Pro Evolution Soccer 2013 Review (Xbox 360)
PES 2013 is the game that PES 2012 wanted to be, but for various reasons couldn’t.
So it comes as no surprise that when you fire up the game for the first time, not much looks different on the surface. Visually, the game is similar to PES 2012 (and 2011, and 2010), and the gameplay also feels very much the same. But, as all PES aficionados can attest to, first impressions are deceiving with the franchise, and its depth, as is the case again this year, never truly surfaces until you’re ten or twenty games in.
And yes, the gameplay, as it turns out, is different from PES 2012, and for the most part it's better. However, the laser-like focus on gameplay means that other aspects of the game are starting to show its age. The result? A lot of fun on the pitch, but just a tad less impressive off of it.
While some kinks have been smoothed out and a few new animations have been added, by and large this is the PES game that you’ve seen and known since the beginning of this generation's consoles, which was itself a modified version of last generation's PES engine.
The animations, for the most part, are fine-- nothing impressive, but nothing horrible, either-- but at times it can look a little too herky-jerky. And even though the goalkeepers’ abilities have been improved, their movement still seems off occasionally, as they seem to hover through the air as they dive. Make no mistake, visually PES 2013 is still quite decent, but compare to other sports games (and not just FIFA), the graphics is starting to shows its age.
The Champions League and Copa Libertadores licenses make a return, giving the game a touch of authenticity. However (regular PES players know what’s coming) licenses for a few leagues, namely the Premier League, German Bundesliga, and the Portuguese Primera Liga, are missing. This means that only a handful of teams in those leagues come with their authentic kits and name. There’s been plenty of debate here at OS as to whether how much of a negative this truly is, especially with the abundance of option files available to add the kits and names back in. To me it's a negative (mainly because it removes the commentators’ ability to refer to those teams by name, lessening the game's realism), though nowhere as big a deal as some make it out to be. Besides the fact that it’s OS policy to review the game the way it came out of the box, there are also a lot of people out there who play in La Liga, Serie A, or Ligue 1, and in those leagues all teams and kits are available. But for those who may not yet be aware that PES don’t have all the teams licensed in England, Portugal and Germany, well, now you know.
In the commentary booth, it’s again the duo of Jon Champion and Jim Beglin. They’re capable commentators in real life, but in the game they’re seriously hindered by the lack of available lines, and just the general feeling of abruptness. There seems to be no flow in their call of the game, as one second Champion can remain calm with the ball is right outside of the box, and the next he screams “possibility!” with the last syllable dragging on for what seems like an eternity.
Overall, none of these things really hinder the matches much in a practical sense, but all these little flaws in the presentation package add up, and means that you’ll have to suspend your disbelief by quite a bit to keep yourself immersed.
At first sight, the game plays very much like PES 2012—until you get to the tutorials, and learn just how many “combos” exist in the game. The thing with PES is that it’s very much a case of you getting as much as you put into it. Play on the easy levels, and it can feel like just another ho-hum soccer game. But take the time to learn the nuances of the engine while getting your backsides handed to you by the harder difficulty CPU opponents, and the work that the PES team put into the engine becomes clear.
Most of this year’s improvements center around the trigger buttons. Combine the trigger buttons with a flick or two of the left and right analog sticks—not unlike combo moves for fighter games—and you can do things ranging from activating off the ball runs, to nutmegging defenders, to flicking the ball over your marker’s head with your first touch. While plenty of these are hard to learn and perfect (the lack of feedback in the tutorial doesn’t do you any favors, either), let alone remember, once you get the hang of it and use it often, you’ll find that it can replicate many of the technique players use on the pitch to get past opponents.
And learn them you’ll need to, as CPU defenders, especially in higher difficulties, are quite competent and organized. It’s harder than ever to beat an opponent just by holding down turbo, but rather you’ll have to be smart when you’re taking on a defender by using various feints and change of speeds to get him out of position. The more defensive teams are incredibly well structured and a pain to break down—as they should be—and you’ll need a full bag of tricks, not to mention a tweak to your tactics, to try to score against a squad that has ten men behind the ball.
Human defending, too, has changed quite a bit. There is a greater emphasis this year on containing your opponent, as it takes a split second longer (and an extra button press) to lunge into a standing tackle. It might not sound like a lot, but that split second is an eternity in the game, and you’ll need to be much more judicious before committing yourself. In the bigger picture, it means that, just like on the offensive end, you’ll need to put a little more thought into how you want to take the ball off your opponent. Sure, you can take the easy way out and just rush in for a tackle, but that’s probably a gamble you won’t win; or you can steer the ball carrier towards a teammate and double up. Your AI teammates are quite competent, so generally they stay in shape and, if you send them to pressure the ball carrier, they will make reasonable challenges. If you make a mistake on higher levels, the CPU will indeed punish you. The good news though, if you’re not in denial anyway, is that very few of the CPU scored goals feels cheap.
And then we get to the full manual controls. While manual passing isn’t anything new to the series (just turn the pass support bar down to zero), manual shooting is. And by and large, it’s fun when you get it right and place the ball right in the corner of the net. Also, in a why-didn’t-anybody-think-of-this-earlier moment, PES 2013 has included the option to let you use manual passing on a whim, even if you have pass assist turned on, by holding down L2. Essentially it gives you the best of both worlds, as you can pass around in your own half with pass assist on and without the risk of misplacing it, but if you want to play that perfect through ball yourself, you can just hold down L2 and make a manual pass. The result is that the player has a lot more control at his fingertips, which, for a series that has long been criticized as one that’s too restrictive, is saying a lot.
