Probably the greatest advert I’ve ever seen appeared in 2004, when the BBC turned Euro 2004’s stars into living paintings; a move that was both inspired and bubbling with class... which is the perfect adjective for the beauty of football, the true reason why millions devote themselves to a game of men, balls and grass.
Pro Evolution Soccer, and ISS before it, epitomises that attitude towards football. It believes in moments; in memories etched in time. Where FIFA – now a great game in its own right and a package of immeasurable value – plays a match of numbers, stats and positions, PES can be that moving work of art. It is no exaggeration that I can remember goals I scored in the original ISS Pro on PSOne. That game came out in 1997. I have a list of wonderful strikes stored in my mind from a decade and a half of this bizarre yet wonderful simulation. They call it 'PES Magic'. It’s hard to argue.
In recent years, though, FIFA has been the better game. PES lost its way in spectacular style, coupling an engine that fundamentally forgot what made its predecessors great with an ugly, misguided laddishness. This was a series that once included a Kaiser Chiefs song without irony. It became ITV Football.
In that time, FIFA obviously took control – reworking its engine at vast cost to Electronic Arts, and that investment has paid dividends. FIFA is now a genuinely excellent game – one stuck in the mud in the wait for next gen, perhaps – but also one that has showed what football could look like on modern technology. The thing is, though, no matter how good FIFA is and has been, it’s still never as scintillating, as heartbreaking and as exhilarating as Pro Evolution Soccer in its PS2 pomp. It could just never elicit that genuine, air-punching, chair-leaping passion. Not for me, anyway.
As this generation continued, PES became a joke – a series looking backwards, looking at FIFA. It felt like it was probably time to retire. The legs had gone, the legend fading. Thankfully, however, someone at Konami – be it an ageing Seabass or (more likely) the fiery young blood of new PES top dog Kei Masuda – still believed in that magic, and in 2012 took serious steps to restoring pride to a team once treasured by millions.
With PES 2013, momentum shifted. FIFA had stalled, making incremental changes, yet PES had finally, mystifyingly, managed to capture the brilliance of old while feeling completely current. It looked great, moved wonderfully, and yet still conjured up those moments. Those moments you prayed you had space to save on your PS2 memory card. Those moments you called housemates into the room for.
With PES 2014, Konami has its broadest canvas to date. I have yet to come up with an idea on the pitch that the game was incapable of executing. Audacious reverse through-passes; first time volleys from impossible angles. There’s an animation for everything. And it’s not just the pretty stuff: sludgy, turgid 0-0s feel like they do in real life too – devoid of creativity and drive, lacking in technical ability. Most of the time they’re your fault. It makes the beautiful stuff all the more emphatic.
Teams play with their own personalities and style. Real Madrid and Barcelona do not act in the same way, and nor do Arsenal (sorry, North London) or Manchester United. The game understands this; it reflects this. In truth, it always has, but here the effect is more profound, more tangible, almost.
In some ways, the moments Pro Evolution Soccer 2014 creates feel, well, magical. It sounds stupid to say it, but they’re almost transcendent of the form, like they can’t possibly happen in a video game. They’re too varied, seem too unique. But when you actually break it down, you can see how these things happen. It’s all about layers.
Look at Halo’s combat. It conjures the illusion of infinite possibility through a masterfully layered set of systems. Weapons, recharge, physics, individual AI, group AI. Every one crucial, every one invisible when you’re in the moment. PES does this. They’re so similar, and it's strange to even compare them.
Take this as an example. I scored a beautiful goal with Van Persie during my time reviewing PES 2014. Valencia stole the ball down the right-hand channel. He then powered past a defender, swung in a cross, and RVP leapt into the ball’s path before backheel-volleying the ball into the far corner. Glorious.
Why was this goal so amazing, though? The obvious answer is the finish – but to use a footballing cliché, that backheel was merely the icing on the cake. It actually started at the beginning. Valencia’s leg bends as he shrugs past the first defender, his weight shifting between his feet. His burst of power – seen so many times at Old Trafford - is lent drama and ferocity by the gleaming floodlights and the roar of an expectant crowd. He looks up just at the right time, before staring back at the ball and turning on the jets.
The cross, hooked in as he falls over, just evades the outstretched leg of an exasperated defender, effort etched on both players’ faces. And RVP, who switches his momentum as he notices the trajectory of the ball, reacts with grace. He scores. His face elates. He sprints to the corner, fist clenched. His teammates burst towards him. Some defenders berate one another. Others just hang their heads. Every angle is another picture. It’s more than just the backheel.
If that all sounds like nonsense, then you might be the kind of person who sees that BBC advert and scoffs at it, like ITV themselves, who saw fit to parody the vignette in a sketch less funny than Joe Pasquale’s bonus DVD extras. You might be happy with the FIFA formula – the functional, playable and reliable game. If you’re anything like me, though, you’re already at the checkout, PES 2014 in the cart.
The beautiful game indeed.
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