Month: February 2012

The Garden of Forking Paths

My Blimp camera mania has cooled a little after last week’s extraordinary few sessions.

I ran into the brick wall of PES2012 in its most charming, stubborn, unyielding guise. Many people admire this game for its high difficulty. I admire the spirit of its difficulty (it was about time we had something like it), but I’m deeply uncomfortable with the manner of its execution.

Too often the game achieves its difficulty by placing artifical barriers in your way. I’m talking about 9 or 10 AI players behind the ball, regardless of the match situation.

Most of my attacking play consists of playing it around in front of a massed defence, probing for an opening, for AGES. This is typically where my 70% possession stats come from. It’s absorbing in its own way—but is it football?

And too often the game takes advantage of its foreknowledge of your button presses to represent ‘skilful’ CPU players jinking and twisting their way past every challenge. I was left with a very nasty taste in my mouth after a match against Aston Villa, in which Stephen Ireland continually went on Maradona-style mazy dribbles almost the length of the pitch. Seriously, almost every time Villa mounted an attack, it was via Stephen Ireland dribbling like some kind of Pele-Maradona-Cruyff hybrid.

I’ll stick my head above the parapet and call those kinds of dribbles—which almost any player, it seems, is capable of—often unstoppable. “Defend better” may be a justified riposte, but I would demur on the grounds that the CPU knows what I’m doing and is programmed to evade it. The CPU can just move its player aside, or just ignore my challenges and tackles with flaky collision detection.

Every PES2012 veteran—hell, every PES fan of any vintage—knows exactly what I mean here. The series has always been able to make limbs pass through limbs and footballs pass through solid bodies if it requires it.

To sum up: PES2012’s AI deserves its formidable reputation, but plays dirty to achieve it.

I actually won that game against the legendary Stephen Ireland, 1-0. Generally, my good form has continued. Here’s the current table after 32 matches:

That’s pretty exciting to look at—I’ve never been up so high this late on. And there’s added spice. The outcome of this current season will ultimately decide my football gaming destiny for the rest of the year.

It’s like this: if I finish the season in a Champions League spot, I will play PES2012 for another season at the very least (and having built up such momentum, probably for longer after that).

If I don’t finish in the Champions League places, I’ll set aside PES2012 for now, and take up FIFA12 for the foreseeable future.

In either case, I’ll be content. In the former case, I’ll be playing on and questing for Master League glory in a game that I have come to respect despite its considerable flaws (wonky shooting, camping AI).

In the second case, I’ll depart from PES2012 on good terms, and head off for what I expect to be a great football game, FIFA12. (And it would be good timing with my Vita and its copy of FIFA Soccer arriving this week.)

Wednesday’s post should see me finish the season. It’s all to play for.

I am starting to like this PES2012 game they speak of

It’s a funny old game. I’ve been going crazy for the Blimp camera this week and praising it to high heaven. Let me do some more of that.

Wednesday morning’s session was my first full one with the Blimp. It was pretty amazing—easily my best single session with PES2012. Afterward, I’d have sworn on a stack of holy PS2 games that PES2012 was one of the best, if not the best, PES that I’d ever played. Seriously. Everything that its most diehard fans claim for it, I saw.

Passing was better. Movement was sublime. I kept the ball more effectively and I did things with it that I’d never dreamed were possible in PES2012. I put in some performances and got some unprecedented results. Results like this one:

2-0 against Liverpool, with 72% possession, and more than double their number of shots. I’ve beaten Liverpool before in PES2012, but never like this.

Before switching to Blimp, the game had pretty much been kicking my arse. Suddenly, I was a new player. I won 4 matches and drew 1. I was up to 4th in the table at one point, just 5 points off 1st.

I began to dream of the unthinkable.

And then Thursday came along and slightly cooled my ardour. Yesterday morning, I went through a frustrating run of 4 goalless matches.

I suppose I should have expected it. I’ve always believed in the existence of macro-scripting in Master League, where the game dynamically reacts to a human player’s good form by throwing a ‘balancing’ curveball or two your way. Many experienced PES players scoff at such notions, but many just as experienced PES players know that they are facts, not notions. Scripting exists, man…

So I couldn’t score for 4 matches. Wasn’t allowed to. Sniff.

