One of the most keenly anticipated dates in the video gaming calendar is the release of the latest instalment in Tokyo software house Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer (‘PES’) series, the very mention of which is guaranteed to send past and present Sony PlayStation 2 users into spontaneous spasms of joy: spending hours lost in the immersive wonder of titles such as PES 3, PES 4, PES 5 and indeed PES 6 was one of the great joys of the early- to mid-2000s. Since the advent of seventh generation consoles, however, the general consensus is that the PES series has lost its way, with the consequence that legendary executive producer Shingo ‘Seabass’ Takatsuka has been booted upstairs; Kei Masuda, the youthful, diplomatic personality who seems to have supplanted Seabass, is confronted with an almighty challenge in trying to turn the ailing franchise around.
And yet, on current evidence, he is managing to accomplish precisely this: the first demo of PES 2013 (downloadable as of today on Xbox 360, PS3 and Windows) reveals a title that superficially looks similar to the two most recent iterations but in fact has undergone extensive reconstruction under the hood. Owing to a combination of improved sound, a CPU AI that is more adept at keeping possession and solid ball physics, the one-more-go factor might be returning to PES in an extremely serious way for the first time in what seems like an eternity. The amiable Masuda – a developer who first joined the PES team in 2003 and who therefore has more than a recollection of the good old days – appears to be putting his stamp on the series in no uncertain terms; indeed, it is simply incredible that while the period from PES 6 to PES 2010 was one of horrific degeneration and that PES 2011 and PES 2012 arrested the decline, Masuda’s thus far brief reign has resulted in what appears to be an awesome effort at rebuilding the brand.
1. Fouls, Cards and Injuries. Something that the PES series has never recaptured from the sixth-generation console era is the frequency and naturalness of fouls, cards and injuries, all integral parts of contemporary football which PES 5 and PES 6 in particular weaved wonderfully into the fabric of play. Playing most recent versions of PES is at times like inhabiting a universe where these vital elements barely exist.
2. Referee Identity. Perhaps linked into the first point, referees in recent versions of PES have been interchangeable functionaries devoid of personality and indeed names, all too keen to overlook wild tackles and off-the-ball nicks. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that arguably the most-loved PES game of all time to date – PES 3 – featured no less a figure than Pierluigi Collina as its chief endorser.
3. The Asian Connection. Aside from a sprinkling of national teams, Asia-based representation in PES is non-existent, a state of affairs which is a genuine mystery given that Konami’s Japanese version of Pro Evolution Soccer, the cutely-named World Soccer: Winning Eleven, features all club sides from the two divisions of the J. League. With Asian club football gaining strength almost by the week, Konami could gain a whole slew of new fans by including teams from nations such as Japan, China and South Korea; the software house could also save a lot of money by locking burgeoning leagues such as the CSL into long-term deals now.
4. Transitions and Replays. In-game replays in recent versions of PES, particularly from 2009 onwards, have been disjointed, too frequent, too fast, and lacking identity: a single, identifiable replay angle in combination with a caption naming the main protagonist in the clip was immensely powerful. Similarly, the fading to and from black on replays and breaks in play (free-kicks, offsides, throw-ins, corners and penalties) was a simple but brilliant device which gave the illusion of time passing (and all but erased the cognitive dissonance of playing a 90 minute game in ten) far better than the current, rather garish cutaways.