Review: Pro Evolution Soccer 2014 (PS3)

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Title: Pro Evolution Soccer 2014
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PlayStation Network Download (6.7 GB)
Release Date: September 24, 2013
Publisher: Konami
Developer: PES Productions
Price: $59.99
ESRB Rating: E

Gameplay:
The hype surrounding PES 2014 has been quite phenomenal, considering how far the franchise fell during this generation, and how little thought most gamers have recently given the game. FIFA is the only soccer game appearing on PS4 this year, and yet it has somehow been kicked into touch by its competitor, at least in the pre-launch limelight. Footy fans are excited and gaming websites are abuzz with the feeling that PES could finally retake its crown.

This has all been down to Fox. That’s right; Hideo Kojima’s new engine, developed for the Metal Gear Solid series, is now powering Pro Evo. Some may call this a strange decision, some would say it’s for superficial reasons. From the first time I saw PES 2014, let alone even playing it, plainly evident was how important the Fox Engine will be. Yes it’s pretty, but the main attraction is how fluid the action feels.

Movement animations are infinitely better than last year’s series entry. Not only is a realistic running motion now present, but the way players react to the position of the ball is superb. Even in full flow, there’s an added elegance to the play that’s instantly distinguishable from previous football titles; and when watching replays of goals, the silky smooth nature of proceedings is simply awe-inspiring.

PES’ sense of realism continues with the unpredictably of matches. As contradictory as it sounds, you feel so in control of your team that you’re never in control of the game. It captures that ‘anything can happen’ nature that makes the sport so appealing. You can be pinging it around the park with supreme comfort, dominating possession in the opposition half – but one breakaway goal will soon see your controller hitting the wall in frustration.

Champions League – one of the few licences Pro Evo has, and perhaps the most important – is another of the major factors in adding to that emotional pull (or indeed push, depending on your results) of the game. Those tense midweek nights between two European superpowers are expertly portrayed. You could well be on the other end of the aforementioned shock counter-attack; scraping through on the UCL’s infamous away goals rule, which is doubly satisfying.

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Generally, this feeling of satisfying goals is a prevalent one. PES is not for the casual gamer; unless you’re playing on the very bottom difficulty levels, this is a skilful game that relies on honing your technical ability – not power and pace. The gameplay environment is more conducive than ever to this style thanks to tighter passing, dribbling and shooting, as well as player attributes that feel balanced. Controls are nigh-on perfect, with a myriad of intricacies tucked below a basic set of (customisable) commands that just works.

The hardcore can spend months perfecting each minute detail of the control scheme, but at base level it’s easy enough for FIFA players to immediately pick up and play. I love that unlike its title challenger though, Pro Evo doesn’t have you applying manual controls permanently through the menu system. Instead, holding the left trigger presents an arrow on screen, which is manoeuvred with the right stick to select exact directions for manual shots and passes. Switching on-the-fly is a breeze, and makes for a convenient halfway-house for those not quite ready to play completely without the safety net of assistance.

There are a few gripes though, such as the lack of weather conditions (blamed on not having time to implement by-products of this, like slippery pitches) and the ever-present issue of licensing. The limited variety of stadiums, real leagues and teams are always a concern. However, this year sees the staple PES edit mode stripped back slightly, meaning the community’s options for realistic creations have suffered. Again, this is due to what the publisher describes as EA’s “extremely aggressive” collecting of license deals.

Furthermore, the modes are largely unaltered from past iterations. Master League, the manager mode that was a much-heralded success in the PS2 days, has needed an update for years. On the field, my only real complaint is that Konami seem to be emphasising the effects the new engine has on physical contact, to the detriment of play. It’s impressive seeing players realistically tussle by shoulder-barging, but often it seems to happen just for the sake of showing off the feature, when realistically contact wouldn’t have been made.