There is, however, one noticeable flaw in the gameplay: the wingers. Unless you’re playing with some of the more extreme tactical settings, your wide men can be too conservative in their movements. It’s interesting, because AI teammates in other positions are quite intelligent in deciding when to run into space and when to drop back. This issue can be mitigated to a certain extent by triggering those runs manually—another one of PES’ new right stick/triggered feature. Whether you can do that as you try keep the ball in heavy traffic, though, is debatable. It’s not a bad idea to make the user do the work sometimes—especially for lower rated players who, with their stats, won’t see that run himself—but the balance isn’t there yet. Right now the wingers are just a little on the timid side.
As well, the ball physics can feel a little loopy at times. This is especially evident with the goalkeeper throws. Even the best keepers are unable to launch missiles downfield with their arms, but rather a long, high, lofted ball that takes way too long to hit the target. However, this problem with ball physics doesn't pop up much elsewhere, as passes generally feel weighted and realistic, and scoring a thirty yard screamer is still as fun as ever.
If there’s a short way to sum up the game’s improvement this year, it’s that it forces you to put more time into learning the nuances of soccer. While the CPU defending has been beefed up, so have the weapons at your disposal. The vast array of on-the-ball options and manual control give you every chance to create some sublime combinations and neat goals. Add that to the series long running strengths of player individuality and game by game unpredictability—it’s hard to pinpoint how or why, but the clichéd “every game feels different” truly applies, as grinding out 1-1 draws have never been more fun—and you’ll find PES 2013’s gameplay to be mighty impressive.
Game Modes / Long Term Appeal
I’ll admit, I’m predominantly an offline player, but this might just be the year where I spend more time with PES’ Master League Online than I do with its offline bigger brother, or Become a Legend.
It’s not that Master League itself has gotten worse (well, maybe, but we’ll get to that in a second), it’s just that the mode has felt the same for quite a while now, and there is a sense of staleness is setting in. Perhaps to combat this, the PES team added an RPG-like element to the mode, where you can earn points and equip your player with things like boots and personal trainers to give their attributes a boost. It’s a mighty silly decision, as it adds nothing significant to the game, and instead kills a lot of the realism.
Hey, I like my fancy cleats too, but there’s no way in hell a good pair can make a player run five points faster.
Obviously, you don’t have to use them the equipment if you don’t want to (it doesn’t look like the CPU teams do, either), and in that case, the rest of the Master League, looks, feels, and plays the same as they did as Master Leagues from years before. In fact, Master League is almost like a microcosm of the game as a whole. Plenty of fun—mostly due to the gameplay—but hindered by the rest of the mode’s somewhat outdated elements.
The good news is that the every-game-is-different feeling of the gameplay, plus the variety in AI tactics, even if their team selection can be a bit dodgy, help lessen the grind of playing through several seasons, and can keep games fresh for a long time. The bad news is that, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, everything else remained more of less the same. Again, the mode is perfectly serviceable for players wanting to play offline for the bulk of the year, but simply put, the drama of being a manager—whether during a transfer window or the do-or-die time of a season—is too often absent.
On the other hand, Master League Online, PES' (relatively) new kid on the block, is a blast to play. Maybe it’s because it’s still quite new to the game (and no, not much has changed in this mode, either), but I feel like I can't get enough of the series’ answer to FIFA’s Ultimate Team, albeit with a more fantasy-GM slant. You start off with a team of awkwardly named scrubs (another one of PES’ trademarks), earn money by winning exhibition matches and competitions, and in turn use those funds to acquire better players. It’s a simple premise that makes for a lot of fun.
You need to make smart choices with your team building—you’ll be in trouble if your on pitch performances don’t earn enough money to pay your player’s wages. The transfer embargoes (where the game suspends activity for certain players when too many people are buying him for, presumably, a lower price than similarly rated players) though can be a little over the top at times, so there may be a few occasions when you can't get the player you want. Ultimately, the mode is addictive. The challenge of taking a bunch of scrubs and turning them into a team of stars is too alluring to refuse.
Fox Engine, you can’t come soon enough.
The word is that PES 2014 will use the highly touted new graphics engine developed by Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima (no word though on how cardboard boxes will transfer over to a soccer game). If the engine lives up to its expectations, it could go a long way to curing one of the bigger ills that has been holding back the PES franchise for the past years – its presentation elements.
Basically, PES 2013 stayed the course, and improved at the rate that we expected it to. Except for its occasionally timid wingers, it's hard to find any glaring flaws in the game's gameplay. The deeper controls, once you’ve taken the time to learn them, make matches flow more realistically and allow the CPU defending to be solid without being too punishing. On the other hand, the rest of the game remained more or less the same as we found it a year ago.
At the end of the day, PES 2013 is still immensely enjoyable in the area where it matters most—on the pitch—as its gameplay provides you with a sense of excitement that don’t come nearly enough in other sports games. But the rest of the elements are showing their age.
Over to you, Fox Engine.
Learning Curve: Medium. The AI is quite forgiving on lower levels, but be prepared to take your lumps in the higher difficulties.
Control Scheme: It's entirely up to you, but if you want to get the most out of the game, you better start memorizing the combos.
Visuals: Average. While the game doesn't look bad by any means, a dramatic facelift would be very welcome as the game is definitely behind it's peers.
Audio: The less said, the better. That's an advice to the commentators, actually.
Value: Matches stay fresh even after a long marathon session, and Master League. Be A Legend, and Master League Online-- as unchanged as they are-- should still last you a long long while.