But I was still unbeaten. I didn’t concede any goals in those 4 matches either. In fact, in about 12 matches since switching to Blimp, I’ve only lost 1 match—in the Europa League knockout phase, first match, first leg, 1-2 at home. And I played that match on the old Wide camera to see how it felt now…

It’s hard to describe exactly what’s changed for me. I’ll give two examples.

I was 1-0 up against Derby and coming under immense pressure, the kind of pressure that only PES2012 can apply.

I noticed the Derby right-back had pushed a long way upfield. Barnes was standing in space on my left wing with no one near him. Now, in the Wide view, I would never have seen that. I would have had to see it on the radar screen, and I rarely have the prepossession to do more than glance down there.

On Blimp view, it was all right there in front of me. The whole pitch, every player. So I passed an extravagant through-ball up to Barnes, he ran on and held up the ball until strikers arrived in the box, and then sent in a cross. He’s a superb crosser, is Barnes.

Van Basten was there in the box to nod it in. 2-0 to me, and the end of Derby’s realistic chances of getting anything.

I was delighted with the goal—sitting up, grinning, shaking my fist at the wall. You know the deal. It was just a simple run down the wing, a cross, and a headed goal from 2 yards out. For more than a decade, that is what Pro Evo has done: made ordinary football moments seem totally extraordinary.

My other example is from that man of my PES gaming year so far, Georghe Hagi.

My Hagi is in decline, sad to say. I feel about this much the same way I felt when I started losing my hair in my early 30s. I don’t want to believe it, but I know it’s happening.

He was 29 when I got him and he’ll be 33 this season. He’s noticeably less effective in most matches. That astonishing left foot no longer packs quite the same threat.

But he’s still got it enough of the time to justify making him a first choice player. And when he pops up with something—an assist or a goal—it’s often significant, and usually a stunner.

It was 0-0 against Blackburn, away, and the 88th minute.

I’d all but given up on getting the 3 points. All my players were exhausted after one of those bewildering International fixture days just two days before the match. I set off on what had to be my last attack, and worked the ball to Doolin on the right. As seen in the clip below, I cut in slightly, and when you see me get to the corner of the box, I was automatically readying myself to take a shot.

That’s when I saw Hagi steaming up from midfield. In the replay below, he’s only visible late on, but in Blimp view he was visible to me for long enough to think: Okay, no wild shooting here, I’ll play the ball to Hagi and see what happens. And I did:

Not his most spectacular, but I was drooling at the placement. I love the ‘tucked away’ nature of it, across the keeper with the instep. Once again, this was PES making the nuts and bolts of football technique feel like something much, much more.

All of which leaves me with this league position after 26 matches:

I know—the goals scored column is a shocker.

What can I do? Blimp has revolutionised my general approach play, and made me better at defending, but I still have to deal with PES2012’s shooting. The more I discover about PES2012’s unexpectedly rich depths, the more unhappy I feel about the shooting.

So what does this all mean for the immediate future? I was going to suspend PES2012 after this season and play FIFA12 for a while. My born-again Blimptastic PES2012 life has made me look again at that decision. If I finish in a Champions League position, I think I’ll be tempted to play on…

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know what I’ll do. I’ll play it by ear.

Pimp my Blimp

I’ve played all the way to the middle of season 8 now. It’s PES2012. It’s Master League. But for how much longer?

Possibly longer than I thought. I was planning to set PES2012 aside after the current season. The game’s bad issues are threatening to overtake the good ones and drown them out. It’s sensible to forestall that, I think, and depart on good terms (with the option to come back), rather than leave it any longer and storm off in disgust.

But there may be some life left in the old dog yet. I’ve experienced some different gameplay over the past few days, and it’s all down to a change of camera.

I spotted a few posts on the PES forums that extravagantly praised PES2012’s Blimp camera option. I had tried it myself, back when PES2012 was brand new, and didn’t like it much. I think it lasted 60 seconds, at most, before I switched back to Wide.

I’ve seen praise for the Blimp camera, off and on, for the last few months, but put it down to the usual sort of Internet hyperbole that people are so keen to indulge in.

Yesterday morning, apropos of nothing in particular, I decided to give Blimp cam one more go, and this time I decided to force myself to play one entire match.

