With its latest football game on the horizon, Konami is going into the upcoming year in second place. It's not just that legions of fans have shifted to FIFA over the past several years, it's the fact that Pro Evolution Soccer 2014 will not be on PlayStation 4 or Xbox One. Yet, PES 2014 will very much run on Kojima's "next-gen" Fox Engine, the same game engine set to run Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain: With its new engine, PES 2014 is reborn, rebuilt, redesigned, and re-imagined. So is this the year that PES reclaims its throne as the football game to beat?
I'm going out on a limb here to say, No, this is not the year that football fans, as a collective, turn back to Pro Evolution Soccer. But should they? That's a much better, and more compelling, question, for this is shaping up to be a great year for Pro Evolution Soccer. The new engine is sleek, and while the graphics aren't vastly superior to past installments, it's the animations, ball physics, and weight of the players that truly shine this year. PES 2014 is sure to test your football skills, as the improved A.I. is smarter, playing to real-life team strengths. One-on-one interactions require patience and attention on intricate ball movements.
That bit about ball movement is central to PES 2014's redesign. With True Ball Tech, the ball and players are considered entirely separate objects in the game, so at no point in my numerous hours with the preview build did the ball ever stick to my players' feet. That is a big deal for a football game. We have heard such claims in previous titles, across both EA Sports' and Konami's franchises, but this is the first time I've seen it done well. Just dribbling a few steps creates new opportunities and challenges as there is no guarantee that the ball will travel a perfectly straight line. The slightest movement of your analog stick has the ability to move the ball just slightly enough to feel real. It's a far cry from the more robotic set of animations that typically send your player down the pitch.
My preview build was very limited. In fact, I only had the option to play an exhibition match with four teams. I could tweak some settings like play style and even my controls, but I couldn't adjust the difficulty. I hope my build had the A.I. on one of the harder difficulty settings because, well, it was incredibly challenging. I lost the first 10 matches. The worst loss was three goals to Italy, but most matches were more like 1-0, or 2-1, affairs. It took 11 matches to finally score a win.
This challenge is part of what makes PES 2014 so satisfying. Players fight for the ball, latching on to jerseys to prevent fast-breaks or holding back defenders with a stiff arm. This is all part of MASS, the Motion Animation Stability System, which adds a level of physicality that PES has really never seen before. MASS largely reflects the style of real-life players, with strong midfielders or defenders pushing around smaller strikers while fast offensive players use their own agile strengths to make those small steps to navigate the defense. The system is tied to player's body weight, so your right analog stick is really controlling how your player shifts his body with the ball instead of an assignment of some preset moves or tricks.
On the defensive side, PES 2014's engine and MASS system translate quite well. Luckily, defense is easier to comprehend compared to last year's installment. It's all built around a risk management system. When on defense, holding X allows you to contain your opponent as you move your left analog stick. This is considered low risk. You add risk to the equation the more you ask of your player. Press the R1 button in this situation, and your player adds more pressure. The most extreme risk is, of course, committing to a slide tackle.
Konami has added more Player ID to real-life players, meaning some 100 in-game players match their real-life counterparts. Obviously, in my preview build, the lack of teams allowed me to explore this addition, but if you've played PES in recent years, you know what to expect. If not, you'll see these 100 or so players with faces modeled just like their real-life selves.
There are some new features in PES 2014 that weren't part of the preview build, or were just not noticeable, including the largely touted heart system. It seems players will react to how well they are playing, how their team is playing, or how the crowd is reacting. It sounds like this has some huge potential, but again, it just wasn't noticeable in my build. In addition, there were a ton of random glitches and some super annoying animations for the referees. I'll forgive all that since this was a preview build, but I certainly hope Konami refines its final package.
Beyond some of those small annoyances, I can't say the overall package is a winner yet. The new engine is definitely solid, but it is almost limited by trying to do too much. That weight behind your players and the idea the ball is completely independent sounds great on paper, but so far it's making for a good, not great, game. I found player weight to almost slow down the game too much. And since the ball was independent, it was frustrating to see my opponents simply walk in front of me and steal the ball. These elements need to be refined, even slightly, to provide us with a better overall experience.
Still, PES 2014 is a fine step in a new direction and it's refreshing to see these new ideas in action. It's not quite time for Pro Evolution Soccer to overtake FIFA, but this year's installment is sure to please long-time fans of the series and it may even convert back a few current FIFA players. I am looking forward to seeing how Pro Evolution Soccer makes its transition to PlayStation 4, but for now, its farewell to PS3 is a solid game with some big concepts needing a bit more refinement before its September 20 release.