Month: April 2009

Starting, and then stopping

It was my first start in the First XI at Portsmouth. I’m almost midway through my second season as a young professional footballer in PES2009’s Become A Legend mode. After a rocky start (it just felt wrong not to control every player) I’ve ‘got’ what BaL’s all about. I’m enjoying it almost as much as I’ve enjoyed Master League in its pomp, which is saying something.

I was nervous about my first start, and I played tight. I probably played more conservatively than at any time since I started playing this mode. I had an average match. It was the first leg of a D1 Cup tie, at home, against Sunderland. It ended 0-0 and I was pleased with my average performance. I was taken off in the 68th minute, which was fair enough. My stamina levels still need a lot of work. I thought I’d done enough to stay in the team for the next match, a full league match, and so it proved. I was selected in the First XI again.

After nearly a season and a half, I’m still learning my trade, still settling into the solo-player ethos of the BaL gameplay. I’ve finally worked out that the best way of getting the ball is loitering near the ball, rather than charging in and trying to take it. Your AI team-mates actually do want to pass it to you—you just have to coax them into doing it. Most of the time the ball will come to you if you position yourself intelligently. It really is an off-the-ball game as much as an on-the ball one.

I knew I’d need to play well to keep a regular place. A goal, or at least an assist, would do very nicely. My only goal in BaL so far is still that headed goal in training with Aston Villa last season. I’m so hungry for my first proper goal, in a proper match. Preferably one scored with my feet.

Sadly, I did not play well in my second full start. I was substituted at half-time. We were 0-2 down by that point. The final result was 0-3. My post-match rating was 5.5. Ouch.

I was disappointed but not surprised to find myself back on the subs’ bench for the next match. It’s pretty clear that I’ve got to play well to keep a place at this stage of my BaL career. I’m working on my game. I’m trying to get better. But this mode brings certain frustrations that I’m still not getting to grips with.

A big frustration for me is when one of our attacks breaks down and the other team streams back upfield and there’s absolutely nothing I can do to stop them. I can see their counter-attacking script playing itself out. They will keep the ball, and they will create a chance or get a corner, and I just have to watch helplessly. It’s this aspect of BaL more than any other that feels utterly foreign to me.

After sitting on the bench for the ENTIRE next match (easily the thing I hate about BaL the most) I was brought on as a sub in the next match. Only, I was brought on as a DMF. Uh? Never mind. I tried to get on with it, but then a few minutes later I was subbed myself. A caption appeared on-screen saying 4-3-3, as if that should be enough explanation for me. No, it wasn’t. In any real football match I would have been part of that reorganised team, part of the 4-3-3. In 30 years of watching football I can only remember a handful of occasions when an uninjured substitute has himself been substituted. I suppose I just have to mark this one down as yet another PES quirk.

Portsmouth are near the bottom of the league table at the moment. We started the season very well, but I wasn’t anywhere near the team back then. Since I’ve started making appearances as sub, and now getting a few starts, we’ve barely scored a goal, never mind won a match. It would seem to be all my fault. That’s strangely fine by me: what I caused, I can correct. I think Portsmouth will be relegated to Division 2. It’s far too early in my career for me to be the kind of one-man team I think I’d need to be, in order to turn this ship around. But I’ll stick it out here. The mid-season break is fast approaching. No doubt I’ll get a few offers from other clubs. But my mind is made up: I’m Pompey now and I’m Pompey for the next several seasons, until I’ve at least taken them to a D1 title. I’ll make my BaL name right here or not at all.

There has been another development. Last week, a few days after starting to play BaL seriously, I also started playing my old Master League save again, using the same BaL camera: Vertical Wide. It was in order to familiarise myself. The camera is a tricky one to use. It twists around when focus is on the wing, and the directional controls are always relative to your view. You can find yourself running the ball out of play if you’re not careful. The shooting values seem different too.

