Platforms: PC | PS3 | Xbox 360 | Wii | PSP | PS2
For those who remember the heyday of PES 3-5, these past few years have been tortuous. Not because, in that time, FIFA's star has risen and shone brighter than ever before, but rather because PES fell on seriously hard times, trying to find an identity on next gen consoles, and failing to make the most of the advances in technology. Whist improvements have certainly been made over the last couple of years (although too often patched into insignificance once again over the yearly lifespan), it's always been a case of almost...but when it came to delivering the verdict. This year, perhaps more than any before it, has seen those frustrations spill out, with very public statements from the PES Team, apologies for he lack of licensing, casting aspersions on the narrow-mindedness of gamers, and accusing EA Canada of theft - none of which was particularly helpful. We wondered if PES would ever get back on level terms.
Well, we can stop wondering now.
The worst thing about the last few years has been the way it affects our memories, making us question PES' ascendancy in the first place. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about PES 2013 is that it finally silences those voices looking to assail our nostalgia. PES 2013 is fiddly, unforgiving at times, often seemingly opaque and inaccessible, and its front end could really use a modern makeover. It's as quirky a game as you'd expect from the series, but with one key difference from the last handful of games: it is utterly sublime on the pitch.
You can play PES 2013 with all of the assists on and fire it up as a throwback to the simpler times of ISS, but even on the middling difficulty levels you'll get found out by an AI that has really been given a thorough sorting out, particularly in defence. Although goalkeepers are perhaps still a little more Heurelho Gomes rather than Gianluigi Buffon, everything else has been tightened up to ensure that every time you step onto the field, you face a different challenge.
Player ID has received an enormous upgrade this time around, whether you're gliding through defences like butter with Messi or Ronaldo, or squaring up fairly and firmly with Kompany and Vidic, there's a sense of identity that permeates every facet of the on-pitch game. Though there's still work to be done in getting the player physics up to scratch, defenders and attackers will jostle, balance counts for everything, and the ball itself now behaves like a real-world object, rather than an inflatable on the moon.
But with players acting more like their real-life counterparts, every match is different. When you step into the tactical chamber of war before a match, and run over the strategies favoured by the opposition, you'll those played out on the field. It's a feature that been improving progressively over the last couple of years, and it shines in PES 2013. Lower-level teams will play simpler games, favouring the long ball, whereas squads that feature stars will make use of them. You'll see Barcelona play tiki-taka passing football and attempt nearly every time to play through you as teams with a large and powerful front man like Miroslav Klose or Andy Carroll will look to the long ball and hold-up play much of the time. Finally, without any caveats, ifs, or buts, PES actually allows you to play any way you like, in a manner that FIFA, for all of its impressive advances, still cannot offer.
Of course, in order to do that, you'll have to at least become comfortable with, if not master, a control system that at first seems a little overwhelming, until you realise that R2/RT is your best friend. It's well worth dialling back the difficulty to become accustomed to PES' laws of gameplay, simply because the freedom is greater than any football game we've seen before. The training mode is useful only in part, unfortunately, and feels like a wasted opportunity. Being able to trap the ball and flick it on is an essential skill, and having the tutorial tell us we were doing it wrong with no indication of why or how much didn't help at all. There were issues too with the new flat, hard Knuckle Shot, which needs a second tap of X/Square just before the player connects with the ball. After scrutinising the animation and trying for 15 minutes (scoring numerous times with a hard, flat shot), we finally got irritated with the game's constant declarations of failure without explanation, and toddled off to play a match. A timing bar would have solved everything, and it's a simple omission that won't affect hardcore fans, but may put off interested parties.
