You really have to feel for Pro Evo as a gaming property: thanks to the past few barren years, and the indignity of being forced to live in the considerable shadow of FIFA (thanks to underhand tactics as much as actual quality, if PES Team Leager Jon Murphy is to be believed), a lot of football gaming fans have forgotten the good times, when PES ruled supreme as the best of its type, before EA Sports re-focused and won their lead back.
If FIFA is an all-conquering blend of Manchesters United and City, with “history” and financial power behind them, Pro Evo is more like Arsenal – still capable of greatness even in the toughest of times, and still there or there abouts when it comes to the final reckoning. But that comparative barren spell seems to have sparked some life into Konami and Pro Evo, and this year the football gaming runners-up in so many eyes have hit back with something very, very worthy of praise.
Pro Evo 13 feels more purposeful, and the gameplay experience smacks of a developer with a singular intention to change perceptions in a positive way, which is perhaps why Murphy felt so confident in openly criticising the practices of his greatest rivals pre-release. And it’s not particularly surprising: in the past few years Konami lost their way a little, their “improvements,” especially in 2011 feeling a lot like a direct attempt to steal back some of the FIFA market share through aping what EA did best, while still holding on to something of the PES-like arcade tone and pace.
That was never wholly successful, and 2012′s drastic change in the pace of play, as an accompaniment to the rebuild attacking engine did atone for some of the lack of finesse in 2011, but the speed was just too much, and the game felt imbalanced, despite the obvious good intentions. It all felt like Konami were probing, looking for the right through-ball that would lead to a wonder-goal of a final product, and that understandably came with some compromise for the fans.
But not this year, and the annual improvements this time out feel more substantial and more precise, with the impetus on individual player experience through control of the ball and a steeper learning curve that encourages the player to spend more time learning the nuances of playing. Instead of launching into games, Konami want us to practice and to learn their new control system, so we can unlock the skills necessary to pull off more eye-catching skills – and they’ve confirmed their intentions early on by inviting the player to tackle some tutorials to hone your skills.
It’s good to see Konami ignoring the accessibility agenda that would usually mean a decrease in the learning curve and skill-set necessary to get the most out of the game, and Pro Evo 13 really does reward those players willing to put the time in. Learn the new Full Control system and you’ll see your player controlling the ball deftly with more precision than ever before, and with factors like the player’s ability level, which leads to better manual passing across the board.
That whole system, in conjunction with the equally effective Deft Touch Dribbling system makes for a wholly revamped gameplay experience and one that feels a lot more precise, and a lot more governed by the skill of the player than in previous years. That is also helped by Konami’s decision to give the player more control of team-mates, who we can now direct into space to make runs, or to lose their defender from throw-ins – which of course also allows for defence-confusing fake runs – and by the overall improvement in both offensive and defensive AI. More than ever, play feels tactical, and like team-mates actually matter, as the game encourages the player to consider the overall attacking shape of their team, rather than just how the player with the ball will skip through the defence to score.
Gameplay is somewhat marred by the gap on the pitch between the very best teams and those on lesser rungs of the skill ladder, which determines that better teams can cut through their opponents a little too easily to be realistic, but overall there is a huge improvement on the pitch that Konami can point at as a massive achievement considering the limitations of past games.
Unfortunately, there are still some licensing limitations that will always detract from the final score for some – but which do not affect the excellent gameplay – and it is very obvious that the majority of the budget and focus ha been blown on the on-pitch experience, as animations can look a little lifeless, despite how much better players look in-play, and there are a few more ragged edges than you might typically find in an EA Sports property. And sadly, the modes on offer for those players looking for a little more depth are very obviously lacking, thanks to the licensing issues and it’s difficult to ignore the holes.
Those issues are far less damaging than they might have been in former years though, as Konami have crafted an exceptional on-pitch experience for players, rewarding immersion in the new gameplay features and encouraging extended play to really get to grips with the newly tweaked engine. And when that leads to more time on the pitch, that simply cannot be deemed a bad thing.
It’s games like this that make me wish we posted review round these parts in percentages, because the improvements made have ensured that Pro Evo’s annual battle this year is closer than some fans could have thought possible, and in the end, it’s going to come down to a single figure out of 100, rather than a more unforgiving half star or two. And that’s the biggest testament to how good Pro Evo is this year – it is by no means a perfect game, with presentation compromises and a noticable lack of visual slickness at times, but as a football game, it’s a marked improvement on last year’s effort.
Pro Evolution Soccer 2013 is available to buy from this Friday – 21st September.
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