How Konami is learning from last year’s mistakes to win over the fans.
Last year, Konami tried something very different with its celebrated football series, and the change didn't go down too well with everyone. A move to the Fox engine brought about a slower, more measured pace and some irritatingly lengthy animations meant PES lost that all-important responsiveness. The fanbase reacted strongly. Konami's attempts to make a beautiful game meant that it had lost sight of the reasons why the sport is referred to as the beautiful game.
"We forgot why people played PES in many ways." Konami's European brand manager Adam Bhatti is refreshingly frank about the failings of last year's game, and is keen to put things right this year. "In PES ‘14 you have to think two seconds before you're going to do something, because you're waiting for the animation to play out. And that's not PES. So we're going back to basics, to why you played PES in the first place. PES 5 and 6 have been earmarked by us —the era where the fans say to us 'that's when you guys were the best'. But of course, you can't hi-res PES 5 and 6 and ship it for £50."
The result is something that feels much closer to the PES of two years ago. PES 2013 is almost certainly the best of the last-generation games, and there’s a similar pace and flow to the action here. The main difference is that Konami has not only had an extra year with the Fox engine, but is now working on new generation hardware. We only get to play the PS4 version, but the signs are very promising: already it’s running in 1080p at 60 frames per second, and that change is particularly evident in the replays, which no longer resemble a flipbook animation. The presentation is slightly slicker, though celebrations need more variety. Players frequently made a beeline for the camera to plant a smacker on the lens after scoring: a particularly unnerving prospect when Rooney’s just smashed one in.
“The Pitch is Ours” is the marketing line, with the publisher bullish about its performance on the field compared to its moneyed rival. “We all know who has more licences, we all know who has more [marketing] money,” says Bhatti. “But something that they can't compete on - if we get things right - is the gameplay. That’s something we can truly own. So when we say we've got the best gameplay, you truly believe that.”
Having spent several hours with the most recent build of the game, I can happily report that Konami’s confidence doesn’t seem misplaced. Passing is crisp and responsive, players control smoothly, and shooting is even better: I scored a wide range of goals, and no two were quite the same. It’s too early to judge whether there are any sweet spots, but if any were present, they certainly weren’t immediately apparent. There’s also a new ‘jinking run’ feature, which sees your player slow down with the ball as you squeeze the right trigger, allowing you to make sudden changes of pace or direction to beat your marker.
While it’s a pity that only Juventus and Manchester United are available in the current build, it serves to highlight one of the areas where PES has historically held an advantage over FIFA. The differences between the two teams’ playstyles are immediately tangible, with the fallen former Premier League champions’ offensive play nullified by the Italian side, which, despite so many deep-lying players, is capable of breaking at pace. Alternatively, you can rely on Andrea Pirlo to plant the perfect lofted pass onto the head of lanky forward Fernando Llorente, or to drill through-balls to the terrier-like Carlos Tevez, who I had great fun teasing the lumbering Phil Jones with.
In truth, the lofted through-ball does feel slightly overpowered at present. Some of that may be down to Pirlo’s natural ability, but I also managed to pull off the same trick with Arturo Vidal and even Darren Fletcher when playing as United. Goalkeepers seem to have taken a leaf out of Manuel Neuer’s book, acting as ‘sweeper keepers’ and rushing out to punt loose balls upfield, theoretically preventing players from relying on long chipped passes between the centre backs. But it still became an all-too-useful fallback in the later games when I wasn’t getting any joy elsewhere.
And while the goalies are generally decent shot-stoppers, they’re not without their weaknesses. Both David De Gea and Gianlugi Buffon are international-class custodians, but their tendency towards feeble punches from set-pieces was slightly worrying, as was their propensity to concede at their near post. Indeed, all but two of the goals I conceded over more than a dozen matches looked eminently saveable, and several hit a curiously limp glove before nestling in the corner.
Outfield players also make the odd mistake. More than once I winced as a seemingly perfect pass smacked against my striker’s heels, and you’ll still get those frustrating moments where an AI controlled team-mate races towards a ball as it’s about to go out of play, and letting it cannon off them to gift your opponents a throw-in. Animations aren’t always as smooth as you’d like, either, though I’d be prepared to accept the occasional jarring transition as a trade-off for more responsive controls. Besides, these issues are relatively few and far between for such an early build of the game, and the progress made elsewhere suggest that Konami is on the right track.
Off the pitch, the publisher is making the right kind of noises, too. Konami has recruited local football experts from the global PES community to crowdsource content in the game, leading to live weekly updates. Player behaviour will apparently reflect real-life form, though as James Cox, studio head of PES’s new UK division admits, “there’s no biting!”
The key focus for Konami now, says Bhatti, is that first playable demo. “Whether it’s around Gamescom or after Gamescom, we don’t want any excuses this year. When you guys see it, you’ll feel like it’s a finished game. It will have that polish.” It’s clear that Konami is determined to re-establish PES as the connoisseur’s choice of football game, and while it’s early days yet, the pre-season signs are very promising indeed.
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