Pro Evolution Soccer 2014 review
After years in FIFA's shadow, last season's Pro Evolution Soccer, the title better known as PES, was something of a return to form, at least critically if not commercially.
So what do they do this year for PES 2014? Rip it up and start again by introducing a version of the FOX engine, as developed for the latest incarnation of the Metal Gear Solid series from Konami, the publisher of both titles.
And while this doesn't mean you'll be taking free kicks while sporting an eye patch, or disappearing in plain sight behind the goal net, it does look a little bit more modern, presumably with one eye on the next generation.
But this is about football. And we do love a good footie game. Can PES 2014 pick up on the good stuff where last year's title left off? Or is it way offside?
Let's get the elephant out of the room from the off: Hampshire Red 3, East London 1. That was the score of a match we played last Sunday, while simultaneously watching Southampton play West Ham on Match of the Day 2, ostensibly the same game. Such are the absurdities of the licensing laws that Premiership (aka 'English League') clubs can't be referred to by their real names, apart from Manchester United this year.
On the plus side, there were at least some goals in our match, which arguably makes PES 2014 better than real football. Three of them came from England's Ricky Lambert, although you wouldn’t necessarily know it as he appeared to have been replaced by that weird-bearded presenter from Celebrity Big Brother. It's either a sad indictment of England's striking options that one of our best hopes for World Cup qualification isn't famous enough to have his own face in the game, or yet another example of PES's haphazard approach to authenticity.
Elsewhere however, the other major European leagues are present and correct, as is the Champions League and Europa League, and for the first time this year, the Asia Champions League - more of a nod to the game's Japanese roots than a deal breaker.
In short, compared to FIFA, PES 2014 is a mess on the teams front. But as we are required by law to inform you, it's on the pitch that it counts.
But it's not all great news there, however, with the gameplay often proving a ponderous affair, and the new engine seemingly struggling with the hardware. Loading times feel as though they can be measured in weeks, and there's an annoying pause in the action after every near miss, as if the crowd noise is being loaded in. Furthermore, goal replays and celebrations appear to be a tribute to the late Ray Harryhausen, complete with stop-motion-esque characteristics.
Control-wise, PES 2014 has the usual basic set that will prove instinctive to anyone who's picked up a football game this century. However, you don't always feel in complete control, and the players have a weird hobbling motion, with the vagaries of the sprint system never proving satisfactory. It all feels a little bit spongy, with misplaced passes causing endless turnovers of possession.
Grind those Gears
The new engine brings with it talk of Motion Animation Stability Systems and TrueBall Tech, the latter said to be "all about free and precise control of the ball with 360 degrees and more meters of control around the player, which will allow you to have more freedom on the pitch". That sounds exciting but, conversely, it isn't felt the gameplay.
A further nod to Metal Gear Solid is the new physics system. Motion Animation Stability Systems, shortened to "M.A.S.S" - sounds very technical, doesn't it? - will, according to Konami, "bring authentic battles of football into the game", adding, "duels will be more intense ... you will have to fight for the ball if you want to get it".
Fight indeed. But the game fails the litmus test whereby you can stand with the ball at a defender's feet indefinitely as the opposition makes no effort to wrest it from you. It makes for a tedious 90 minutes, but it's your money.
Slide tackling is a dangerous business, and Pro Evo 2014 does freely dish out the yellow cards. As such, you're left with the time-honoured pressuring of the man on the ball, with vast portions of gameplay simply involving opposing players rubbing up against each other until the ball spills free.
When you do manage to get down the flanks, whipping the ball into the box is largely thankless, with headed goals proving rarer than Wayne Rooney's natural hair. Likewise corners and free kicks, with sticking it in the mixer proving no guarantee of success.
Apart from the basics, there are more elaborate control options drip-fed to you during the interminable loading screens, but to be honest if we wanted to play a flight sim we'd give 1997 a call on our timephone.
Judged on its own merits, PES 2014 plays a tolerable game of Association Football, but we can't help but hark back to the golden era when PES was king. Pro Evo used to have an intensity that required to you to literally sit on the edge of your seat. PES 2014 is more of a slumped-on-the-sofa affair, with a goal eliciting a mild grimace of satisfaction as opposed a full-on knee slide into the kitchen.
We managed to win the Champions League at the first attempt - with Man Utd - an achievement that, while causing a few hackles to rise in the final, ultimately left us feeling flat, and with no great desire to repeat it. It may find a niche with the online Master League, or hardcore two-player action, but even as we type these words we know that we're probably not going to play it again once FIFA 14 arrives.