With Blimp cam, you can pretty much see all 22 outfield players at the same time. Blimp cam makes the players look like squirming little ants. Until you get used to it.

What’s so great about a camera mode that makes the game resemble a mid-1990s clone of Sensible Soccer? The chief benefit of Blimp cam is being able to see where all the AI players are and what they’re up to. This helps you play around them a lot better. It enables a sense of openness and freedom in PES2012 that I’ve rarely felt before.

Too often in PES2012 the gameplay feels cramped and suffocated by the marauding, high-pressure AI. Particularly on higher difficulties, such as Professional, where I’ve been playing—and suffering—for several weeks now.

Blimp cam seems to change all that. Instead of running blindly down cul-de-sacs and being tamely dispossessed by the CPU, I can not only see the CPU players coming, but I can see where the next trap is being laid, and take steps to evade both.

I can see my players out in the open on the other side of the pitch, and ping them a circle pass. I could do that before, of course, with Wide cam, but with Blimp I can see the receiver and feel more confident.

Yesterday morning, in 4 matches played on Blimp, I won 3 and drew 1. Those matches included a 2-0 home win against Manchester United. I felt that my solid performance against the super-skilled Man Utd players was primarily due to the Blimp perspective.

I also closed out a successful qualifying campaign in the Europa League, beating an ultra-supercharged Dynamo Kiev 2-1 in the last match to clinch second place.

It’s way too early to say that Blimp cam permanently changes PES2012’s gameplay for the better. And it’s probably too late for me to become so enamoured of life on Professional that I abandon my cunning plan to sneak over to FIFA12 for a few months. But it might postpone it for a week or so.

The Tinkerman

Without further ado, here’s my current league table in Season 8 of my Master League career in PES2012:

I’d do well to win the League from here, I think. A top 4 finish is a much more realistic target.

I still plan to set aside PES2012 for a while after this season. I need to have a prolonged break from the game before I have a serious falling-out with it.

That plan is unchanged. The game is annoying me greatly. Stoke City are the latest team to play with the ol’ impregnable catenaccio at the back, and then with the free-flowing one-touch insta-skillz of the most stunning Barca-Brazil-style combination play you’ve ever seen up front. That’s Stoke City.

Every team in PEs2012 plays the same, more or less. Only a matter of degree separates the Liverpools and Man Citys from the Swanseas and Stoke Citys. (I know that much the same may be waiting for me in FIFA12, don’t worry.)

With that obligatory ‘woe is me! woe is Pro!’ whine out of the way, PES2012’s other aspect—that of a great, involving, fascinating football game—has also been very much to the fore. When this game clicks, it’s really good. No way would I still be playing it now, in mid-February, were it not so.

Tactical depth is one of PES2012’s greatest strengths. In particular, the extent to which pre-match tinkering can affect the outcome of matches.

I’ve adopted a practice that I never thought I would in PES. Each match sees me fielding a slightly different formation to the one before.

I move my players around in the pre-match formation screen, until it feels right.

For example, I took to the field against Norwich (away) with this attacking variant of my 4-4-2. One CMF is pushed far enough forward to be an AMF. On this occasion I gave that role to Hagi, while Rivaldo played up front next to van Basten.

I won the game 2-1. Hagi rolled back the years and dominated midfield, pulling all the strings. It really felt as if my tinkering had been rewarded.

I do a bit of fiddling around before every match, with one eye on the other team’s formation, and it seems to work.

When I want to be defensive, I’ll try to mirror their formation and assign a few man-markers (not too many). To be attacking, I’ll try to spread my team out around their formation.

It seems to work, although of course I often seem to get to wrong, as indicated by my two defeats so far this season.

I’m scoring a few more goals than last season. Here are two notable goals, both scored in my away strip:

The first is an in-off-the-post job from van Basten. It’s a typical shooting opportunity for him.

The second is from Neeskens, who doesn’t get many. Amazingly, it’s the first goal I’ve ever scored directly from a cross in Pro Evolution Soccer. Which makes PES2012 an edition of firsts. Not long ago I hailed my first-ever bicycle kick goal. Now here is my first straight-from-a-cross goal (do they have a name of their own?)

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