‘Pro Evolution Soccer 2014’ preview: Konami passes on the easy goal and focuses on the long game

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Sports video game used to be a battleground genre. During its height, there were tens of baseball, football, hockey, and soccer games released every year. Even as we entered the dark times of sports exclusivity in the ‘00s, with EA’s iron grip on the NFL, there was still competition. Soccer especially had its war, with Konami Japan’s Pro Evolution Soccer series holding its own for years against the FIFA Soccer juggernaut. In the past five years, though, Konami’s champion has withered under the increasing quality of EA’s product. 

Ever since FIFA 10, PES has faded from the limelight, tending to a dwindling base of avid fans. PES 2014, however, represents a transition for Konami. While most other sports games are looking towards the next-gen, PES 2014 will only be released on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and the PSP of all things. It’s both a stop gap measure and a new technological experiment while the team takes its time and prepares to regroup next year for its first Xbox One and PlayStation 4 game.

Story/Concept

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No games, just game. At the base level, PES 2014 is not demonstrably different than FIFA Soccer 14. They both seek to more perfectly simulate the experience of playing professional soccer on the international stage. PES has a conceptual purity, though, as it doesn’t include some of the ridiculous features in the FIFA package. No trading card games here, just soccer. Unfortunately, also absent is the FIFA license, which once again limits the authenticity of the series and means that only a handful of the world’s clubs are present. 

Gameplay

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Buzzwords ahoy. Pro Evolution Soccer 2014 is overburdened with a plethora of buzzword systems. It’s got “The Core,” it’s got a player personality system that takes into account their emotional state during a season, and it’s got “TrueBall Tech,” which describes the 360-degree range of control around the dribbling of the ball. You can control more than one player at a time, using two to sandwich the ball carrier and try to set up a steal, or other risk-versus-reward scenarios.

For Pros. For all its proprietary tech babble, it’s hard to get a sense of how Pro Evolution Soccer feels compared to FIFA without playing a match. Put simply, it feels less forgiving, at least in a demo setting. FIFA offers such a deep level of control underneath its approachable field game that it’s easy to forget how fun it can be for a novice. PES feels more demanding when you first pick up the controller, which could please hardcore football fans.

Presentation

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A “next-gen feel.” The big technological shakeup on the series is the introduction of the Fox Engine, the video game development tech made by Kojima Productions for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. PES creative producer Kei Masuda told me during the demo that even though the game isn’t on Xbox One and PlayStation 4, using the Fox Engine gives PES 2014 a “next-gen feel.”

New textures on players, new grass effects on the field, sweat literally dripping from players brows. The presentation is beefed up considerably despite the old tech. Ultimately, though, these are cosmetic changes, not big changes to how the soccer itself feels. The benefits of the new technology depend on what you want out of the game.

Takeaway

Pro Evolution Soccer 2014 is not going to topple the FIFA empire, but it is a brave game despite that fact. Masuda also said that his team is taking its time to learn the ins and outs or the new consoles, rather than rush out a new product on unfamiliar hardware. That patience could yield fine results by the time PES 2015 makes it out. This year, though, EA still controls the ball.

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