With the FIFA vs PES battle now largely a critical rather than commercial one (that war has been long-won), PES 2014 finds itself in the position of competing with itself to satisfy a loyal and not-so loyal fan base. To its credit, it does so with gusto.
A new engine underpins proceedings, and this Fox-powered PES is initially both dazzling and daunting. The physics-driven animation system is superb – there are countless ways in which players bounce off one another or shift their weight between their feet that look almost real. At first, though, this feels like it has caused the series’ famous responsiveness to suffer, making dribbling tough and passing moves laborious.
In fact, it’s just a learning curve rather than something rotten within PES' core. Studious use of the run button makes dribbling different, but now even more effective. It’s all about judging and reacting to sways in momentum, rather than belligerent sprinting. Players being hassled by tenacious opponents will struggle to act with the same speed as those in open play, too, so it pays to know when and where to attack.
That’s the thing with PES. It’s never been a game where you’re immediately excellent. Have you previously conquered online, or strolled through PES 2013 on Superstar difficulty? It’ll still take weeks to adjust to every nuance and alteration. And with this being the most dramatic update the series has had in years, it’s no surprise the first few matches feel off.
Crucially, though, that intangible PES magic remains and expands with the potential of the new engine; matches take on their own personalities (helped by new player emotions – perform well and your play will visibly improve during the game) and you’ll discuss great goals for years, especially now that shooting and heading are weightier, more natural feeling. Even Master League is better. Streamlined and slicker than last year’s bizarre cut-scene driven noise.
The best football title this year? We’ll have to wait until FIFA appears. Until then, Konami’s back on top of the heap.
Version Tested: Xbox 360. Played for 12 hours.