Come match day, however, everything clicks into place. The pace has been dialled back to a more realistic speed to give you tie on the ball, and you'll need it. Timing is everything, whether you're simply controlling the ball after a long pass, or guiding a player's run with the manual controls introduced last year, or making a storming run into the box at a corner, releasing a chipped through ball, or attempting to nutmeg a centre back. That right trigger allows you to slow the pace down even more, offering front-facing close control to lure in a defender before releasing a killer pass, or quickly exploding out of the blocks to shape to shoot. In the hands (or should that be feet) of someone like Arjen Robben, or indeed the cover-boy Ronaldo himself, it means you can slowly torment a full back before scything into the box with a swift change of pace, and lash a curling ball into the net on your instep.
But there are some jarring contradictions to the gameplay that men the PES Team still has work to do in striving for footballing perfection. The delicate passes you can distribute in the final third, especially with the manual controls all turned on (the left trigger offers up a directional arrow to help when it comes to manual passes/shots/headers), can be utterly exquisite. On the floor, there is nothing you cannot achieve, and moments of real beauty that deliver 100% satisfaction because you have to learn the systems that underpin the game in order to succeed. But the same can't be said of aerial play. Though the off the ball setpiece play is still vastly better than EA Canada's efforts, thing come unstuck when the ball is actually delivered. Headers are a mixed bag of variable luck, and occasionally you'll find players stubbornly rooted to the spot under a high ball, or chasing a lofted pass on a set course from which they'll refuse to deviate.
By and large, however, PES 2013 delivers a pretty pure representation of the beautiful game that will utterly delight football fans. Off the pitch, for better or worse, not much has changed. Master League returns once again, and still provides the best career mode to most sports games, alongside the online counterpart that made its debut last year, and Become A Legend lets you once again chart the path of a single player from budding youth talent to international success. Better yet, playing online now unlocks items and upgrades that can be incorporated into those career modes to modify player stats. We played a few online matches, and found the games to be pleasantly lag-free. If there is a quibble to be made, though, it's that the front-end is extraordinarily dull and clunky and has been for some years now. Moreover, you'll spend too much time in Master League staring at a calendar, waiting for things to happen, which isn't ideal.
The drag-and-drop teamsheets are still fantastic, and the pomp and circumstance of the Champions League is recreated to stunning effect. The inclusion of the Copa Santander Libertadores is a nice touch, and it makes you wish for just one year Konami could have the Premier League rights too, just to see what they'd do with them. But the smaller budget does lead to some immersion-breaking through a lack of real-world authenticity. It's sad to say, but these things do matter. It's a real shame that Team PES can't throw money at it, because Old Trafford is thunderously distinct, the opening chorus to a Champions League game sends chills down your spine and you get the impression that were this team of developers to be allowed to recreate the most popular football league in the world, they'd do so with a sense of style and character that would take some beating.
The lack of funds extends to the aesthetics, which look grainy and indistinct at times. The replays with their soft focus look lovely,but aside from the top players, PES 2013's roster can all too often look a little zombified. The soundtrack gets repetitive incredibly quickly, although Rednek has been stuck in my head for the past week, and the less said about the Champion/Beglin commentary, the better. In short, it's mind-numblingly banal.
But PES 2013 has quality where it matters: on the pitch. That will delight PES fans, who can buy safe in the knowledge that this is the best PES title in years, and offers a level of control, freedom, and execution that's previously only been hinted at in the footballing genre. It builds on the level of satisfaction that last year's offering gave us in patches to deliver a far more consistent game, comfortable in attack and defence, and one that turns every single game into a subtly different drama from the last. Konami could perhaps use a content update next year to match their ambitions on the pitch, but make no mistake...PES is back. And it's about damn time!
- Phenomenal gameplay depth that's incredibly rewarding
- Huge content offering
- Full manual controls are terrifically empowering
- Steep learning curve
- Mediocre commentary
- Difficulties with the aerial ball
The Short Version: Slick menus, effortless matchmaking, and all of the official licenses in the world don't make a difference without exceptional gameplay, thankfully PES 2013 has the last feature in spades. Even if it's not quite the full package yet, and there are a number of quirks still to iron out, this is the finest PES game Konami have produced in years, with arguably the most satisfying footballing mechanics in terms of player control and unparalleled freedom that this generation has to offer.