The World Game. Some call it Football. To me it is Soccer. Whatever name you choose to use, it is impossible to deny its standing as the most popular sport in the world today. On paper the rules may seem more straightforward than many other physical contests, but the execution loses no complexity. Indeed, it could be argued that the comparative freedom offered by a looser set of guidelines provides greater opportunity for inventiveness. Pro Evolution Soccer 2014 does a fine job of capturing this balance between simplicity and complexity, providing a fun and accessible game that hides considerable depth for the more thorough player.

Let it first be said that soccer fans will inevitably get more out of this game than a casual observer of the sport. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll freely admit that I fall into the latter category and so, this review will adopt the perspective of a gamer, rather than that of a fan. Whether this tarnishes my ability to provide an accurate review of PES 2014 I leave to the discretion of the readership.

For all intents and purposes, PES 2014 is a fundamentally unstructured game. It gives you a series of different ways of playing without funneling you into any one of them. This open-endedness is a brilliant thing, as it allows you to uncover the depths of the game at your own pace, trialling the more complex systems at will and learning the nuances of on-field play as you go along. If this is what you truly want, then you should be quite content with the exhibition matches which, aside from your pride, offer no stakes. You can take the control of any one of the hundreds of teams included in the game and pit them against any other in one of the nineteen stadiums. It’s a fine way of getting an idea of effective strategies as you take control of your entire team to allow you to nail down the core gameplay elements of dribbling, passing and shooting.

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In reality, though, these matches should only be used as a primer. PES 2014 offers two main ‘campaigns’ for the single-player gamers: Become A Legend and Master League. In Become A Legend you can select one of the players already programmed into the game or create your own from scratch and develop them across the years until they are forced to retire at the age of 37. This entails more than just playing as them, as you must also take into consideration both their personal and professional growth. At any time you can delve into the Training Menu to redefine what they are learning, and set them up to learn additional tricks and abilities, or how to play in new positions. The impact that these decisions have on the growth of your character come over time, meaning that immediacy is anything but a prime concern. You’ll be called on to participate in matches with relative frequency, but you don’t have to play through them if you choose not to. In the off-season you have the opportunity to negotiate your contracts and join up with a different team, if you think it is in the character’s best interests.

With the possibility of national team call-ups and inclusion in major leagues, there is almost always something going on, and most of it demands your attention to a greater or lesser degree. It would be inaccurate to deem it an exercise in micromanagement, however, as much of requires only a cursory glance and a small amount of fiddling to keep it running smoothly. Master League, on the other hand, pits you as a manager and requires you to pay far more attention to detail. From setting up your team’s game plan, to ensuring that you remain in the black financially, to keeping an eye on the talent pool and managing your own career trajectory, this is an involving and complex game mode. That being said, I did not find it to be a rewarding experience and gradually stopped playing it.

Solo players can also participate in a number of competitions, with custom settings, the goal of which is to finish at the top of the bracket. In practise, the only real difference from the exhibition matches is that your performance is directly linked to a leaderboard. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does feel a little bit undercooked when measured against the other two ‘Football Life’ modes. On the other hand, these competitions do put the focus firmly on what should be the central focus of a game like this: the core gameplay.

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And it is here that everything else is proven to be background noise. When you take to the field, everything else falls away, replaced by your involvement in the moment as you take control of an entire team, formulating and attempting to execute any number of stratagems in an attempt to outwit and outpace your opposition. Sometimes you’ll try to make a lone player into a hero, charging down the midfield and slamming the ball home, while others times it becomes about quick passes as you belt the ball all over the field to find a hole in the defence. You may pelt along the sideline looking to get a cross/shoot combination; sometimes you’ll nail it perfectly while you’ll often find your reaction time to be slightly off and be forced over the sideline. The brilliance of the game is how you must adapt to any situation on the fly and this, more than anything else, teaches you to be better.

When pushed into defence, I usually chose to remain aggressive, pressuring opposition players by getting up in their face and trying to strip the ball from their possession. For me, interceptions were a happy accident and goal attempts few, even though the possession statistic was normally very close. Have no doubt that my plays attempted to push things forward through brute force most of the time, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t at least try to imbue my strategies with a sense of subtlety and nuance that the mechanics offer.

