Last year’s PES 2013 was a startling return to form for the ailing series – the best it has offered in years, in fact. A host of new features like Full Control, Dynamic First Touch, and full manual shooting made it a pleasure to play, provided you were okay with putting a few hours into learning the game’s complicated systems. However, despite a ton of new animations and a lot of attention to detail, Konami couldn’t hide the fact that the game’s engine was overdue a substitution.
Enter Metal Gear Solid V’s Fox Engine.
For the first time in a long time, a PES title looks markedly better than its FIFA counterpart. But it’s not just the great new facial animations, pitch and kit textures, and beautifully-lit stadiums full of detailed banners that impress. The power of the Fox Engine has allowed Konami to dispense with canned animations and instead a new MASS system controls the outcome of collisions while Trueball allows the ball to be its own entity, no longer tied to a player.
The MASS system adds much realism to player movement, as it has each shift their body weight realistically when changing direction, and things such as variable stride length give the impression of a team of individuals rather than some kind of on-pitch hive mind. MASS grants the player a greater degree of control too – particularly when using dribbling feints or catching defenders going the wrong way, but also with regards to shot timing.
Now, things like player balance and stride are much more important when it comes to passing and taking shots, and this takes some getting used to. The upside is that a ball struck well feels like it has real momentum behind it.
In classic PES fashion, while getting shots on-goal is simple enough, it’s still very hard to place the ball exactly where you want within that space – free kicks notwithstanding. Many of the dribbling moves are also extremely hard to pull off, and the PES tutorials remain, frankly, appalling. PES 2014’s selling point may be its depth and nuance, but the barrier to entry is absurdly high, and many moves are frustratingly difficult to perform.
That's despite a pace that's slower than that of last year’s game, which is partly due to sluggish transitions when the ball leaves play and the lag introduced by the inertia of the MASS system, but also because the latter sees players tangle far more frequently. While this adds to the realism, some may feel that defenders are too much like pace-draining anchors. That players known for their strength or agility have such attributes reflected in their play is a great touch, but the frame rate drops that accompany off-the-mark shot replays are a disappointment. Despite the flash on display, I prefer gameplay of last year's iteration.
The series’ contain-rather-than-press defending mechanics remain solid, and aggressive attempts at robbing possession still tend to advantage the ball carrier or result in a whistle. And while the defenders can sometimes pretty disinterested in getting to a loose ball, the AI is generally good, even if attackers running the lanes seem to forget there is such a thing as an offside rule.
Combination Play is new this year, and lets the player set strategies involving three or more players that trigger when play moves to a certain part of the field. There are 14 in all, and they range from hold up and overlap strategies to deep runs, diagonal cuts, and dummys. Each team has three by default, but these can be swapped out at any point, and afford attractive offensive flexibility.
Also new is a Heart system for each player, which supposedly tweaks an individual’s abilities based on what sort of a game they are having, as do things like overall team morale and home pitch advantage. It’s an interesting idea, but is undetectable in practice which is probably for the best – the idea of a significant stats reduction for the team currently behind seems a bit mean.
PES typically has a paucity of licenses so the addition of any – even the AFC Champions League, Argentine Primera División, Chilean Primera División, Copa Sudamericana, and Recopa Sudamericana added this year – is welcome. It also has exclusive rights to UEFA Champions League, Europa League and Super Cup and features a not-insignificant number of teams. The editing tools included have been upgraded to match the new engine, and pictures can be imported to create custom kits.
Unfortunately there are no Spanish stadiums or weather changes, with Konami admitting it simply ran out of time when it came to implementing the different physics required by the latter. And while the pre-match presentation is immaculate, the menu system is awful – worse than last year in fact.
Outside casual play, the game’s Master League mode schedule has been streamlined so there is less waiting around between matches, but its equipment and staff features have been culled in favour of team-wide points system. Fortunately last year’s player conversation system is also gone, and it’s now possible to manage a national team or switch clubs after each season, which is great.
Become a Legend mode is largely unchanged, except now being a goalkeeper is an option. It’s good fun, provided you are patient – players initially ride the pine for extended stretches and sometimes see no game minutes at all. Having skipped a year, League mode is back and allows the UEFA Champions League, UEFA Europa League, Copa Libertadores, and AFC Champions League to be tackled independently.
Online, PES’ offering is strong, but it lacks a killer app like FIFA’s Ultimate Team mode. Fortunately, the introduction of international management options carries to Master League Online, and that mode finally features a salary cap in all but the highest league to prevent players from fielding overpowered teams.
However because fatigue doesn’t factor in, it’s possible to cut squad size down so you can afford some decent players. Each league has a different style of play, and the options available to tweak matchmaking work well. A incoming patch will add an 11v11 multiplayer mode and skill-based matchmaking.
While no-one is likely to moan about the way PES looks now, the weightier, more contemplative gameplay and pared-back Master League mode will no doubt be divisive. Konami has taken another small yet deliberate step away from twitch play, and further distinguished its flagship football title from its brash, newcomer-friendly competitor.