Playing my Master League save with the Vertical Long camera was like discovering a hidden 6-star difficulty level. My Coventry City team, packed with superstars, has taken some awful beatings. We’re 13th in the league table after 10 matches. I’m toying with the idea of starting a new ML career with the Default team, using this camera angle. But I’ve got enough on my plate right now. There’s only room for BaL.

Up Pompey

It’s official: Become A Legend has taken over my gaming life. I think this was pretty obvious anyway, but now I’m formally acknowledging it. For all BaL’s faults—and, like PES itself, they are many—I am enjoying it.

FIFA09, Valkyria Chronicles, Mass Effect, and the dozens of other games that I planned turning my time and attention to… have all been placed on hold. Possibly this BaL enthusiasm will burn itself out after I’ve got a full career (or even just a few more seasons) under my belt. I have to say, though, speaking as a PES fan of long-standing, it’s nice to discover some life in the old girl yet.

There I am, pictured down there, looking happy in the middle of a training match after laying on an assist. The smile is a bit ‘Toy Story’, isn’t it?

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My first season was pretty error-strewn. I tried to play everywhere on the pitch. I moved clubs for no real reason. Almost everything you shouldn’t do, I did. Here at the start of my second season, I’m at Portsmouth and looking for a bit of stability.

When you move clubs in the early stages of a BaL career, you do have to start all over again in the Reserves at your new club. That was strangely okay with me. I liked playing entire matches again, and further exploring what’s possible (and not) as a single player on the pitch in PES.

How to play as one player in a team of AI players? It depends. As a raw Youth, I can’t go chasing all over the pitch trying to get the ball. Maybe when my created player is older, faster, and stronger, that might be feasible—but not now. By the time I get to where the ball is, it’s somewhere else. I’m almost always chasing shadows. Soon enough my stamina runs out and I’m good for nothing even when I do get the ball. It’s very rarely now that I play like that.

I’ve slowly—painfully—learned the best things to do in most given situations, and adapted my play accordingly. I’ve learned what the AI will respond to, what it’ll ignore. Simply playing my position isn’t a good idea—that way lies anonymity and stasis. I have to get involved, be a winger sometimes, a forward sometimes, a defender sometimes. (All without simply running around aimlessly, of course.) I grant myself a free role, but always anchor myself in that CMF berth. Short darting runs into space in midfield: the AI loves that, and I see the ball a lot. They love to pass the ball ahead to me if I’m in space on a wing. If I make a run through the middle of a defence, the AI is brilliant at spotting the run and playing a good ball. Alas, I’m still looking for my first proper goal scored with my feet in BaL.

Portsmouth are a decent team, and we started the season very well. A few good league wins put us up in the top 6. I was still scratting around in the Reserves, but I kept an eye on the First Team’s progress, knowing that it would materially affect my own fortunes.

I earned my chance in the Reserves ‘A’ team, and did well. I qualified for the subs’ bench in a proper match. I sat and watched the CPU vs CPU matches extremely grumpily, and came on and tried to do too much. At least I did well enough to avoid being bumped down to the Reserves again. With four midfielders in a fluid 4-4-2 formation, my prospects are better at Pompey than they ever were at Villa.

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I had a few above-average substitute appearances, playing well enough to notice my stats climbing match after match. Then came a breakthrough match.

Away to Middlesbrough, we were 0-1 down when I came on in the 65th minute. I played great, the best I’ve ever played in BaL so far. I saw a ludicrous amount of the action. I had 28 touches on the ball in those 25 minutes (that’d be a respectable figure for a full match). All my passes found their mark. I lobbed a few dangerous through-balls over the defence for Utaka to chase (what a speed demon he is), but we couldn’t quite  get back on terms.

Then I ran ahead of one of our wingers, going for a pass. This move is something you learn to do in BaL. You have to do it, to nullify the effect that the terrible winger AI has on the pattern and flow of your attacks (it tends to kill them). You have to take charge yourself to a certain extent. I’ll be interested to see how this dynamic alters, if at all, over the course of my career.

