Ladies and gentlemen, Pro Evolution Soccer is back. After years toiling in the wilderness, riddled with depression and self-doubt, the former king of videogame football has risen triumphantly to top the league right at the back end of this console generation. It’s been a hell of a ride.
PES 2013 is so good it’s almost like the other six Xbox 360 efforts didn’t exist, and this is, in fact, the continuation of the near-flawless heritage of PS2 and PSone games that completely shaped the way we play football on our consoles. The fluid movement is back. The incredible responsiveness. The passing, shooting and defending all work beautifully together. And most importantly, it still has that indefinable, almost intangible PES ‘magic’. This is still the game that captures the spirit of football better than anything else.
From a mechanical point of view, Pro Evolution Soccer has undergone some fairly significant changes in the past few years. Players on the pitch are noticeably smarter and more reactive, bringing the passing and off-the-ball movement in line with and at times ahead of FIFA. Strikers don’t just make forward runs at the defence – they come short and look for the ball or sprint down the channels. Centre midfielders will rotate and move away from their markers. The best players will always seem to find space.
In fact, it’s that ‘best players’ idea that PES 2013 has captured marvellously. The series has always been known for singling out famous players for individual animations or playing styles, but this year’s ‘Player ID’ system takes it to another level. Not only are Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar captured superbly, but even players like Philipp Lahm, Vincent Kompany and Giorgio Chiellini look, feel and play like their real-life counterparts.
The team at Konami has spent the best part of two decades perfecting the art of making players recognisable at distance, too. Picking Newcastle – or Tyneside, as there’s still no Premier League licence, frustratingly – for a friendly game showed just how far the artists have come. Almost every player could be picked out even from the widest camera angle. Cisse and Ba looked and moved differently; Cabaye and Ben Arfa played in their own style. It’s phenomenal work.
Of course, not all changes are cosmetic. PES 2013 pays really close attention to how real-life players control and move with the ball. As it’s played into feet, you can now trap the ball, flick it up in the air or simply run with it, all with varying degrees of success depending on your timing. While you’re moving, holding the right trigger will activate a deft dribbling mode that lets you roll your foot over the ball and drag it around. Toying around with this, the skill moves on the right stick and the simple concept of stopping and starting lets you control the ball in a way no football game has ever managed. And it’s all so responsive – it lets you execute as quickly as you can think.
Despite this level of control, though, some things are still left to the gods. PES has always – even since its days as International Superstar Soccer in the Nineties – managed to capture the raw unpredictability and drama of football. The miscontrol that leads to a counter attack. The wicked deflection. The glorious, arching, bending cross. The world-class save. Like real football, a game of PES is just a collection of these moments pieced together. Each match has its own personality, determined by the pieces in play. It’s why, even playing against the CPU, PES players end up screaming at the ref, leaping into the air with fist-pumping joy, or just trying to twist the pad in half in abject misery.
So, the on-pitch action is finally doing the PES name justice once again, but what about off the field? Well, a new training mode eases you into the intricacies of the control system with typical KCET charm and that shrill ref’s whistle that’s been in there since the beginning, while the Master League – PES’s combination of manager mode and Pokémon – returns in much the same form as last year’s version. If you’ve not played Master League for a while, though, you might be surprised by the new cut-scenes, man-management options and vastly improved transfer system.
There’s a wealth of online options too, an area where PES has really struggled until recently. With Online Master League, Xbox Live tournaments and even pseudo-clans to go with the standard exhibition mode, it’s clear that Konami is pushing its premier series in all the right directions.
Which is why it’s so lovely to have it back. The FIFA vs PES debate will rage, as always, but this year, no matter which one you plump for, you won’t be disappointed. If you’re hungry for the glory, the beauty and the magic of PES, though, you know what to do. It’s so good to have you back.