Visuals:
As alluded to previously in Fox’s effect on the animations, PES is aesthetically stunning in motion; soccer has never looked so fluid in a game. Both in-play and on the close-up replays, the visual fidelity is superb. A few faces are still hilariously bad (Sagna and Rafael being particular favourites), but more often than not, players look very realistic. As with the game as a whole though, consistency is again the issue; FIFA’s top footballers don’t come close to matching PES’ finest, but they have a vastly broader range of good efforts.

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Dissimilar to EA’s most recent title, PES Productions have nailed the camera setup, providing a range of options that are already great by default, but can be customised to further suit personal preference. As ever, the off-field presentation, devoid of any dynamism, still requires a substantial facelift. Menus are static and frankly last-gen in design, and now even annoyingly navigated by a GT-esque cursor. When you spend so much time in a laborious menu structure, I’d like it to at least be attractive.

Audio:
Commentary remains a major drawback for Pro Evo’s overall presentation. Unlike its main rival, you never get the feeling of a real life broadcast; the lines don’t flow at all, making for a disjointed mess. Furthermore, nothing is ever contextualised, which is very last-gen when compared to most modern sports titles which provide these extra little touches of believability. The in-game soundtrack is staggeringly small (12 tracks), though the ability to import your own custom set of tunes goes a long way towards excusing that. Props are also due for including Carnaval de Paris in there – anything that takes footy fans back to France ’98 can only be a good thing.

Online/Multiplayer:
Whilst the Xbox 360 version of PES 2014 has suffered a multiplayer catastrophe (the online portion is inaccessible for most), the PS3 version runs pretty well. Contrary to the early titles of this generation, games generally run smoothly and lag-free. On the rare occasions when the connection is so poor that the play constantly stutters, the match is ended with no result – a positive step that FIFA could learn from, rather than forcing gamers to sit through a horrible experience, simply because they’re afraid to quit due to it counting as a defeat.

However, the remainder of Pro Evo’s online mode only serves to emphasise how amazingly streamlined EA’s soccer behemoth is these days. FIFA’s slick system of background updates and unique game modes can only be fully appreciated once one has been forced to trawl through this completely unintuitive structure. Whereas their rivals have up-to-the-minute squads based on real-life injuries and form (all downloaded automatically), PES Productions shipped the game without this summer’s transfers.

Instead, you need to first install the data pack; a painfully slow download, hidden away in a sub-menu. That’s just one of many examples of PES’ archaic online style, which is full of dull loading screens. At best, you could say it’s functional rather than flashy. Yes, these online gripes are superficial in nature, but that stuff matters a lot. All in all, the majority of players will be put off by the bland, bare-bones approach and will stick to classic offline multiplayer.

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Conclusion:
So, has Pro Evo reclaimed its spot on the footballing throne? Not quite, but Konami’s prospects are certainly looking infinitely better than mid-way through the PS3’s lifespan. The age-old issue of presentation is still one of PES’ major drawbacks and there are plenty of small annoyances that restrain it from becoming the best in the business.

We’re all aware of EA’s financial firepower, but Konami can no longer use that as an excuse – there are problems away from licensing that need correcting. As ever, the perennial feeling of ‘next year for sure’ is a prevailing one; the developers are banging that same old drum again this time around, but perhaps fans have learned by now that the promise is never fulfilled.

These criticisms may make PES 2014 sound like a poor game, but that’s nowhere near the case. It reaches occasional highs that FIFA never comes close to hitting. The gameplay overall is good for a first effort in a new engine, albeit with a need for refinement.

As any fan of a top football team will know though, the difference between good and great is the small details. When the sport is played at the highest levels, consistency often separates the winners and losers at the end of the season. Winning plaudits for the silky style is nice, but winning trophies is even better. Maybe next year…

Score:
7.5

 

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Written by Raj Mahil

Game collector. Journalism graduate. Batman addict. Movie goer. WWE nut. Sports obsessive. Arsenal fan. Squawka.com Sub-Editor.

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