A few years ago, I’d have laughed you out of the building if you told me that Pro Evolution Soccer would soon be overshadowed by EA’s FIFA in the battle for footballing video game supremacy. Characterised by frenetic gameplay and multiplayer addictiveness, PES’s yearly instalments on the PS2 were the epitome of sports gaming fun; countless teenage hours of mine were lost to its simple, “just one more match” gameplay. FIFA, for all its shiny presentation and official licenses, was little more than an afterthought to me.
But then Konami’s football giant all but lost its way. Not so much a gradual fall from grace as a fully-fledged dive in the penalty area, the arrival of the bug-riddled Pro Evo 2008 on the then next-gen consoles was, frankly, an abomination. Leaving a FIFA-sized gap in the wall for EA Sports to exploit, their own 2008 entry duly slotted home a winner for the series, and PES has been left playing catch-up ever since.
But now, after several years of malaise and a number of less-than-successful attempts at re-inventing the wheel, Konami has strived to return to the core gameplay that made PES so much fun all those years ago. Does Pro Evolution Soccer 2015 pull it off?
Put simply, yes. For all of the typical PR hype talking up “recreating the drama and tension associated with a vital match” (no doubt strategically planned to coincide with FIFA 15’s “emotional intelligence” marketing), at its core – for the first time in several years – PES 2015 is, undeniably, irrevocably fun to play.
Let’s begin with the most important basic gameplay improvements. On the offense, PES’s new close control, low speed dribbling mechanics make for more varied gameplay; the days of constantly having to have your finger on the sprint trigger are over. Passing, crossing and shooting also feel more fluid and responsive than ever. Direction and power now accurately reflect player actions; as opposed to the ‘best guess’ system that has plagued recent entries in both EA and Konami’s series. Admittedly, this may take some getting used to – particularly for those FIFA converts who rely on auto-assist – but the greater level of freedom and control afforded is ultimately worth it.
Similarly, a number of improvements have been made to the game’s defensive system, bringing it on a level with its EA Sports counterpart for the first time in a number of years. Players are able to dictate whether their men should close down the opposition, apply pressure, call teammates for support, lunge in with a tackle, or hold up play.
Combined, these gameplay mechanics make for involved, dramatic and addicting matches; reinvigorating that “just one more” mindset that’s been sorely missing in recent years. The game’s AI has also undergone significant adjustment, not least in player and management decision-making. Games against the computer are now almost as much fun as playing with friends, with playing styles and game plans being adjusted seemingly on the fly in response to in-match events.
Scoring in PES 2015 does feel somewhat more rewarding than previous entries in the series, though whether this is due to the gameplay being tougher in a better, more realistic way, or tougher in a frustrating, hair-pulling way, may vary depending on the player’s perspective.
The game runs on the FOX Engine, Konami’s much-hyped in-house technology that is also being used to develop the upcoming Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Though last year’s PES also made use of this technology, Konami has admitted that it was in a very rudimentary form at the time of development. The difference this year is palpable. The fully-fledged introduction of the engine has allowed for, amongst other additions, over 1,000 new player animations, more detailed crowds, and a new lighting system that reflects the changing daylight conditions during a match day.
It has also led the way for vastly improved player likenesses in the game, with footballers now more accurately reflecting their real-life counterparts rather than simply appearing as ugly caricatures with tenuous resemblances. Stadiums and pitches have also been vastly improved, with Konami introducing game area degradation for the first time.
The lifelike representations of PES 2015’s players extend beyond their appearance, and go so far as to recreate their playing style; in-game players now possess the same stance, trick moves and dribbles as the genuine article. This feature, dubbed PES ID, also applies to the game’s teams; setting them up to play just as they do in real life with regards to their gameplan, emphasis on star players, and general playing styles.
So far, so good then. However, PES 2015 certainly isn’t without its drawbacks. Although its core gameplay has been drastically improved – and in some places triumphs over its more affluent rival – there are several areas where it falls short.
Fans of either series will no doubt already be aware of the licensing situation, so I won’t flog a dead horse. In short, while a number of teams featured in the game are fully licensed, many are not. Though player names and likenesses are unaffected by these limitations, having to play as a generic team name in a generic kit really takes gamers out of the moment. It is particularly irksome when it comes to the English Premier League, as only Manchester United have their correct name here.
Combine this with PES’s slightly robotic player movement; unrealistic sound effects when the ball strikes the post or the advertising hoardings; the lack of ball-boys and professional-looking replays; as well as a user interface that makes Konami look like it took going back to the PS2 days a little too literally, and it’s clear that the game doesn’t quite provide the same immersion or polish as its FIFA counterpart.
This is a relatively minor complaint in the grand scheme of things, though, and it’s worth noting that while the game sorely lacks the professional sparkle in some areas, it finds it in others. For one, PES’s commentary, provided by Jon Champion and Jim Beglin, is highly complementary to the on-field action and goes some way to restore some of that aforementioned immersion (though this could simply be down to the repetitiveness of FIFA’s Martin Tyler and Alan Smith beating me into submission).
While innovative in many key areas, PES 2015 has undoubtedly borrowed from its more successful rival. The most significant in this regard is the introduction of myClub, a heavily Ultimate Team-influenced game mode which combines the series’ previous Master League Online with dreaded microtransactions, and is not particularly welcome.
However, the inclusion of dedicated 11 vs. 11 online lobbies (which simplify FIFA’s former Online Teamplay and current Pro Clubs modes to great effect), Role Control (which allows three players to divvy up defensive, midfield and attacking duties between them), vastly improved Be a Legend and Master League modes, and a more extensive editing suite are all much more appreciated, successful additions.
Ultimately, Pro Evolution Soccer 2015 goes some considerable way to recapturing the magic of the PES games you knew and loved on the Playstation 2, while at the same time bringing the series up to new-gen standards. It’s addicting, unabashed fun; a much-needed and long overdue return to form for Konami. Although FIFA 15 just about gets the nod this time around, it’s clear that the battle for football sim supremacy is once again becoming a two-horse race.