FIFA may be the biggest-selling football game in the world nowadays, but Pro Evolution Soccer has been quietly evolving - fittingly enough - over the last few years and PES 2013 was a high point in its reinvention so far. PES 2014 is even better.
The biggest change is the introduction of the FOX Engine, which is the technology that powers Metal Gear Solid, of all things. This has allowed the PES programmers to increase a much greater level of physicality to proceedings, so you can now jostle and shoulder barge your opponents, whether in possession or not, and clashes of players in midfield and on the edge of the box are common, leaving people on the floor and the ball running loose. Contesting headers is a particular area of improvement - i.e. you can now do it.
The trick to evading smash-ups in general is to take advantage of the refined close control and the deep skill system. The former is as simple as putting your foot on the ball and pausing to pick out a pass, with great scope for fine dribbling in pockets of space, while the latter will require some time on the practice pitch - itself offering more varied and interesting training mini-games this time - until you can use a flurry of thumb strokes to coax step-overs and Marseille turns out of the analogue sticks.
Do so and you may find it easier to dance through defences that remain tight and difficult to penetrate if you bulldoze directly at them. Modern European football is about exploiting space - something that Arsenal's new midfielder Mesut Ozil is peerless at doing, for instance - and PES 2014 pushes the defensive line up the field and concentrates on close control so the emphasis is on creating and occupying space effectively. Team-mate AI is noticeably more intelligent as another component of this.
Shooting takes some practice. Controlled shots with the right shoulder button return this year but they are not as immediately effective, and like the good old PS2 PES games it's really important to create space for a shot before unleashing it or else you may find it bobbles or wafts peacefully into the keeper's arms. Glory goals from the halfway line shouldn't happen, although with that said, goalkeepers are a bit Joe Hart these days, flapping at crosses and parrying things to onrushing strikers.
The fabled Master League mode has seen some upgrades this year, with the option to change clubs at long last and even manage national teams, while Master League Online now includes various divisions with a budget cap that favour particular styles of play, as well as a Galactico league for truly superb players to graduate to, where there is no cap on spending. In Become a Legend, meanwhile, you can now play as a goalkeeper, which is novel if a bit weird.
The UEFA competitions - Champions League and Europa League - and South American equivalents remain the PES team's best licences, along with a few handfuls of clubs from around the world, but if it's superficial niceties and polish that you're after, then you've come to the wrong game: PES is always a bit rough and ready in this regard and 2014 is no exception - the way it resets your teams if you play a rematch, taking out any changes you've made pre-game, is a bit obvious and infuriating, for instance.
On the pitch, though, it's scintillating stuff once you adapt - easily the best PES game of this generation and a great opportunity to make the switch back from FIFA. It's hard not to see the renewed gameplay competitiveness as a win-win for consumers; if you choose to go down the PES 2014 road, though, you will find the greatest depth in systems and the most rewarding instalment in many a year. The only sad thing is that there's no next-gen version planned.
GAME's Verdict: 9/10
- FOX Engine introduces a brilliant sense of physicality.
- Skill system is deep and rich with potential.
- Tough to play, tougher to master, which makes a nice change.
- Some of the likenesses are comical.
- Still pales next to FIFA in terms of licences.
- Goalkeepers are a bit of a liability.