Version tested: Xbox 360
I threw a proper tantrum at PES 2014 last week. I haven't thrown a controller at the wall in anger since the final boss of Jak 2, but I directed one at a cardboard box on the other side of the room when Nordsjaelland danced through my defence and went 4-0 up in the Champions League. I was playing as Real Madrid.
I blamed Raphael Varane to anyone who would listen, but the truth is that I had lost all self-control, impatient to get on the ball and try to reduce the deficit. I was stubbornly clinging on to both defensive pressing buttons, dragging my players out of position all over the field, and I was mashing the standing tackle button and charging blindly into midfield whenever I retrieved the ball. When I got there - if I got there - I was then spraying out miracle passes that were coolly intercepted as the Danish minnows grew in confidence. 4-0 wasn't flattering. (Although Varane did have a shocker.)
As a game that increasingly resembles a simulation of football rather than a highlights reel, PES 2014 is great at throwing up these authentic sporting stories. PES Productions has made a game that rewards the patient player over the thrill-seeking dynamo, where high scores are more often a product of indiscipline than the natural order, and the line between this series' trajectory and that of the mass-market FIFA now feels clearer than ever.
The key change is the addition of a new engine under the bonnet. It's the same one that powers Metal Gear Solid - perhaps this explains why there are still so many annoying cut-scenes breaking up play - and it has been used to deliver a more physically convincing take on the world's favourite ball sport than PES has managed previously.
Whereas players danced around and occasionally through each other in PES 2013, for instance, they clatter into each other in 2014, and there's a lot more friction as players run alongside one another too. To combat that, it's now possible to use the right thumbstick to hold off opponents or attempt a shoulder-barge. Player momentum is also influential, so laziness on the defensive side can be punished by the right through ball or tapping the dash button for a burst of pace - my downfall against Nordsjaelland in microcosm.
Passing is still fluid, but there's more emphasis on how you receive the ball as well, so the zippy ping-pong passing that defined the last version is tempered somewhat. You can command the ball with more assurance in close quarters, however, utilising a first touch that feels slightly more assured than in FIFA, where EA Sports has introduced a lot of contextual error in its recent iterations. The ball certainly isn't glued to anyone's feet, though, and the mere physical presence of an opponent is now enough to dislodge it from your control if you're not protecting it carefully. You can't afford to be cavalier in possession.
I like to put my foot on the ball with the right shoulder button to slow play down and shield possession, and then use the right thumbstick in combination with the left to do little feints and shimmies to create space for a pass, while noticeably smarter team-mates buzz around between the lines looking for pockets to operate in. The sense of control is greater than ever with these tools, and while the default for tricks is now a contextual "auto-feint", which will be good enough for most and is still tough to master, those in search of a deeper experience can look forward to weeks deciphering the system's manual intricacies, with a stronger suite of "performance training" tutorial mini-games to assist you on your way.
If that sounds like heaven, then you're also likely to get off on the advanced and manual shooting and through passes, which offer a fine degree of attacking control that should allow truly dedicated players to achieve grand master levels of skill and composure. More casual players - hell, even pretty decent players - will probably struggle when they first hit the through-ball button and see an aiming reticule pop up and start dancing around on-screen, but like the existing manual passing, it can be switched off.
The experience should still be rewarding even if you never master these systems. Even played at a relatively basic level, once you've figured out the standing tackle and started drifting around to counteract the movements of opposing players, unpicking defences is extremely satisfying. Ball physics were a step up last year and they are again here, too, while the impressive reach of sliding tackles can be crucial when used intelligently, so the whole midfield game feels much more rounded generally.
It's in the final third that PES 2014 could do with a little more work. Defences play what feels like an artificially high line, which compresses the midfield in an entertaining way but also leads to breakaways that expose some dithering in the AI (which still sometimes ignores balls that are clearly easy to intercept) and inconsistent officiating (with refs handing out yellow cards for professional fouls from behind when strikers are through on goal), as well as a lot of offsides. There's more variety in crosses and you can exert more control over defensive headers than in previous years, at least, but you still see quite a few players standing static under an aerial ball, while goalkeepers are haphazard, largely on account of poor positioning, often parrying things into the path of other attackers or just flapping uselessly at relatively weak shots.
Shooting, at least, blossoms into something easy on the eye once you've put a few hours in. Initially it seems a bit floaty, with the controlled shot noticeably less effective than in PES 2013 and a lot of attacks resulting in shots stubbed hopelessly goalward, while thunderbolts from outside the box are consistently elusive. With the right player in the right position, though, and a vital yard of space, you can unleash exactly the kind of shot you want, from inch-perfect dinks to piledrivers. One criticism is that lobbed goals feel slightly too easy to pull off, but they do at least look majestic every time. Best not to bring the keeper out.
Die-hard PES fans are likely to be in a forgiving mood anyway once they see how things have developed elsewhere, and they will also appreciate the tactical possibilities afforded by even more slider bars available pre-game. One thing that is likely to annoy everyone is the way teams reset any pre-game changes when you opt for a rematch, while player transfers aren't up to date (of course) and the licensing situation is what it is in the face of EA having locked up most of the leagues aeons ago. But these things shouldn't be fatal to a game that by its nature appeals to fans of the sport itself rather than the glamour surrounding it.
There may be a smaller pool of those players these days now that FIFA has taken the lion's share of the football gaming audience and shows no sign of giving it back again, but even if you spend more of your time playing local games than online ones you are well served. The Master League mode has been tweaked so you can move to a different club and even manage national teams, and I still much prefer playing against the AI in PES than in any other football game. It wasn't available in time for this review, but Master League Online is traditionally an even tougher challenge, now with multiple leagues focusing on different play styles. As with everything in PES, it should reward patience.
That's the message to anyone who has grown tired of FIFA's more gradual evolution over the last few years, really: PES may be slower to reveal its charms than EA's glitzy money-spinner, but those charms run deep. Consider the new 'Heart' system in PES 2014, which sees player form during matches influenced by the emotions they experience as they do things like play key passes or cede possession in a dangerous area. This gives them a boost or nerfs them slightly, which has a knock-on effect for things like free-kick accuracy.
In many ways it's the same message as last year, then, despite sea-change in a lot of areas: PES 2014 is a methodical sports game with deep systems that reward practice and experimentation; the sort of game that will appeal to people who read Zonal Marking rather than Sun Sport. It's never going to beat FIFA for glitz and polish - charms that are no less valid when it comes to how you invest your leisure time - but PES has the potential to become a very deep obsession, where even a 4-0 drubbing has meaning.
Oh, and for the record, I won the return 1-0 with 46% possession and loved every minute. Classic PES.
9 / 10