The launch of a new Pro Evo game is like the start of a new football season. You can sense optimistic fans wondering whether this year will finally be the year that produces a credible shot at the top spot. While PES 2014 falls short of a championship, there's enough in the way of improvements here to lay the foundation for a game that could take the title in future.
Much of that's down to Konami's new Fox Engine, which represents a significant graphical leap. For the most part, players look far more realistic, their facial animations conveying genuine excitement and frustration. The stadiums are also much easier on the eye, and action unrolls smoothly and sharply. There's a touch of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to the visuals, however - while the superstars that Konami has taken the time to recreate properly look all the more fantastic, those they've not bothered with seem twice as bad by contrast. So while Franck Ribery looks every bit the part, Gervinho looks like a grown man with a small boy's face and a terrible perm. The frame rate also nose-dives during cutscenes, which is a shame given how well the game holds up during play.
Pro Evo's appeal has never been about graphics, of course - it's always won admirers through beautiful, addictive football. That identity is still very much there, helped along by a number of tweaks. The new TrueBall system changes the way players approach the ball - it tightens up control, allowing more precise dribbling. The MASS system attempts to make the game feel more physical, which it does in fits and starts, but Pro Evo's traditional fondness for the passing game means that player strength never becomes hugely noticeable.
Each match feels very much like a distinct event, with its own atmosphere and tempo. Playing two matches against the same opponent, and while the first was an end-to-end thriller, the second was a far more plodding, lacklustre affair. Konami's understanding of the individuality of each match and its ability to recreate this is one of Pro Evo's greatest strengths.
The things that really detract from the experience are generally the same tired, seemingly easy-to-fix fine details the series has always wrestled with. The commentary is infuriatingly limited, with the same phrases bashed out again and again per half. There's only so many times you can hear Jim Beglin criticise your team for not taking chances before you begin to think he's wearing the other team's colours. There are also only a few flicks and skills that your players have at their disposal, and they're difficult to execute. Even when pulled off correctly, they seldom have the desired effect - giving you no incentive to use them.
The archaic-looking menus will make you wonder whether you're actually playing the game on Windows 95, waiting for that animated paper clip to pop up and ask you if you need help choosing your left wing back. It's a small point in the grand scheme of things, but if you're going to rebuild your flagship sports game to run on a brand new engine, then surely you've got the time to make navigating the whole thing intuitive and appealing. The music is also rather off-putting, varying from the odd tune that has some basis in football to the busier kind of Japanese electro pop-rock.
Lastly, there's the new Heart system, which is supposed to give individual player performances and fan reactions the chance to shape how a match unfolds. The idea is to simulate the intervention of a kind of mystical 12th man, a sudden gain or complete loss of confidence. In effect, this really only serves to break the game a little. Watching your team go to pieces because one player missed a sitter doesn't necessarily feel realistic. Occasionally, it allows smaller teams to compete against sporting behemoths, but it feels a little patched on and very frustrating, like the game is rewarding you or punishing you for no reason.
Its also frustrating that a game that can give so much on the pitch has very little to offer beyond it. The returning Master League feels very dated now, and the online offerings are rather weak when compared to FIFA. PES 2014 is a great game in its own right, with plenty here to keep fans of the series enchanted, and a few features that may be of interest to potential converts. There's certainly a lot of hope for the future, especially with the FOX Engine in the picture. But in the short term, the sheer quantity of gameplay options, online modes, leagues, licenses and other features that EA can muster will probably carry the day.
By Richard Meade
No FIFA-toppler, but there's hope for next year
- FOX Engine is great
- Smart additions to existing gameplay
- A few interesting new features...
- ...but not enough of them
- Woeful presentation