It has been a few difficult seasons for Pro Evolution Soccer as a series with the lack of licensed signings being drafted in and a general unhappiness in the boardrooms with where the series was going. This season however PES is under new management, and whatever fugue that has seemed to have affected the series has been lifted. For the first time in more years than Konami will care to remember, PES has become the football game of choice.
This is not to say that its very obvious competitor doesn’t better it in any department because FIFA 14 is superior to PES 2014 in many ways, and in some areas with an embarrassing gulf. Firstly there is a seriously limited number of official teams; luckily as a Manchester United supporter I have access to the official team name but Arsenal and Liverpool supporters alike will have to get used to being North London and Merseyside Red. However this is not news to gamers or some promise that is broken by Konami, it is common knowledge that in playing PES you will have to bear this shortcoming. If you are a gamer that needs absolute authenticity over gameplay then this is not the game for you, but that is not failure of the game.
Similarly the menu systems look like they travelled in time from the Playstation 2 era and are light years away from the slick glitz that some gamers have become accustomed to. But they serve their purpose, they are clutter-free and you’ll certainly never get lost in an impractical number of options and game mode windows. PES 2014 is a refinement of football games in many ways and this minimalist UI is an extension of that, but is that a bad thing?
Game modes are also distilled into something pure with a manageable number of top level options clearly in the menu. There are five options for you to wrestle with in the game’s main menu and they are Match, Football Life, Competition, Training and Edit. It’s not drowning in options but surely all you need from a football game is in there. If you select Match you can choose to play an exhibition match, play online or even play armchair pundit and watch an exhibition match instead. With Football Life you can delve further into the minutiae of the football world, and within this section PES 2014 sees the return of the Master League.
Here you can become the manager of a team, club or national side, with all the usual mechanics; buy and sell players, lay out team plans, buy and sell players again until you have your ideal footballing machine at your fingertips. As expected the menus and the interface are something that will not dazzle the eyes and it visually tires after a short time, but what is on offer is a straightforward introduction to football management for those that may have been put off in other games with too many options. Should you be a person who favours your football experience to be that of a more up close and personal nature you can dive into the Become a Legend mode which will see you taking control of a single player and pushing them towards greatness, and you can be everything from the hot shot striker to the rock solid goalkeeper. Initially it can be a little frustrating as you are a supporting character rather than the headline star but as you improve and progress, and even become captain, you will be able to dictate play in a more interesting way with on-pitch commands.
Bizarrely absent from the last instalment in the series but making a welcome return here is the League mode, allowing you to play officially licensed UEFA Champions League and Europa League to live out all your European dreams. It is here that PES 2014 begins to resemble its more handsome competitor, with official television introductions to the competitions looking like the real deal and strangely you find that the introduction of slickness serves as a dissonance, operating as the exception to the stripped back visual rules.
So if you are the type of gamer that needs to have menus for menus and so many game modes that it takes you until the following annual instalment to get a grasp of everything the game has to offer then PES 2014 is not for you. And if you can’t live with a commentary track that repeats more than a cheap curry then PES 2014 is not the game for you. But here is the secret, all of those negative things above do not matter one iota if you want nothing more out of your football game other than the best on-pitch recreation of the beautiful game on the market. If that is your one deciding factor then Pro Evo 2014 is for you.
On starting up Pro Evo you will immediately feel something classy about this game, instead of the expected musical offerings from the likes of Vampire Weekend or any other popular indie darlings you are presented with Nessun Dorma. This is a wonderful indication of what the game has in store for the player, a classy experience that understands the subject and punctuates the experience with subtle flourishes that culminate in something utterly majestic.
There have been many additions to the core mechanics of the series that signal a true statement of intent from Konami, this really does feel like a revolution of sorts for the series and is vastly superior to the slowing evolution of the FIFA series. Firstly the game is now running on the Fox Engine and it benefits massively from it, players look better than they ever have and are on a par with its competitor if not surpassing it. Not all players resemble their real life counterparts but Konami are releasing a number of patches that include more likenesses, so that situation will improve over time.
One true revelation here is the TrueBall tech introduced to the series; with this players are entirely separate entities in relation to the ball. You will never feel that you are stuck to the ball, there will always be the risk of the ball getting away from you if you are not careful with your movement, angle of approach and how you receive the ball. There is a fluidity here that is beyond what other football games have achieved, a slight angle on a run that you thought was a straight line may send the ball off in a different direction. But that is not saying that the game is unpredictable, these slight variations on movement provide something more purposeful than frustration- they provide opportunities. You will find yourself having to react to the game of football in a way that may seem alien at first with control seeming to be within your grasp but not quite.
Each player on the pitch is also treated this way, receiving a ball and turning when the weight is on your wrong foot will see you slow down and struggle to turn. Play a pass too hard and you may see the players stretch and fumble over the ball. It is all dynamic, from the ball to the players and it provides the most organic representation of football to date. You will not be zipping through-balls into space from ridiculous angles, your player must be physically in the right space and at the right pace before you begin to think of slotting your killer pass. And it is this that really shapes the PES 2014 experience, you must think about your first touch, you must think about your shift of momentum and you must time your pass to near perfection. In a way that has eluded football games of the last number of years PES 2014 makes football a game of options, purposeful decisions all mixed up with that element of real world randomness that we know and love.
Konami have also introduced the Heart System into proceedings here and it may very well be the most brilliantly subtle addition to gameplay the series has ever seen. Imagine if you will that you are playing Real Madrid in the Champions League final, you are 2-0 down with twenty minutes to go and the crowd is silent. You manage to drag the Madrid defence across the pitch a few times and you open them up with a sublime through-ball and strike to bring the match back to 2-1. Your supporters erupt in a frenzy, an unlikely comeback is now an option and that enthusiasm sends your players into an enthusiastic all out attack that sees you steal a movie ending 2-3 win.
This is effectively what has been introduced into PES 2014, should your players be performing well they will received a subtle but noticeable improvement to their performance. Similarly, should a defender put in an own goal or get beat in a one-on-one, their head may drop and their performance will lessen with only a last ditch slide tackle in the box bringing them back from a malaise. This is truly another wonderfully realistic and dynamic introduction into the series as a game can swing on key moments and momentum can change in a match with certain decisions, just like the real thing.
In all aspects of the game it feels that this iteration has been made by football fans, made by people who firmly grasp what makes us all love watching or playing the beautiful game. It may suffer from frame rate stutters at near misses, it may have Jim Begley as a commentator and it may not be officially endorsed by Jay Z but this is football as it is meant to played. You will have to earn a win, and if you do lose a match the very least that will happen is that you will learn something about footballing tactics.
Pro Evolution Soccer 2014 is very much what its name implies, an evolution. Konami have taken off the gloves and issued a very strong challenge to EA; whether or not this will translate to actual sales is yet to be seen as this battle will be fought over the coming year. For what it is, it easily surpasses FIFA on the pitch and ultimately isn’t that what matters the most? I dream of a world where gamers aren’t making decisions based on brand loyalty, where alternatives are considered fairly. There hasn’t always been reason to consider an alternative in this football war as PES has disappointed more than it has succeeded in the previous years but now the question is clear. Do you want to play the best football game on the market? Then do yourself a favour, go buy PES 2014.
It is very much definitely not all over...