Game Review: Pro Evolution Soccer Plus OnLive
I have a confession to make: I'm a bit of a soccer nut. I don't know how I got it, it certainly doesn't run in the family. But I have the bug and that's that.
That's not to say that I'm a soccer or nothing kind of guy. I watch the NFL, college football and college basketball, and MLB when the playoffs arrive. But soccer usually wins out on faceoffs if there's a good game on (I can't stand the Italian league, that bunch of divers), and there's no better sport to play as a video game than the beautiful game.
So my blog monastery and lair are like this: For the NFL it's the Cowboys, for college football it's the Longhorns, for college b-ball it's the Tarheels, and for soccer it's Arsenal. Gooner for life, in Arsene We Trust, and hooray to the return of King Henry. And up to now, when I play soccer as a video game it's FIFA, always FIFA. Electronic Arts' take on soccer has been the only game in town for quite a while.
But with Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer 2012, that could change.
Konami's take on soccer has long been a reserve player behind EA's FIFA, which is the biggest selling video game title on the planet. Bigger than Madden. Bigger than Call of Duty. FIFA is the king, because soccer is truly global.
For Pro Ev 2012, though, Konami has tweaked the game's look and mechanics, and gotten a whole lot about both right. Combining Pro Ev 2012 with OnLive's streaming game play could be a game-changer both for the game and the cloud gaming service.
The Pros of Pro Ev 2012
This game looks gorgeous. Though it doesn't have a large number of real stadiums available to play in, the stadiums it does have look fantastic. The colors and shaders Konami used create the pitch, the players and the atmosphere look real, so much so that the first time I fired up the game on my living room TV, one of my son's friends thought I was watching a Premiere League match and asked "Who's playing?"
When you're playing Pro Ev in Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabéu stadium, you'll see signage in the stands in Spanish. When you play the Asia cup in Japan, you'll see background signage in Japanese. Play CSKA Moscow and Russian signage hangs from the railings. Play in Manchester's Old Trafford and the the signage and chants are, well, worthy of the place. The crowds chant in their appropriate languages, too, and most teams I've played against on the road have crowd songs and chants individualized to those teams and nations.
Pro Ev goes to the trouble to include branding from the different cups and leagues as well, and incorporates the different cups within league campaigns. So, for instance, as I'm playing through the Spanish Liga BBVA as Real Madrid, I'm juggling league matches with the UEFA Champions league and the Spanish cup. The graphics and thematics, and stadium signage, change depending on which type of match you happen to be playing. The branding is authentic and adds a level of realism to the experience. Most of the player models look great too, as good as and in many cases better than their counterparts in FIFA 12. Gervinho's unique haircut looks more authentic in Pro Ev than FIFA, Ronaldo looks closer to the real deal, Messi is a scruffy little goal scoring machine, Robin Van Persie looks like his speedy, angular self and John Terry looks even more like a thug. This attention to detail runs throughout the game.
In terms of game play, Pro Ev 2012 is an improvement over its predecessor but still has some work to do. Ball control is great but might be a bit overpowered. It's a little too easy at times to dribble through a crowd of defenders. Wing play can slice up defenses repeatedly; the AI never seems to figure out that when you drive down the sideline and hook in toward the penalty area, you're setting up to cross to a striker to drive it home. And the AI doesn't use this technique itself. Having played the current versions of FIFA and Pro Ev, the AI is a bit smarter in FIFA, but Pro Ev's ball control is a bit more satisfying. In Pro Ev you have fewer stupid giveaways that you know no real pro player would commit. The refs in both have been tweaked to disrupt the game less often, and hand out fewer cards. But a sending off at the wrong time can still turn a game. I've had it happen in Pro Ev, for good and ill. Commentators Jon Champion and Jim Beglin also deliver timely commentary, and even note little things like whether a player has scored in the past few games, and the aggregate score of a two-let match-up in cup competition. Champion's voice sounds more than a bit like Mark Steyn, too, for what that's worth.
Pro Ev also includes a points system that allows players to unlock parts to build their own stadiums, play classic international teams, and unlock new modes of play such as Club Boss. I haven't had the game long enough or played it enough to comment on those levels, but they would seem to add a layer of replayability after you have won all the leagues and cups available. Bottom line: Pro Ev 2012 is a solid, playable, and deep game.
