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Pro Evolution Soccer 2015 / 20th of November 2014

Once upon a time in the long forgotten lands of Videogamia there was a great Prince, and for many years he ruled over his people, the Soccites, in peace and prosperity. The Prince was strong, wise and held the love of the people. But over time, he neglected the affections of his subjects, taking his rule for granted, and so his kingdom began to wane. It was at this time that Fifius, the former court jester, sensed his chance for glory. Reinventing himself as a great hero, Fifius bettered himself in every regard and when the time was right, he set about winning the favour of the people. The old Prince, now weak, failed to notice his peril until it was too late, and so he was deposed. Fifius began his reign, but that is not where our tale ends. After many years in the wilderness, contemplating his own downfall, the Prince was forced to face his own weaknesses, and overcome them. And so with hope renewed, the Prince has journeyed back to his former kingdom. Now marching upon Fifius’ castle drawbridge he stands tall and proclaims to the masses; “I am Prince Evoluti of the Soccites, and I am here to take back my crown”.

No, okay that was nonsense, but nonsense with a point, somewhere. Pro Evolution Soccer, or PES, was once the undisputed champion of football games, but over the lifespan of the Xbox 360 and PS3 it’s fair to say PES had fallen from its perch. Fifa had become the undisputed videogame series for any football fan. It’s only now, with the release of PES 2015, that things may be starting to come full circle, as this year’s iteration appears to have finally shed its outdated style and caught up with its great rival.

In order to do that Konami have practically had to rebuild their franchise from top to bottom. And with the help of their in-house Fox Engine, they’ve managed to make a game that feels slick and modern, whilst still retaining some of the old favourites of the series. In short PES 15 is a game that shows just how confident Konami once again is.

And it’s a change that’s noticeable even before you’ve kicked off. The game’s menu system is no longer a confusing mess of vaguely interpretable icons and hideous block lettering. The presentation has been cleaned up, streamlined and brought right up to date with one tab for exhibition games, standalone competitions and such, and another for the more long term game modes such as the terrific Master League or the vastly improved ‘Become a Legend’. It’s fair to say PES has taken more than a dollop of inspiration from Fifa’s aesthetics, but it somehow manages to avoid feeling as commercial and over-produced in the process.

As for the mechanics of the football itself, things are better than ever. Gone is the slow, lumbering and over-engineered animations of previous years instalments, PES animations are both realistic and yet still brief enough not to impact upon your preferred playing style. Yet there’s still enough emphasis on ensuring that both body shape and positioning are the key to successful close control. Beating players one on one isn’t impossible, nor is it dictated by spending hours learning overly-twitchy skill moves in the game’s training mode. It feels authentic in that a good first touch is sometimes all you need to skin your opponent, but without being too easy to pull off that it becomes something of a crutch.

The same can also be said when it comes to the matter of shooting, both timing and positioning are often the difference between hitting that perfect postage stamp and ballooning your shot high into the stand. Shooting from range is always something of a gamble, and is by no means a guaranteed goal, but when you do hit it just right - and you’ll know the moment you strike the ball - the feedback is just about perfect.

A.I. has also come on leaps and bounds in the short time between last year’s edition and this year’s. So far I’ve yet to encounter a single scripted situation within a game, one where in years gone by you might make three good tackles and watch in disbelief as the computer controlled player bumbles through with the ball glued to his toes before scoring. Or feeling absolutely cheated by a goal from a headed corner that just didn’t feel like there was anyway of stopping it. Anyone who may have stuck with the series during its decline will be all too familiar with such scenarios and as such should be glad to see the back of them. PES’s A.I. now feels challenging but fair, capable of putting together clever passing sequences and beautiful football that feels organic and emergent, but also vulnerable to mistakes should you choose to press hard and fast.

The validity of whether or not playing at home or away in any given game can also play a factor within matches. As a defenders nervousness on the ball or a striker’s composure in front of goal can be affected. It’s something which’s complimented wonderfully by the series’ new ‘Fluid Formations’ system, as you’ll have the option to set your team up to play differently whether they’re in possession of the ball, under consistent pressure, or bombing forward at the death in the hopes of salvaging something from the game. These mechanics all working together, rather than as separate entities, ensure that each game can feel dynamic and unpredictable. You may be cruising to a comfortable victory away from home against lower league opposition, but conceding a goal in the last ten minutes can really rally the home side and their fans, turning what felt like a sure thing into a nervy final few minutes.

The only real noticeable drawback for this year’s PES is once again the licensing handicap it suffers in comparison to Fifa. With the exception of Manchester United, the entire Premiership will need its team names edited and there isn’t even a Bundesliga to edit. Instead the likes of Bayern Munich - whose world cup winner Gotze, graces this year’s cover - are relegated to a selection of ‘Other Teams’. Not only that but the active modding community of PES fans that provided fans with authentic strips, badges and the like through the series ‘Edit Mode’, has been left high and dry this year without the necessary systems in place that normally allow them to function.

Thankfully the majority of the major European leagues, and many of their second tiers are still licensed. Not to mention the official Champions League as well as various South American competitions, leagues and teams. I was once told PES still rules the roost in most Latin American territories, I’ve no idea if this is true but it certainly would explain the attention to detail given to clubs outside of Europe. It goes some way to softening the blow, but until Fifa no longer holds exclusive license over the likes of the Premiership and others, PES will still have to be more than ‘just as good’ in order to stand a chance of re-capturing the commercial number one spot.

So it’s just as well that PES 2015 is the best football game in the series for years, in fact it may well have the potential to be the single best football game ever. But of course that’s still down to personal preference, and in any case PES 4 will take some beating. What you can be sure of however is that as Fifa begins to lose its one crystal clear focus, PES is once again the superior all round football videogame. It may not have the commercial flair of its competitor, but with the stunning visuals from Konami’s Fox Engine, refined A.I. and terrifically satisfying gameplay, PES 2015 has managed to be more than ‘just as good’ this year.

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