Here’s the replay. Weirdly, the YouTube clip cuts off just before the ball goes into the net. I am, of course, the player with blue hair:

I loved this moment. The cross, the headed goal (don’t know quite why we don’t see the moment the ball goes into the net, but I promise that it did). After the match I was stunned to see my match rating. 6.5 is the highest I’d ever got in BaL so far. Getting an 8.0 was nosebleed territory:

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And there was more staggering news when I returned to the main menu screen. AT LAST…

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That’s posed as a question, but it was a fact. I was in the starting line-up for the next match. This is massive for me. Nervous? No! Yes. YES.

I’m loving this mode. It feels a lot like the intense early days of a Master League career, when you play long sessions for a much longer period than you really intended to, and can’t wait for the next one. Roll on my very first start for the first team.

Bench pressure

It has to be said: I’m not a team player. There is no I in team, and more’s the pity. I’m heading towards the end of my first season in Become A Legend in PES2009. The stupidity of my AI team-mates is starting to grind. Suspension of disbelief—that most critical component of not just gaming, but of life in toto—is getting harder and harder to maintain.

So much of football, and PES, takes place down the wings, but the AI players just can’t play down the wings. They will just keep on running into trouble, getting tackled, losing the ball, dribbling the ball out of play… Even if you play a great through-ball that sets them loose in a few yards of space they’ll slow down, or even stop, and let the opposition defenders surround them. Fully 80% of my runs into the box—using up precious, irreplaceable stamina—are wasted.

I slightly exaggerate, of course. The AI isn’t all that bad. It does sometimes do what it’s supposed to do. The trouble is that those times are all too infrequent.

Another frustration (can you tell that the BaL AI annoys me?) relates to passages of play in the congested midfield area. Let’s say my fellow CMF has the ball, just a few virtual yards away. OK, so I make a little darting run into a bit of space, and I’m clearly the right man to pass to. But no: the AI decides to lay off the ball to another team-mate on the other side of the pitch, who is usually further away, switching focus all the way over there and virtually guaranteeing that play will go on without me for a while. It’s at times like these, I think, that so many BaL players (myself included) tend to squeeze down on the sprint button and try to get over there and get involved. No. You absolutely cannot do that. Not as a raw Youth player anyway.

So I was stuck in the Villa ‘B’ team, but putting in some good performances in my favoured CMF positions. If I’d stayed at Man City I’d probably be starting in the first team by now. It really was a big error to move teams in the transfer window. Man City played a 4-5-1 as its main team formation. There were lots of opportunities for midfielders like me to play, and to experience different roles in midfield to boot. I was in the best place. Here at Villa, the first team formation is a 4-3-3.

I had one game in the ‘A’ team. It was one of my worst performances of the season. I was rarely involved, and when I was involved I was ineffective. We lost 1-3, a terrible result. I was put back in the ‘B’ team straightaway.

Eventually, I clawed my way back, and got back to the subs’ bench for the First Team, playing in proper matches, with about a quarter of the season remaining. I found myself understanding why young players in real life feel the need to move to smaller clubs to get regular first-team football. Aston Villa were challenging for the title. They were in the Masters Cup (i.e. the UEFA Cup). And they were in the final of the D1 Cup. A pretty big, successful team. And they usually played with only three central midfielders. No wonder I was finding it hard to break into the first team. That decision to leave Manchester City was looking more and more premature.

mebluehair-pompeyI watched the ENTIRE D1 Cup final from the bench. I hated every second of it. After 65-70 minutes, if you’re not brought on you’re not coming on at all. I hope the neighbours didn’t hear me turning the air blue when I knew I wasn’t going to be brought on. They think I’m such a nice young man.

I’d had enough of life in claret and blue. I simmed the last few matches of the season, completely uncaring. In the first week of negotiations I had 3 offers, one of them from Villa. I ignored that—Villa scum—and took a very nice-looking offer from Portsmouth instead. I’ll state right now that I plan to stay at Portsmouth and make my Become A Legend name here. There’ll be no more moving around for a couple of seasons at least.

