The days in which any self-respecting fan of the beautiful game would swear under oath that Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer was the only football game worth its salt seem a long, long time ago…..that’s because they are. This generation has seen the downward trajectory of the once mighty Pro Evo coincide with the great rise of EA’s footballing behemoth, FIFA. I have watched on helplessly as my once loyal compatriots switched allegiance; first one or two, then more, and then, well, with the exception of myself and a small number of the most loyal troops, all had, arguably wisely, jumped ship to the good ship EA.
Now, let’s be clear – I’m not blaming them. EA got their shit together at the exact same time as Konami let their shit slide……so to speak. Pro Evo, for most of the last generation felt old, rusty, and worst of all, a bit lazy. Despite all this though, I stayed loyal. Not out of some bling love for the brand or ill advised hatred for EA. Quite the contrary – I have played and largely enjoyed each FIFA title since 2010, but the thing is, I keep coming back to Pro Evo. Why? Well, it’s just got that something special hasn’t it. That almost unquantifiable something that makes each game feel unique, each goal something to be savoured, a game in which a 0-0 can be as exciting and tense as a 4-3. For all its slick gameplay, licenses and money, it’s something that FIFA, despite its dramatic upturn in quality, has never quite managed to capture.
And anyway, as any dyed-in-the-wool Pro Evo fan will tell you – things are looking up. Pro Evo 2013 was the best game in the series since the PS2 heyday, and while Pro Evo 2014 doesn’t feel like as complete a package as that game did, there is a heck of a lot here to get excited about and plenty of reasons to believe that Pro Evo will go into the next-gen on a much stronger footing this time around.
The primary reason for that – The Fox Engine. Used here and to largely impressive effect, it gives you a glimpse of what can be achieved down the line while delivering on enough of that promise in the present for Pro Evo 2014 to be a very exciting football simulation in its own right. And make no mistake, this really is a simulation in a way that perhaps Pro Evo hasn’t been for the last few years. While historically seen as the more realistic take on the sport, the past few years have seen Seabass and co. seemingly struggle with the game’s identity, often moving closer to arcade thrills than more refined simulation.
While the moments of magic are still there, this is definitely a return to the more reserved pace of previous titles with speed less important than tactical nous and solid build up play. Again, this is something when, at its best, EA can’t quite match. At first, the game feels slow, even a tad clunky, but soon you realise the emphasis on making space, on body position and weight, and all of a sudden, like magic, it clicks. The ball starts finding feet, you start to build up play in a measured way, not only looking for the next players run, but also looking to find that little bit of space for the man on the ball.
It’s more physical too. Getting yourself between the defender and the ball has never felt so important to Pro Evo, and has arguably never been realised with the level of success that is achieved here. This is where you see the new Fox Engine at work most clearly. Be it a high speed jostle down the wings or a largely static battle over possession in the middle of the park, with the exception of a few odd animations, most of what you see feels relatively true to life.
As odd as these changes may feel though, none of it detracts from this clearly being Pro Evo at its core. Yes, it is something of an overhaul, but for fans of the series, that familiar feeling of crisp passing and weighty shooting is still there with all the unpredictability you would hope for still a major part of the core experience. It’s not all perfect of course – the keepers are still prone to bizarre clangers (although nothing more than what you might see Joe Hart up to any given Saturday), the AI occasionally takes a wander and heading at goal feels oddly unresponsive. Despite these problems though, this is arguably the best Pro Evo of the generation……on the pitch at least.
Off it, well, there are some things missing. While the usual competitions are all present and accounted for with the Champions League, Uefa Cup and Copa Libatadores joined by the all new AFC Champions League, gone are the much loved stadium creator, along with rain weather effects (a victim of developing using a new engine) and some of the admittedly few stadiums that Pro Evo fans have become accustomed to. Due to more lost licensing going to moneybags, EA, Spanish stadiums have sadly gone the way of Premier League kits and authentic starting line-ups for the Welsh national team (some of us do care).
And that’s the big issue isn’t it – it’s looking better on the pitch (all be it with room for improvement), but for many, the lack of licensed team names and kits for the Premier League etc will remain a major bone of contention. It’s totally understandable too; sure, I can change Merseyside Red to Liverpool with relative ease, but playing in those crappy kits does steal the game of its authenticity, and with EA offering all the gloss of a Sky Sports production, you can see why many will continue to stick with EA’s offering regardless of what Pro Evo does out on the pitch.
It’s a real shame too, as when you get two of the big fully licensed teams on the pitch together, Pro Evo 2014 looks stunning, and in my opinion, far superior to FIFA 14’s somewhat aged looking engine. The players look great and the stadiums, in particular the lighting, look nothing short of next-gen. It’s almost a shame that there isn’t a next-gen offering this year, but hey, I can wait if it means a solid start for Pro Evo on Xbox One and PS4 – something the series direly needs after this gen’s foul up. When playing at the Allianz Arena as Bayern against Real Madrid, Pro Evo 2014 could arguably go down as the finest looking sports game of all time, with amazing likenesses and a real sense of occasion captured at the lovingly created stadium. That level of quality obviously doesn’t run through the whole game, but at its best, Pro Evo 2014 is arguably the market leader.
While the Master League continues to offer the finest slice of single player football gaming around (now with the additional ability to change teams and manage national sides), it is once again online where the game suffers greatly in comparison to it great rival. While 11 vs 11 matches are due to be patched in relatively soon and Master League online continues to show promise, there is nothing here to match the infrastructure that helps FIFA to run quite so smoothly and prove quite so addictive. This issue has of course has been brought to the fore for many 360 owners who, due to a technical problem with the first patch, have been completely unable to play the game online – an almost unforgiveable transgression for a series attempting to win back some of its old fan base. While it is up and running now, it’s the kind of technical problem the series can ill afford.
So, still plenty of work to do then? Well, yes there is, but make no mistake, Pro Evo is heading in the right direction, and with the Fox Engine making an impressive debut, all signs point towards the battle for virtual football supremacy being much more evenly matched going into the next-gen. FIFA will invariably prove the much more popular title this year, but I expect that these latest developments will have piqued the interest of many a football fan. Put it this way, Pro Evo 2014 was the first year of the generation that traffic amongst my friends has gone the other way. It’s just one friend joining us on the Pro Evo side of the fence for now, but heck, you’ve gotta start somewhere.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 3 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.