Another year, another battle of the footballing titans. Will it be Messi or Ronaldo? Manchester Blue or Manchester City? Pop on your best pair of high-riding 80's shorts, groom a makeshift Mark Lawrenson 'tash, and read on
It wasn't so long ago that Pro Evolution Soccer ruled the roost when it came to virtual football. Every year gamers would knowingly head to shops, pass-by sniffing with disgust at the latest EA Sports offering, and clasp grubby fingers around the hottest Konami wares. The game was a simulation, an arcade experience, and an RPG all-in-one: and most importantly? It played brilliantly.
But that was then, and this now. While the PlayStation 2 days were heady times for the Japanese football giant, recently the team behind FIFA have bucked up their ideas and reclaimed dominance of the genre. Now PES is the one left on shelves, the recipient of a snorted "that used to be good" and a cold shoulder. Past glories mean nothing in this racket, and so it resides in the "once" category: unloved, uncared for, and ultimately in need of a major shake-up.
A squad update ensures new signings are in their right place.
Which unfortunately it hasn't ever properly received. The progress of PES has been incremental rather than sweeping, with each title improving slightly but still in its entirety not quite right. The series still lacks the finesse of its EA counterpart and the continued lack of license to use real names, apart from a few, stings annually. That isn't to say that PES 2013 is a bad addition, on the contrary it's an excellent piece of software - it's just that you can't help but be reminded that there is an even better football game out there: Lionel Messi mugging on the cover instead of Cristiano Ronaldo.
But without sounding overtly negative, this latest ball-shuffling product is the culmination of small improvements which pleases in its own way. The mechanics flow, there are teasing bits of skill, and the master league, as ever, shines through. PES still manages to conjure that in-depth, complex game of football, and if you're looking for a break from the norm of FIFA, it's a definite contender this year.
And yet with that in mind, it's still very much a work in progress for Konami to recapture new and lost fans alike. Since its heyday of PES 6, the most important progression the series has seen in the past decade is the perfection of a fluid and realistic style of football. Physics compliment the experience as the ball introduces a layer of unpredictability, while individual skill dictates whether a player can easily trap a ball and produce an all important pass - or conversely fumble it to the nearest opponent.
Unlike its peers, PES is, and will always be, about the diminutive touches and thumbstick twitches. The Konami approach to football requires a different skill set entirely. It is a different pace, and requires foresight. This isn't a game that is played on a hair trigger, punching through, and throwing everything at the wall: it's about strategy, knowing your next move, and having vision.
Celebrations are so PES it hurts...
And the latest star addition to help foster this style is manual passing. Holding the right trigger, a small arrow will appear in whichever direction the ball will travel when you release a pass. What this allows you to do is direct through-balls and deliver with the kind of accuracy and precision that other football titles lack: and it truly something to behold when you put in an inch perfect hit across the bow of goal.
This new passing system of PES is undoubtedly superior than its FIFA counterpart. Through-balls are life-like when skimming by defender and reaching intended recipients. There's an element of luck and chance to it all, mirroring the beautiful game itself, and unlike the EA title there's less hit-and-hope during clear chances. Like in Premiership action, it can all go wrong with one misstep.
But with all of that said, while PES has undoubtedly changed for the better, it's the bits around the edges that still hurt. Ultimately, PES 2013 still lacks finesse and the kind of attractive play we have come to expect from our football games. Things still feel blocky, clumsy and there's a lack of grace to the experience - all of which any seasoned player will find it at odds with the competition.
Unfortunately you can boil it down to this analogy: if FIFA is the acrobatic and skilful Messi, then PES is more like the sturdy and solid Michael Carrick of football games. There's a workman like quality to it all, chugging along as you try to attempt the types of technical tricks that come so easily in EA's game. Build-up play lacks flare, goals look unspectacular, and in all you'll be longing to hear the familiar ringing of "It's in the game..." before the final whistle blows.
Goals are satisfying, but aren't spectacular.
Things that should be easy to attempt such as influencing team mates around you become difficult and largely unresponsive. Skill, attempted by twiddling the right thumbstick, is also temperamental and uninspired. Even elements such as triggering a run is only achieved when pulling off the type of combination known best to Street Fighter fans. Where is the ease of play? The accessibility? The testing to see if it all works right? We can only assume those elements are off on the sidelines clutching their knee and hobbling off towards the tunnel.
Even basic elements such as the visual elements of PES outline the disinterest the developers seemingly have in making the game look attractive. Players look like their PS2 counterparts, albeit rendered better. Faces are waxy and statue like - Wayne Rooney in particularly looking like a haunted gargoyle coming to terms with a particularly tricky bit of Nietzschean philosophy.
And yet, all of this wouldn't, and shouldn't matter, if PES was the sole game in its genre. If like Football Manager it was the lone experience, we would all jump for joy at its latest innovations and inventions because this is actually a very fun game. It builds on the series' legacy, and makes it more enjoyable than ever.
But it's not the only leather ball shuffling product is it? And therein lies the problem. This is where the lack of finesse and care comes into play. While PES 2013 is a good, solid product, its annual counterpart FIFA is simply better in almost every way; and this isn't to say that Konami have a bad title on their hands, it's just not the best.
PRO EVOLUTION SOCCER 2013 VERDICT
Available for PS3, Xbox 360, and PC (which is the best version) PES 2013 will provide a nice distraction until you get your hands on FIFA, or instead a diverting change from the EA norm. It isn’t the greatest, but it keeps making strides to reclaim its former glory. Maybe next year?