Platform reviewed: PS4
Pro Evolution Soccer (mainly known as PES these days) slowly crept to virtual football dominance in the PS2 era, compensating for its restricted license pool with a fun, realistic take on the sport with one of the most captivating and fiercely-combated multiplayer experiences on any console. It did this for six successive years until the time came to jump onto the PS3 for the first time where the series took not so much a step backwards, but rather a full-on backflip into a glass-filled manure pile with the crushing disappointment of PES 2008.
It would take the series four years to even get close to the brilliance of the halcyon PS2 days, by which time, EA had finally pulled its proverbial finger out and actually made its rival FIFA series into a decent game of football. If the first six PES titles were a class-riddled side showing off their menacing attacking threat to romp to a cavalcade of trophies, then the next six would be akin to watching that side sell all its best players, bring in inadequate replacements and threaten to become cast adrift in the middle of the league for years to come.
The new generation of consoles were on the horizon and Konami knew it had to change something if it was to be considered a genuine alternative again, so the reliable, yet rust-coated engine of previous years went in the bin, the jump to PS4 was postponed for a year and Konami decided to experiment with Hideo Kojima’s embryonic FOX Engine on PES 2014. A choice that left the series in limbo as FIFA splashed the cash to upgrade to its fancy new PS4 stadium with a bunch of big name players added to the marquee, as PES handed their squad of workshy journeymen their P45s and started to rebuild upon the same principles that made them such a wonderful side to watch.
Thankfully, while PES 2015 isn’t quite back to its absolute best, it is the best PES in years.
Firstly, PES Team has collectively swallowed its pride and taken some of the positives of its rival FIFA on board, as such, the sleek, tile-based menus will look quite familiar. This is a vast improvement on the rather static, grey rectangular setups of old or indeed last years jumbled mess, though you can still see aspects of all of that hiding away in the various sub-menus and the clunky nature of their movement, but thankfully less jerky and far quicker to load.
The EA influence extends to an XP system, gaining you GP by completing a variety of footballing maneuvers and milestones. This mainly ties into the multiplayer of the game in the revised Master League Online, which now apes Ultimate Team under the new guise of My Club, sadly, right down to the microtransactions. Other than this, it’s business as usual, with a slew of cups, leagues and tournaments (which include the ever-impressive licensed UEFA Champions League) to compete on and offline. I’ll briefly touch on the soundtrack, it’s short on tracks (about ten of them) and a mixed bag of pop, dance and indie rock, but it is at least slightly better than last year’s grating repetition of hearing Nessum Dorma and Dario G five times an hour. The commentary is slightly more varied than before, but is ultimately still a bit rubbish.
The much needed edit mode returns of course, a side of the game I’ve tinkered with each year for countless hours, not just to paint over the license issues or tweak stats on underpowered players, but also to create my own personal ragtag squad of friends and family to take on the elite. So I was more than a little bemused by a slight step back in this department, specifically the lack of in-depth kit editing from older editions and the disappearance of the creation of club crests. It may not be a huge problem and they could yet feature after release, but currently, it’s disappointingly shallow by previous standards.
Now, while it is nice that the front end has been mostly improved, the proof of any self-respecting sports game is in the playing and PES 2015 is at its finest in this area. Building on the complete engine switch in 2014 and having had more time and power to tinker with it, PES Team bring a fast-paced,intelligent game of football to life. Most importantly, the sheer competitive joy of the PS2-era titles is present again and a large chunk of this is down to the subtlety of the player animation. The way in which a player shifts their feet to connect with the ball. The way strikers tussle and break away from defenders to slot home a goal. Or even the way a desperate last-minute shot ricochets off a scrambling opposition player and loops over the crossbar, denying you an equaliser, these simple facets contribute to a far more compelling and fun match time and again, even in a 0-0 draw. Certain world-class players are immediately distinguishable by their movement, such is the level of detail on display.
This would all be for naught if the gameplay itself wasn’t up to scratch, but of course you’ll have gathered by now that it is. A far more responsive control system allows for much more fluid and fast-paced football. You feel more in control of your entire team this year, a feeling that hasn’t been applicable in a good few years in PES. This means that when you concede a sloppy goal or make a horrendous pass, it is far more likely to be down to your own tactical failings than an A.I. error and of course, when you time that defence-splitting pass to perfection and slam the ball home with a controlled strike, that too is down to your ability. This is PES getting back to what it does best, playing a great game of football and being more fun than frustrating, because while trying to capture the realism is important in a sports game, it’s futile if that creates a dull videogame.
Enjoyment is pushed front and centre here and it makes for a gameplay experience good enough to make you forgive the obvious shortcomings in other departments.Sure, it’s not quite as finely-honed as PES at its peak – the response times do seem ever-so-slightly slower on simple X button passes, high through-balls have a lower success rate than you’d expect and there is still a small whiff of scripting involved – but unlike FIFA, it is far less obvious when it occurs. Still, these are minor quibbles in the face of such all-round improvement.
Visually, PES 2015 looks great, the stadium and general lighting in particular are quite impressive, adding further depth to cold November nights in the Champions League, while many players look near-identical to real-life counterparts. There is the odd glitch such as a ball travelling through a players body or shirt sleeves partially vanishing on certain cutscenes, but these are rare and you’ll likely not notice the former happen unless you study replays up close.
The only truly jarring part comes down to anything without a license being in direct comparison with something that does, as newer hardware produces more authentic representations of real world objects, people and places, so it starts to become more and more obvious when something isn’t quite as defined. Unlicensed kits and lesser-known players are the biggest visual sore thumbs in this case. It’s a shame really (though sadly, unavoidable when you haven’t got the same financial clout as a rival) as it can take the immersion down a level.
Some people will no doubt snort in derision at the very suggestion of any football game outside FIFA being worth their time, merely because of a somewhat justifiable weakness where official teams and leagues are concerned, but for those who genuinely enjoy football as a sport should give PES a chance this year as while its rival flaunts its overblown online trading card mode and flashy front end, PES 2015 concentrates on the key element: Playing a great game of football; and in that respect, it is the clear winner.
Note – servers were not online during the review process. However, we did play local multiplayer