A strange thing happened to me while playing the review copy for PES Production’s PES 2013. As a longtime fan of EA’s FIFA series, and an even longer time fan of soccer, I always get excited this time of year when the new FIFA demo launches on Xbox Live and PSN. That’s because at this point in the year we are already three weeks into the European soccer season, and my excitement is at an all-time high to recreate the wonder and magic of the respective leagues in the virtual world. Except, this year was different. This year I was too captivated by PES 2013 to stop playing it for 10 minutes and give the FIFA 13 demo a go, and this, my friends, has never happened before.

Alright, so we have a new football king then… right? All hail PES, may it reign for many years to come! Whoa, slow down there. While PES is good, great even, it’s too early to tell which soccer-sim (if either) will come out on top. Plus, we haven’t even played the full version of FIFA yet so the jury is still out. Needless to say things are looking very promising though, and PES 2013 without question marks a true return to form for the franchise.

Welcome back old friend.

Nearly pitch perfect

It all starts on the pitch. The singular most important improvement made to PES 2013 is by far its gameplay. Konami has taken the magic and wizardry of a real match and faithfully recreated it on your TV screen.

First and foremost is the pace, which has been slowed down considerably from past PES titles. Even when compared to my brief time with FIFA 2013, PES feels much more deliberate in its build up play as opposed to FIFA’s run-and-gun approach. And while some will find it too slow — I kinda did at first — others will find it just right, adding more balance and nuance to each subsequent match.

Of course, what good is slowing down the pace of the game if the characters still control and act like a mass of overpaid mindless slack-jaws? Thankfully that’s not the case with PES 2013. A major overhaul has been implemented. That means you are finally granted the freedom to choose exactly how your player reacts in any situation. Trapping the ball, passing, and shooting have all been refined. Skill moves are carried out with various flicks and motions of the right and left analog stick. And while they can be tough to master, especially due to the sheer number of them, thankfully a robust tutorial is on hand to help you out.

Players can execute slick and skillful first touches, or perform precision passes via the manual pass controls, which also carry over into the shooting mechanics. Simply press the left trigger and an arrow appears under your player that you control with the left analog stick. Adjust your angle and power and you’ll be delivering passes that would make David Beckham nod in approval.

Speaking of shooting and passing, part of the benefit to slowing the game to a more natural pace is how much more fluid and realistic ball movement feels. Whether you’re parking the bus like Chelsea and employing the longball, or using the tiki-taka approach favored by Barcelona, it all feels realistic with zippy and weighted ball physics. More importantly though is the unpredictably it provides. With PES 2013, ball movement doesn’t feel scripted, making things all the more dramatic.

Unfortunately, where PES 2013 stumbles offensively is with its headers. On the break, crossing a ball into the box isn’t so much the problem, but once there getting the ball into the back of the net, or even on target, is a difficult endeavor. Sometimes it manages to work well, but most of the time it doesn’t. The same can be said for corners. Whipping a ball from the byline isn’t the issue, but getting your player on it creates the biggest stumbling block. This is really a shame and hinders what is a strong offensive experience. In fact, this is where FIFA 12 did a superb job. Set pieces are supposed to be unnerving experiences. Even a provincial team like Grimsby Town can slip one past old Peter Cech during these dead ball situations. But because the mechanics are so hit or miss, it ends up diluting an essential, and for many teams, tactical advantage.

That said, it’s not all about your offensive abilities. Defending has been given some much needed love and attention, with a bigger emphasis on breaking up play of your opposition. Slide tackling feels more precise, while player strength and balance can mean the difference between shoving that attacker off the ball just enough before he can fire off a blistering net-buster or drawing a whistle.

Cheer up Ronaldo, you look fabulous

After a few high profile losses, Cristiano Ronaldo might be going through a bit of the moody blues lately — all he has now to keep him company are his Ferraris and stunningly beautiful girlfriend — but once he takes a gander at what an amazing job Konami did in recreating his likeness on the pitch he’ll be winking, jinking, and smiling once again.

With previous cover-boy Lionel Messi defecting to the FIFA franchise, Konami was smart to snap up Ronaldo. Not only is he easily one of the greatest players to ever play the beautiful game, but his unique mannerisms have been placed perfectly onto the virtual pitch. Everything from the way he runs, takes his free kicks, and even his overbearing confidence are all here to bask in or loathe. Transporting a real-life figure into a game can’t be easy, but doing it so well that you get a sense of their actual personality can’t be either. Konami has managed to do both.

It’s not just Ronaldo who gets the close-up treatment. Your veritable Van Persies, Neymars, Rooneys, and even little Lionel Messi himself, all look great. Graphically, PES doesn’t contain that plastic sheen that FIFA’s past and present exhibit; it’s a much more grounded, gritty, and realistic look, one that fans of the series will appreciate. The lack of tattoos on players, however, is still annoyingly absent, and I was embarrassingly distraught by the omission of Italian midfield maestro Andre Pirlo’s new beard. That may just be me though. 