The Cons of Pro Ev
I mentioned at the top that I'm an Arsenal fan. As such, Pro Ev can only be unsatisfying because Arsenal is not licensed in this game. Most of the Barclay's Premiere League, in fact, is not licensed in Pro Ev. The players are there, but they play for teams like "North London" (Arsenal) and "Manchester Blue" (Manchester City, currently stumbling but still atop the BPL table alongside their cross-town rivals). The BPL is the world's most watched sports league. Arsenal is among its top teams and among the world's top sports brands. You can add their kits yourself, but you won't be able to add the commentators saying things directly about the non-licensed clubs. For Arsenal, you won't get a "Who Needs Batman? We've Got Robin" Van Persie banner in the stands. A few BPL teams -- Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham -- are there. But not most. And because Arsenal isn't in the game, it's also not available in the UEFA Champions League, despite the fact that it is Europe's only team to make the group stage of that tournament for all of the last 14 years or so. Not having big teams and with complete badging and stadiums in the game is a big loss, for the clubs' fans and haters alike. It's a bit like having Madden but not licensing the Packers. Arsenal fans want to crush Barcelona at the Emirates, and ManUre fans (I keed, a little) want to host the Gunners to mow them down. Everybody wants to slide tackle the turncoat Samir Nasri in authentic City gear. That's just the way it is. For Spanish league fans, though, the entire league with complete branding is there. So, yes, Getafe sports the Burger King logo just like in real life. I keep hoping Barcelona will get McDonald's sponsorship, just to take America's burger wars to the Spanish soccer league.
The licensing disparity also shows up in international teams. The Japanese team, for instance, is all there with Keisuke Honda working his midfield magic. Likewise Europe's big teams. But Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey aren't on the US team. It doesn't have any authentic names at all, in fact. This strikes me as an own goal on Konami's part. There's no valid reason to replace Donovan with someone named Dolan or whatever they called him and pretend you're getting an authentic experience. In fact, unless I'm missing something, the MLS isn't in the game at all. A quick search suggests PC users can patch it in, but console and OnLive users are probably left out. So Pro Ev includes far fewer teams and leagues than FIFA.
On the game play side, the animation of the players on the pitch is still a bit herky jerky when compared to FIFA's. EA gets its colors a little bit too vivid and the rain effect doesn't look good at all, but its player animation, especially in the wide shots, is silky smooth. Pro Ev's players still tend to move a bit too puppet-like, even while the players tend to behave as real players do. They slow down for passes and to let teammates go on runs through opposing defenses, they'll backheel and scissor kick and make clever little feints and moves to get past opponents too. Their goal celebrations tend to look better than FIFA's, though FIFA lets you key in celebrations. Pro Ev also doesn't have that goofy FIFA glitch in which a player scores and then proceeds to run several tight circles around his nearest teammate, as if he's suddenly lost his mind.
Pro Ev + OnLive = Awesome
The combination of Pro Ev soccer with OnLive merits its own section because it takes the game to another level. OnLive is a cloud streaming system, meaning you play entirely online, no disks, no downloads. Upside: Platform independence and portability. Downside: You need big bandwidth to even get in the game. OnLive also means you can play while an audience watches you in the Arena, and you can in turn watch others play. So, for instance, I was playing as Brazil's Santos in a South American cup the other night, and attracted an audience of five or ten. OnLive allows spectators to cheer or jeer, so my little audience cheered when I scored or made a good play, and jeered when I stunk. That made the whole experience a bit more fun. When I crossed, shot and scored, my players on the pitch celebrated and the audience pitched in with the thumbs up. When my striker blew a shot far and wide, down went the thumbs.
OnLive also lets you save Brag Clips with a touch of a button on the controller, so you can keep your best moments, others can view and rate them, and in the end Pro Ev becomes its own online community via OnLive. And you have the option of tying your facebook account into OnLive to share your accomplishments with your social network. All of this adds a layer to the game that FIFA can't match, because it's not playing on OnLive's pitch. Hopefully EA and OnLive will change that, soon. It's not hard to envision Madden tournaments organized via OnLive, with the virtual audience cheering and jeering along.
I wasn't really expecting much from Pro Evolution Soccer 2012, based on past experience with the franchise. But 2012 is much better than expected, with an eye for visual detail that in some ways surpasses its richer rival. It lags a little behind on some aspects of gameplay, but the partnership with OnLive may make Pro Ev the richer overall experience. By itself, Pro Ev gets 3.5 stars out of 5, but with OnLive, it's a 4 out of 5.