PES 2014 is an odd beast, a strange hybrid of its straightforward arcade roots and the ever-growing complexity of the FIFA series. In some respects, this complexity is warranted; never has a PES game looked quite as realistic as 2014 does. And for the most part, it plays well too. But that realism comes at a price. For all the flashy animations and physics tweaks that have been added, some of what makes a game of PES so direct and so much fun has been lost. This is very much a case of two steps forward, one step back.
That much is clear as soon as you start passing the ball around. Where PES has always been about snappy passing and a feeling of direct control over players, 2014 adopts some of the automated nature of FIFA, but without the technical prowess to back it up. A lot of it is down to some lousy AI implementation, which means that passes often don't go to the player you want, because the game seemingly thinks it knows better than you. Then there's the addition of sloppy first touches, which theoretically offer a more realistic representation of how players perform in the real world, but leads to frustration when all that stands between you and a world-class strike is a well-placed pass.
Knocking down some of the assist settings helps to alleviate the messy AI somewhat, and if you're particularly dextrous, you can control players off the ball to. But the inconsistent AI rears its ugly head again when you're trying to set up goals, with players making runs down the pitch in all the wrong places, or failing to chase down the ball when you need them too. These frustrating moments aren't frequent enough to ruin the experience entirely, but when you find yourself yearning for another bash at last year's game, clearly something has gone awry.
When it does all come together, though, PES 2014 can be a wonderful thing. Zipping down the right wing to launch a well-placed cross, or ducking through the midfield with a killer through ball, is nicely fast-paced and, at times, edge-of-your-seat thrilling. Finishing those manoeuvres remains as tight as ever, with a real feeling of control as you expertly blast a shot past the keeper and into the top corner of the net. The excellent jockeying and tactical positioning in defence, the dribbling system, and the shot modifiers all make a welcome return, too, with improved player-contact animations seeing players fight for the ball--and lose it--in a much more compelling way than before.
Tying the on-pitch action together is the much-lauded Fox engine, which is also powering the upcoming Metal Gear Solid V. PES 2014 certainly looks a little sharper than previous PES games, but don't expect a huge graphical overhaul here. Instead, the focus is on player emotions, with new facial animations resulting in some uncanny representations of joy, despair, and frustration as keepers are beaten, posts are hit, and offsides render a once-beautiful goal meaningless. Sadly, the frame rate takes quite a hit during these moments, as well as during match buildup and replays, which is incredibly jarring against the otherwise smooth play on the pitch.
There's another emotionally charged feature in PES 2014 called Heart, which tracks and displays players' emotional states and changes their performance based on elements like how many shots they make on target or how much the crowd is getting behind the team. So, for example, if you're playing away, the lack of a home crowd to cheer the team on means they perform worse than at home. Unfortunately, it's tough to tell the difference between an emotionally uplifted team and one that's down in the dumps, making Heart a firm idea, but not an essential mechanic.
Elsewhere, PES 2014 remains way behind FIFA in terms of online and offline modes, as well as its overall presentation. Many of the modes remain unchanged from last year, including officially licensed tournaments such as the UEFA Champions League and South American Copa Libertadores tournaments. The new addition is League mode, although it too remains largely unchanged from the version in 2012. (It was not included in PES 13.) Master League Online and Become a Legend do see some tweaks, including the ability to pick from three different playable leagues in MLO, each with a different attacking and defending style, and the option to play as a keeper in Become a Legend and bark orders at your team from afar.
The objective in MLO has switched from trying to create a profit to concentrating on building the best team with a fixed budget. Other tweaks include the ability to manage national and international squads in the Master League, as well as use players created in Become a Legend in online matches. None of these tweaks make these dated modes any more compelling, and they absolutely pale in comparison to the likes of FIFA's huge online leagues, EA Sports Football Club, and Ultimate Team. In a feature that has been a long time coming, you can at least now play in full 11-vs.-11 matches online.
This is a game that tries to straddle the line between arcade action and sublime simulation and never succeeds at either.
Where PES 2013 could get away with some less-than-stellar modes thanks to some excellent on-pitch action, 2014 can't pull off the same feat. There's still lots of fun to be had blasting goals out on the pitch and taking on friends online, but not as much fun as last year, despite some additions that should have made it more so. The awfully garish menu system and painfully repetitive commentary certainly don't do it any favours either. This is a game that tries to straddle the line between arcade action and sublime simulation and never succeeds at either. PES is at its best when it's selective with its realism: here's hoping next year it can go back to doing what it does best.