One thing that can be said about PES 09 is that there's no shortage of things to do. There's the UEFA Champion's League to play in, the all new Become a Legend mode, Master League mode, some pre-made leagues and cups to participate in as well as training and a few different online modes.
The UEFA Champion's League mode is the same as the real Champion's League – that is, thirty-two sides battle it out in the initial round-robin group stages then through a knockout competition until the winner is crowned. The Master League mode is PES' equivalent of the franchise modes you find in other sports games. You take control of your favourite team and guide them through their league season, including Cup matches. Player skills progress as time passes, and there's a transfer window during the season where you can buy and sell any players you are interested in.
The pre-existing leagues mirror their real-life counterparts, so if you opt to play in the English League, you're basically playing in the Premier League. There are six Cups to play in, though unfortunately you can't design your own Cup competitions. The Training mode allows you to practice various skills (ie shooting, corners, free-kicks etc), but there is no feedback during your sessions which is a tad disappointing.
The controls in PES 09 are both simple and complex depending on how you wish to play. The simple aspect involves pressing a single button to perform actions like passing, through balls, shooting, slide tackles, defensive pressure or calling the keeper out to meet the ball. For those that want a little more depth there is plenty to try out, like one-two passes, various cross types, at least seven different feint moves and the always crowd-pleasing dive.
Matches are a fluent affair with the ball going end-to-end in a matter of moments when the break is on. It's also possible to bottle the ball up in your half for extended periods if you can apply enough pressure to the opposition. Scoring goals is never too hard, though it is hard to make the most of all your opportunities. It's quite easy to get into a one-on-one situation with your opposing goalkeeper, but beating him is never as straightforward as you'd like it to be. This will keep the scores more realistic, but it can be frustrating to miss so many opportunities with quality players like Wayne Rooney or Thierry Henry.
There are a few issues with PES 09, some of which are minor and some of which are more than that. The minor issues include the fact that not all the real teams are present. Teams like Chelsea, Arsenal and Aston Villa have generic names like North London. There is however comprehensive editing features in the game, so the committed can fix those names up if they so choose. In Master League mode there is no way to set your tactical options in a main menu so that they are retained for every match, rather you are forced to make the same changes prior to every game. It's also surprising that you cannot turn replays off. PES 09 will show you a replay for every missed shot on goal, and will give you three replays for every goal scored. You can skip them by pressing the Start button, but it would have been nice to be able to turn them off completely.
The final and most frustrating issue I had with PES 09 was the lack of control you can feel when playing, which is a cardinal sin in sports games. Passes and through-balls are controlled by holding a direction and pressing a single-button, yet it is amazing how often they are not directed where you want them. There is no fine control in passing and the AI will often determine where it wants the ball to go, so instead of doing a simple pass to the team-mate five yards away, it will instead pass the ball thirty yards upfield allowing the opposition to intercept it easily. Through-balls fare little better. Often you can see exactly what you want to do, only for the AI to direct it differently thereby halting your promising attacks. Similarly some of the buttons simply don't work as advertised. Pressing Square in defence is supposed to get COM-controlled team-mates to apply some pressure – it doesn't happen. You can call for the ball in Become a Legend mode by tapping R2 twice, but far more often than not you'll be completely ignored meaning that perfectly-timed run you just made (or re-made for the fifth time) is wasted.
The commentary is a bit of a mixed-bag. The commentators (Jon Champion and Mark Lawrenson in English) never mention any team by name which makes for some awkward moments and they seem to have a host of long passages rather than concise points. This leads to hearing many of the same long passages over and over again. In the end I opted to put the Spanish commentary team on instead which is a lot more entertaining (perhaps because I don't understand any of it). The crowd noises are a bit generic, but they do a decent job of reacting to the play on the pitch. The sound effects are alright – exactly what you'd expect kicking a ball to sound like.
Overall Pro Evolution Soccer 2009 is an entertaining game that falls short of being great. I have been a bit harsh on some aspects of the game, but the reality is that when you pull off a series of passes and finish them off with a goal PES is a lot of fun. The (lack of) control and AI issues definitely stop PES from reaching the heights it has hit in the past, but there's plenty to do here and fans will be entertained for a long time. There's definite potential here for next year, so with a graphical overhaul and a bit better AI Pro Evolution Soccer 2010 could be a whole lot better.
Review By: Mike Allison