This is the story of a game that was once at the very top of its genre, its only competitor a poor imitator, a distant also ran. But then things happened, and said game was knocked off its perch by a reinvigorated competitor that returned with a vengeance. Over the next few years, while the competition continued to make unbelievable strides towards sustained excellence, the original, fallen king struggled to get its act together.
Back in the PlayStation 2 era, Pro Evolution Soccer was king of the hill- as far as soccer (or fine, football) games were concerned, there was nothing else on the market that matched up. Sure, EA Sports made FIFA, but it was clear that it was just a cursory effort every year, while they focused on Madden, their true money spinner. But when we entered the HD era, Pro Evolution Soccer, like so many series (and particularly those made by Japanese developers) struggled to find its footing. Meanwhile, EA Sports swooped in and made quality sports games synonymous with their FIFA brand, which fast overtook Madden as their most lucrative property.
Konami have spent quite a while trying to get PES back on track. This newest installment, PES 2014, represents their most concerted effort yet, with a complete overhaul of the franchise, now built on Kojima’s new Fox Engine, and featuring a spate of improvements, both big and small. The result? It’s the best PES title in years. It’s not the greatest soccer game on the market, not just yet. But what PES 2014 does is lay a solid foundation for the series for the years to come, and hopefully, guide it gently to consistency and better quality on the upcoming generation of consoles.
Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer 2014 feels like the most distinct, pronounced and different game from its FIFA competition yet- it feels a bit like Gran Turismo to FIFA’s Need for Speed, like the Arma to FIFA’s Battlefield, like the Rocksmith to FIFA’s Guitar Hero. All of this to say, while FIFA does make concessions to the mass market, to keep itself exciting and thrilling for its audience, PES 2014 aims instead to deliver a more underplayed, authentic football experience. The best part is, it largely succeeds at what it is doing.
And yet, for all that authenticity and realism that it aims for, PES 2014 never feels dry or drab, which are often synonymous with ‘authentic’ as far as video games go. Indeed, it exhibits the life and spirit of the sport, and the enthusiasm that accompanies a football game, extraordinarily well. The stadiums are bustling with life, the crowds and their reactions make you feel like you really are there, on the field, playing with the eyes of tens of thousands of fans on you, as they cheer and jeer, as they gasp and boo. More than anything else, perhaps, this is what really gets you in the game this time around- where in past PES games, the stadiums felt silent, almost lifeless, completely flying in the face of the atmosphere during a typical football match, here, they are alive, electric, bristling with energy.
The stadium and the crowds aren’t the only things that look ‘alive’ in this new iteration. Whereas PES has always prided itself on how it presents the players, this new game is actually breathtaking in how uncannily true to life its players look sometimes. Not just the players and their likelinesses, either- the way they move, their kits, their facial expressions, everything feels like a step up from last year’s game, which now feels almost stilted in comparison.
Of course, powering all these great changes is the Fox Engine. It’s clear that it has benefitted the series quite a bit, although its improvements seem to be more on the presentation side rather than the gameplay side.
On the gameplay side, the game seems to build on last year’s entry. This is by no means a bad thing, considering that last year was when PES finally found its groove after a long decline, at least in terms of its core gameplay. PES 2014, building off of last year’s core mechanics, features the same passing centric gameplay; like last year, shooting is a bit trickier, and more frustrating. But unlike last year, this year’s core mechanics benefit from a slew of under the hood improvements. This includes the TrueBall Tech, which offers fully realistic ball physics; this undoubtedly makes the game more difficult and sometimes more unmanageable, but the satisfaction that you can get by executing a proper pass or shot is almost unparalleled.
The other improvement is much more subtle, but its impact is indelible once you realize it’s there- the ‘Heart’ system, which basically is a metagame of player emotions and reactions. Your team basically remembers its performance over a few games, and it will, for instance, react to losing a game it was winning 2-0 until the last five minutes, its morale lowered after that. On the other hand, make a stunning comeback, or just score a breathtaking corner shot, and that will boost their overall morale.
This is a more subtle side of the game, and it has definitely been captured pretty well in PES 2014. It makes the experience feel that much deeper, that much realer. It makes it feel that much more authentic.
The rest of the gameplay, while benefiting from all these changes and improvements, remains the same as ever- it’s still highly technical and demands timing and precision, rather than mindless spamming. But that’s why PES 2014 works. That’s why it still has a place on the market- because it offers something completely different from FIFA’s more video gamey approach to the sport.
There are, of course, natural drawbacks to this game, a lot of which have their roots in the fact that this is the first game built on a new engine: for example, TrueBall can often not work properly, and that can be infuriating. For example, the controls are still demanding, and might not necessarily lend themselves to the more casual style of play that FIFA games do. For example, the framerate stutters and drops. For example, the game does not feature a lot of things that were in previous installments- little things like rain, or a stadium editor. For example, Konami still does not have licenses to some of the biggest teams in the world, and this definitely hurts the game.
Those are all issues, and they are all real knocks against the game when you’re deciding whether you want to buy it. But when it comes right down to it, the real decision should be made on the basis of the core gameplay, and PES 2014 has that nailed completely. In trying to faithfully capture the mechanics of football, PES 2014 ends up being an authentic portrayal of the heart and soul of the world’s favorite sport. It’s not the best soccer game on the market, not just yet. But it’s close. It’s very close, and another year or two of building on the very solid base this year’s game provides should get the series there.
This game was reviewed on PlayStation 3.