Konami; PC/PS3/PS4 (version tested)/Xbox 360/Xbox One; £45; Pegi rating: 3+
Pro Evolution Soccer is back. Properly back. After a string of failed attempts to recapture the PS2 glory days, Konami has finally found a winning formula. It’s taken over a decade to get back in contention with EA’s Fifa behemoth, but PES 2015 ensures that, at least on quality if not on sales, it’s a two-horse race again this season. And all it took was to get back to basics.
Having skipped a PS4 and Xbox One release last year, developer PES Productions used the time wisely and focused on the one thing that matters most: the on-field action. Konami’s Fox engine (also used in Metal Gear Solid 4) realises its full potential on current-gen machines and delivers the type of slick football that fans of the real sport salivate over on a weekly basis. It’s not about unrealistic pirouettes and rainbow flicks – they’re left on the bench. It’s about fluidity and intuition.
This means that in PES 2015, you don’t have to execute trick stick swirls and slashes to beat a man – instead, you go around the opposition by pushing your player in a direction that catches the tackler off-balance. The close control means you can feel confident about keeping the ball even with a defender breathing down your neck. It feels natural and authentic.
Of course, there are still special moves in here, but only the likes of Ronaldo, Neymar and co. can wield such showpiece weapons. The new PES ID system ensures that players only do what they would in real life. Don’t expect to see Per Mertersacker dancing his way upfield too often.
The Fox engine greatly improves the effectiveness of your AI team-mates too. Instead of standing still waiting for the triangular hat of responsibility to appear above their head, players will dart into space of their own accord. As Manchester United’s Ander Herrera receives the ball from Angel Di Maria in the middle of the park, the Argentinian immediately sprints into the space behind a defender and looks to receive the ball again. You can call for a 1-2 pass, but you don’t need to do it all the time.
Speaking of passing, the variety here is excellent. Most football games have specific “zones” where a long ball or cross will work from, but PES 2015 allows you to swing in speculative balls from all over the pitch. We saw a great example from Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas who played a ball into the stride of Diego Costa from near the touchline at the halfway point. With the swipe of a right boot the ball bent exquisitely around the back four and set Costa up for a lovely side foot finish. It’s the simplest things that give the most joy in PES, because nothing is as satisfying as a plan coming together.
The balance between attack and defence is also great. Fleet-footed players like Arjen Robben will torment the back line, but thanks to a robust defensive game, you can also destroy incoming forwards in the tackle.
The slide rule
One of the biggest qualms leveled at FIFA 15 is the lazy foot-in animations and slide tackles that leave you stranded regardless of how perfectly you think you’ve lined up an interception. PES 2015 plays an almost perfect defensive game where you can stick a foot out to dispossess an opponent, call in an AI buddy to help pressure them or slide in to win the ball and flip the winger into the air like a pancake. Even goalkeepers instill an air of confidence as they react to situations decisively, punching away crosses or making themselves big for one-on-ones. It all feels organic and compliments the flow of the football.
There are plenty of subtle animations on show in PES 2015. Deft one-touch passes to team-mates, chest control from big lads like Zlatan Ibrahimovic who can swivel around markers in one motion, and through-balls that unlock defences from numerous directions – they are all a joy. There are tons more, but these gameplay tweaks will keep fans coming back for more like Man United’s Anderson at a free buffet.
Where PES 2015 excels most over Fifa 15 is in its ability to create drama. EA’s series has a nasty habit of forcing situations in games, like those 45th and 90th minute goals it’s so fond of. But the organic flow here means that knockout cup matches or vital league matches carry their own magic and heartbreak. One moment of brilliance or madness can often be the fine line between glory and defeat. As a result, every game feels unique. It’s been a long time since a football game made us actually cheer at a last gasp winner.
Konami also debuts its very own Ultimate Team mode in the shape of myClub. It’s a slightly clunkier version that lacks EA’s slick razzamatazz, but it works in an almost identical way. You gather players from across the globe via special pack openings. White, bronze, silver and gold rank players are available – the black ball variants are rare and contain the likes of Didier Drogba and Andres Iniesta. It’s a great addition and has the potential to overthrow Master League as PES’s “go to” mode.
Image rights – and wrongs
PES 2015 does have some rather basic issues. There are moments when the frame rate struggles to keep up with the action. This happens more during online matches, but usually that’s down to you or your opponent’s connection. It’s not game-breaking, but it’s there and can be jarring (htough hopefully fixable with a patch).
Elsewhere, commentary duo Jon Champion and Jim Beglin’s script is so slight it could have been written on a beer mat. It becomes repetitive almost instantly. And some of the hairstyles are laughably poor, especially the rear of poor old Luke Shaw’s head, which looks like an owl’s backside.
Although the menus are a lot slicker than before, again borrowing from FIFA’s slide interface, it’s still a bit of a mess. Where EA clearly marks where everything is, PES 2015 forces you to explore, especially in myClub where our Didier Drogba signing required a needless search and numerous button presses just to get him in the starting line-up.
Chiefly, the continued absence of Premier League licenses – apart from Manchester United – is a disappointment. EA has done well to monopolise the official license of the Premier League’s players, kits and more. So PES 2015 is left with Man Blue vs. Merseyside Red at the Konami Stadium. Oh, and despite having Bayern Munich’s Mario Gotze on the front cover, the Bundesliga hasn’t even made it in.
PES will no doubt use the community loophole, which always provides the authentic kits, badges and more via a data pack download within days of release, so all is not lost. But while this may seem like nitpicking, these things matter to that mass market that Konami craves.
PES 2015 does boast a glut of other clubs from across the globe, mind. Second division sides in Spain and Italy, for example, and there’s the debut of a fully licenced Argentinian league too – not to mention the rights to the Champions League, Europa League and the Copa Libertadores competitions.
As a complete package, Fifa 15 still rules the roost. But where it matters – on the pitch – PES 2015 is far superior. The variety of goals, dribbles, tackles and passing moves means you won’t play the same game twice. It captures the thrills and spills of football brilliantly and after almost a decade of trying to play catch-up, Konami has finally put a team together to challenge the Fifa juggernaut. It’s time to fall in love with the beautiful game again. Pro Evolution Soccer is really, honestly, truly back.
This article was written by Nathan Irvine, for theguardian.com on Friday 14th November 2014 11.31 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010