduous task of just making the bench. It took me about 10 scrimmage games against my own teammates before I finally got in a game for the last five minutes of play. However, those five minutes were an awesome reward for the hard work I put in beforehand improving my game. I was so excited once I made the squad that I was walking around the house singing John Fogerty's "Centerfield." "Put me in coach! I'm ready to play ? today!"
You begin your career as a 17-year-old prospect, so you have every chance to grow and improve until retirement in your 30s. With each game, your stats increase based on how you want your player to evolve. Got a hankering to be a goal scorer? Put extra emphasis on kicking. Like to be a playmaker? Passing and dribbling should get your focus. The choices you make become evident in your player's on-field abilities as the games roll by, and it's amazing how accurately the on-field simulation plays out. I've played or coached soccer for most of my life, and all the things I'm doing on the field in the game work exactly as I'd expect them to in a team situation. That's not to say I'm a world-class player -- far from it -- but if you understand how soccer is played at the professional level, you'll be able to excel as a single player in the Become A Legend mode.
If this mode were the only new addition, it would already make for a great purchase, but Konami went the extra mile (finally) and snatched up the UEFA Champions League license for the next four years. That means there are more licensed players and teams than Konami has had in some time, though Electronic Arts still owns specific licenses that prevent everyone from being in there. Once again, the U.S. National Team isn't among the licensed squads, so forget about having them available in national play. Still, it's an overall improvement and should limit the amount of player editing you need to add missing favorites to the rosters. It also means you can play for the UEFA Cup.
It's not all diving headers for the victory, though. The biggest issue is a lack of feedback in Become A Legend mode. Part of the reason I was so excited about making the team was that I wasn't sure where I stood with the coaches -- there's no obvious information telling you anything more than "you're trying to make the bench." As in every PES game, digging through the menus unearths player ratings after a match, but there needs to be more. Also, the menu system is clunky, tired and desperately in need of a full overhaul.
Online play is improved tremendously from the 2008 edition of the game, although there's a low player population on all versions. The Xbox 360 version at least makes it simple to hop online and play through Xbox Live; no extra setup is required. You can enjoy the online game as it's always been, with the option to control all players on the field or fly solo with your Legend player.
The biggest disappointment is that the graphics haven't really improved, and the 360 version has some nasty screen tearing that's not found in the PlayStation 3 version, which seems to be graphically better all around. The animation has come a long way from the prior game, but could be even better. These issues are easy to look past, though, because the gameplay is finally there. Become A Legend mode gives this game an entertaining and lengthy lease on life inside your console. Unless you're already a FIFA and Electronic Arts fan, you really can't go wrong with Pro Evolution Soccer 2009.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game purchased by the reviewer.