The combination of dribbling, passing and shooting may form the most fundamental aspects of the game, but they are also a foundation upon which much more complex systems have been built. Learning how to fend off the bullying tactics of opposition players, how to feint with the ball, or accurately trap it for a faster take-off are all of vital importance if you are going to have any chance of success on the higher difficulty settings. But there is more depth than even this, with every button on the controller serving a purpose, and combinations also being a frequent occurrence. You may sometimes feel as though you are having to perform some rather miraculous feats of finger-acrobatics, but it feels worth every half-second of worry about whether you were striking the right button when everything comes to together and you manage to topple a skilled team 5-0.

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If there is one single highlight to the game, it is the way that the physics systems work as realistically as they do. It may be due to years of iteration in an attempt to reach a perfect simulation, but you also get a sense that use of the next-generation Fox Engine lends a certain amount of fidelity to this aspect. The ball tends to respond convincingly, regardless of whether it slams into an opposing player and bounces away, is flicked into the air or simply rolls to a stop as its momentum is robbed by the grass. Similarly, players exhibit a degree of momentum physics, making it almost impossible to turn or stop on a dime and adding a layer of nuance to play as you have to take that delay into account. It even extends as far as the player collisions (though these are hampered slightly by the graphical hitches outlined below), and the way their uniforms react to their movements. This latter is almost negligible in the grand scheme of things, but it is a nice touch nonetheless.

It is a brilliant game, but not without flaws. I found, infrequently, that the controls would misbehave, with a player running off in the wrong direction or the timing reticule for shots and passes not registering that I had let go of the button. I also noticed that the wrong player would sometimes be put under my control, whether the system was set to automatic or manual – a slight frustration that was always quickly remedied. Beyond these minor quirks, though, the game is near perfect from a control standpoint.

If only the same could be said of the presentation. The menus are universally clean and usually straightforward. The user interface adopts a minimalist ethic, and it is difficult to imagine how it could be improved without impacting the clarity of the screen. In regular motion, the game looks appropriately realistic with animations rarely skipping or seeming incongruous, though when it slows down for replays small gaps do start to appear, especially in the case of fouls where one player will stumble without being within five feet of another, or a player still appears to be well on-side when they have been ruled to be off-side. The same sentiment applies to the modelling of characters and stadium elements. As long as you’re witnessing it from afar, it is difficult to pick out the lack of detail, but it is a different story when the camera draws close. Though unfortunate, these traits are reasonable trade-offs for a game to run as smoothly as it does, while still offering almost twenty different stadiums and what must amount to thousands of unique character models.

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The sound is the weakest part of the entire game. Konami has enlisted Jim Beglin and Jon Champion to offer commentary, and it usually holds up under scrutiny against the on-screen action, but it isn’t long before you find phrases and calls repeated ad nauseum. It is a common complaint in games of this ilk, but it really isn’t getting much better as time goes on. The noise of the crowds doesn’t resonate as strongly as one might desire, though it is realistically distorted, which helps to draw you into the experience that little bit further. Finally, it must be noted that the selection of musical tracks is absolutely anaemic. It is made up entirely of classical and symphonic tunes that only play over the menus. What is on offer certainly isn’t bad, but some diversity would be much appreciated. Thankfully, it does allow for the option of custom soundtracks, though these still aren’t played while involved in a match.

When everything is said and done, PES 2014 makes no qualms about being fully aware that it caters to a select audience. It is a slow-burning, self-directed game that doesn’t attempt to augment its appeal with flash and bombast. At every turn, it lets players know that they are going to have to accept it on the game’s terms, if at all. While a refreshing approach, this does make difficult to recommend it to anyone who isn’t already interested in the title. That being said, if you’re sick of all the games that offer violence as their primary draw, you could do much worse than PES 2014 for a change of pace.

(PS3 review code provided on behalf of Konami. Thank you)

ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE

Story – N/A

Gameplay/Design – 9.0/10

Visuals – 7.5/10

Sound – 5.0/10

Lasting Appeal – 8.0/10

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Overall – 8.0/10

(Not an average)

Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

Developer: PES Productions

Publisher: Konami

Ratings: ESRB: E, PEGI: 4+, ACB: G