Playing this year’s Pro Evo has given me a huge question to ask myself, and one which I still haven’t entirely settled on an answer for: if gameplay should be the crucial factor in a game, how far can it carry a title whose presentation is a long way behind the competition? Pro Evo is the very definition of that puzzle. It’s a game which, in my opinion, has started to once again out-play FIFA on the pitch, but then comes off at half time and falls over its own feet. A game which is dented by EA’s retention of most of the world’s football licensing, and is in desperate need of a user interface specialist despite playing like a dream in the matches themselves. FIFA has the glamour, the polish, the real names and the incredible up-close player likenesses, but Pro Evo now has the gameplay advantage.
Welcome back to 1998.
Let’s face facts – as I alluded to in that introduction, Pro Evo isn’t the most beautiful beast you’ll ever lay your eyes on. Menus are clunky and awkward, several player likenesses are edging towards frightening, and the lack of licensing still grates a bit, but the beauty of this year’s PES title lies beneath the ropey front end, and reveals itself in considerable glory once you take to the pitch. Whether you’re pushing on for a last-gasp winner or desperately defending for the last 10 minutes with your star defender already sent off, Pro Evo feels like football, unspoilt by an obsession for graphical fidelity or money-grabbing game modes.
There are no easy wins in Pro Evo. While some complain that the through ball option is an easy key to easy goals on FIFA, using the same tactic here will just end up with the intelligent defenders moving to cut out those long, hopeful passes. They will still work when used in the right way, but hoofing a hopefully pass from half way isn’t going to get you very far. Similarly you’ll get mixed joy from crosses into the box, and while you can now fire them in from pretty much anywhere on the pitch it takes a quality run from the attacker or an inch-perfect cross to reap a reward. There’s no real showboating to be had, no massive final minute 40-yard screamer from a third-tier midfielder called Clive, it’s just realistic football. Player respond to a home crowd encouragement, they’ll make clever runs and flicks if they’re positioned in the right place on the pitch, and constantly look for space and move to useful positions away from defenders. Players like Messi and Ronaldo will run with the ball glued to their feet and slam 30-year shots into the top corners, while lower league players will be slower to turn, less skilled to control and less accurate with their passing and shooting. The individual components don’t sound like much, but put them together and the effect is most impressive.
Game modes are well catered for too, with the myClub option taking on The Ultimate Team in a much less flamboyant way, giving functional control without the inane YouTube videos of an annoying 12 year old opening a pack of player cards and finding he’s won Wayne Rooney. Acquiring players is still a fairly random event, with you choosing from a range of contract types (each with various costs) and receiving a player in a suitable position and skill range. There’s not much flexibility once you pick a manager – his tactics are pretty much gospel – but changing managers can help when you want to mix things up a bit. Online play works well here too, letting you match yourself with similar quality squads, instead of the usual issue of always ending up playing against Barcelona and Real Madrid in the game’s other online modes. Compared to FIFA, most of the matchmaking in Pro Evo isn’t all that great it has to be said. Elsewhere you can enjoy the limited licensed content by playing through the Champions League or Europa League, and while it’s nice to have some of this official stuff in the game, it does emphasise the lack of other licensing. Still, something is better than nothing.
Or at least, it is until you hear the commentary. One thing that PES has always struggled on is providing interesting and exciting voice work, and this year is no exception. Phrases repeat themselves, even within a few seconds of each other, and there are frequent gaps when you won’t hear anything for a while. I tend to turn the commentary off whichever football game I’m playing so it didn’t phase me too much, but I can imagine those making the move across to PES would find it disappointing.
And yet for all of the things around the actual football which always seem to let Pro Evo down, I still feel like I’d find it hard to go back to FIFA having spent a good chunk of time with it. Sure I might miss the pretty menus, the proper kits and the replays from 71 different camera angles, but I don’t think I really care too much. I haven’t enjoyed a football game as much as I’ve enjoyed PES 2015 for quite a long time – ignore those who claim it’s more arcadey, ignore those who say it’s worthless because of the unofficial nature of most of it, and actually listen to those who have played it, figured out the fine intricacies of how players react to various situations and found they’ve totally loved it.
Essentially, there’s one easy way to decide which path to go down this year. Want champaign swilling glitz and glamour? Get FIFA. Want integrity, realism and water-tight gameplay and a more accurate representation of the beautiful game? Well dear reader, you need to be looking at Pro Evolution Soccer 2015.
Reviewed on PS4