To mark the occasion, I grew some hair and dyed it blue. New team, new beginning. Maybe the wingers will be better. Maybe it’ll all be better.

New camera, less obscura

At the mid-season negotiation period in my first season as a young professional in PES2009’s Become A Legend mode, I moved clubs. It was a mistake. I went straight into the reserves at my new club. At my first club, Manchester City, I’d really only just started appearing on the subs’ bench. I should have waited until at least the end of the season before even thinking about moving clubs. I see that now.

At Man City I was coming on for 25-minute periods in many matches, sometimes even for entire halves. But I failed to cope well with sitting on the bench for any period. When you’re on the bench in BaL, you have to watch the CPU playing against the CPU. I didn’t like it, although the many BaL threads on the forums indicate that over time you become so identified with your team(s) that you want to watch the matches even if you’re not taking part. Maybe that will come in time. But not now.

When a couple of offers for my services came in from other clubs, well, I grasped at them. Naively, I thought it would improve my chances of starting matches, or coming on earlier. But it doesn’t work like that.

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My new club is Aston Villa. As a Coventry City fan, I’m supposed to loathe Aston Villa. But it isn’t really a true, proper derby rivalry between the two clubs—Villa fans in particular would scoff at the suggestion (they look to Birmingham City for all their derby needs). The offer was on the table, and I wanted to get away from Manchester City, so I took it.

What thanks did I get? The bloody Villa put me straight into their reserves ‘B’ team. I was back at square 1, where I’d been at the start of the season. At least I won’t be so naive again.

Looking on the bright side, it was nice to play full matches again. There are lots of ways in which playing BaL makes you understand the feelings of real-life players (yes, really). You can’t beat being out on the pitch and actually playing in matches. That is the genius of BaL, and it’s keeping me playing despite the negatives. You do get very involved in the flow of the matches. When I’m helping out our defence I’ve even started tracking individual opposition players’ runs, following them into our box, etc. I’m looking forward to getting called up to the First Team again in due course, but already dreading the time I’ll have to spend on the subs’ bench.

And there is one very positive new development: I have finally scored my first goal in Become A Legend. It came in my very first training match at Villa.

I received the ball and laid it off to a winger. At this point I could do three things. I could chase after the wing man and offer support (they’re so rubbish that often ‘supporting’ them is the only way to guarantee a cross makes it into the box). Or I could remain where I was, in an advanced midfield position, hoping he would get the cross in, and maybe there’d be a knock-down for me to pick up. Or I could race into the box and look to get on the end of that hypothetical cross myself…

I did the latter. With the following result. (In the clip, I have fixed the camera on me. I’m the bald player in the centre of the screen.)

Yes, a pretty standard stooping header, but oh wow—what a moment for me. Punching the air. Whooping. All of that. I’d gone on a run, found space, checked my run to stay onside (because the winger twatted about with it for a few seconds as usual), and then applied the finish. In my excitement I forgot to save the replay to my PS3 hard drive, from where I could have filmed it in high quality later that same day with my new camera. Doh.

Yes, my new camera. One of the more dubious features of PES Chronicles over the past 18 months has been my mobile phone replays. The quality of the clips has been utterly terrible, as several indefatigable YouTube commenters have helpfully informed me.

Finally, I have purchased a proper digital camera. They’re really cheap now—the one I got was just £45. About a year ago when I last checked out the digital camera market I’m sure the equivalent model was over £100.

So the mobile phone clip above—my first goal in BaL—should be the last such clip on the blog. They’ll all be shot with a proper high-quality camera from now on. It’s about time.

Here’s the first clip filmed with the new camera. It’s from the very next training game. I was playing as an AMF and spending most of my time goal-hanging, trying to bully the opposition defence as much as my 17-year-old Youth player’s stats will allow. In the clip I steal the ball from the toe of the opposition CB, and am then clear through on goal. I’ve been in this position about 5 times in BaL by now, and fluffed my shot every time. I fluffed it this time as well, hooking the ball wide of the far post. Trying to make too certain of the goal.

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