Soccer is full of emotion, and more than any other sport it evokes great regional, political, and cultural pride, so it’s nice seeing those aspects displayed on the pitch. A great deal of that comes from the fans, but the athletes themselves can be counted too. For PES 2013, players exhibit different situational facial animations, smile when they score, look frustrated when they don’t. Individual character animations have also been beefed up for 2013. Konami says it worked with real goalkeepers to improve goalkeeper logic and overall animation quality so that keepers actually behave and react the way they would in real life. And while player animations are miles better than previous iterations, there is still an unfortunate tendency for more generic players to look a little stiff and wooden when running.

License for fun, not flair

Of course, the big elephant in the dressing room (even bigger than Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Eiffel Tower-sized beak and salary) has always been PES’ lack of licenses when compared to rival FIFA’s. Sadly, that’s not changing for PES 2013. Konami have done an admirable job snapping up the licenses to some of Europe’s bigger leagues: Italian Serie A, French Ligue 1, Spanish La Liga, as well as the Dutch Eredivisie and Portuguese League, but noticeably absent are the Barclay’s Premier League and German Bundesliga. In the past, Konami has done deals with specific teams and that’s still the case here, so as a small consolation the likes of Bayern Munich and Manchester United end up being the sole representatives of their respective leagues.

I don’t want to get into the licenses debate too much, especially since obtaining those rights are probably easier said than done thanks to the legal cage match-like brawl that must exemplify the negotiations, but it’s certainly disappointing not to have what is arguably the world’s most popular league (BPL) in the game. Will I ever get to play as a proper Arsenal team and not simply “North London?” I sure hope so, just not this year.

It’s not all doom and generic gloom though, because PES 2013 does carry the exclusive rights to the UEFA Champions and Europa League. Although, it is a little bizarre seeing a host of generic team names and unofficial kits make their way into the tournament. Does it take away from the excellent gameplay? Not in the slightest. Does it ruin the authenticity and feel of the UEFA’s elite competition? Absolutely.

You do have other options though. South America’s prestigious club competition, the Copa Santander Libertadores, makes its way into a videogame for the first time ever. Here, players are given the chance to take on the role as one of Latin America’s top clubs and vie for the opportunity to be crowned copa kings.

In addition to the Champions League and Copa Libertadores, PES 2013 features a handful of other modes both online and off, including Football Life, which incorporates the ever so robust Master League mode — where you guide a team from relegation zone rejects to table-topping champions — as well as Become a Legend mode, where you’re tasked with playing as a single player, either created or existing, and guiding him to glory for both club and country.

The World Awaits

A quick note: Our review copy lacked the ability to go online, so we can’t speak to its quality, and unfortunately we didn’t get to take Master League mode online, but the time we did spend with the offline component was thoroughly pleasing and similar to last year’s outing. We will check it out post-release and update this post where necessary. For those unaware, Master Mode charges you with day-to-day running of the club of your choice. Everything from training regimes, squad transfers, and meeting sponsorship obligations is left to you. You can hire new coaching staff, manage contracts, and even pluck players from your youth team then hand them their first professional contract. Just be careful not to run your club’s finances into the red.

Without a doubt, Master mode has always been the bread and butter for PES players, so new and returning gamers will be happy to know it’s the best version yet. There are a few gripes to point out though. First, it’s silly to see your youth team populated by random players with varying nationalities. I began my season as Palermo from the Italian league and the youth team on hand should be filled with an overwhelming amount of Italian players; I counted just one, and little blips in detail like this are what threaten to destroy any and all sense of immersion the game does so well to create on the pitch.

Second, and more importantly, the presentation featured in PES 2013 is still far behind that of FIFA’s. Menus are convoluted and difficult to navigate. Simple managerial tasks such as subbing and monitoring your players fatigue is unintuitive thanks to a touch drag and drop system. And finally, the game’s commentary provided by ESPN UK’s Jon Champion and former Irish footballer Jim Beglin is dull, repetitive, and simply passable at best. Also, with only eight licensed songs, PESmusic is light years away from reaching FIFA’s routinely excellent and diverse soundtrack.

Conclusion

And yet, despite all its shortcomings, PES 2013 is a brilliant game. It’s certainly rough around the edges and won’t stand toe to toe with FIFA production-wise, but it doesn’t have to. All PES needs to is focus on what has always made PES standout: excellent gamplay. From a true fan of football this is the title I can see myself playing all year long. This is the game that even during the narrowest of victories and landslide defeats has me smiling ear to ear because of its killer mechanics and astute attention to realism on the pitch. There simply isn’t another soccer game past and present that instills such a true and vibrant feeling of a real match. Player animations are the best I have seen yet, and the sheer amount of technique and control the offensive and defensive games both afford is simply mouthwatering.

Truthfully, I’m not so sure there will be a clear-cut leader this year. The line in quality has been blurred so much that the gap that formerly existed between PES and FIFA has been virtually severed.

That said, there are those that won’t be able to get over the game’s sub-par presentation and limited licenses, and that’s a true shame because PES 2013 is by far the best entrant in series I’ve have played in over a decade. It seems we finally have our beloved PES back, and that’s something all footie fans can cheer for.

Score: 8.5

(This game was reviewed on the PS3 on a copy provided by Konami)