Developer: Konami / Publisher: Konami / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Everyone
For a few years early in the last decade PES rocked the soccer gaming world by outperforming incumbent leader FIFA where it mattered most: on the virtual field. Despite trailing in the licensing department the development team established a physics model, player types and styles, depth, and movement that were on the leading edge of what soccer fans the world over craved. But whether the competition spurred EA’s developers or Konami coasted on the adulation it received, it’s hard to tell, and also somewhat irrelevant when EA kicked up the ante with FIFA over the past few years and, frankly, blew PES off the field. With PES 2013 it’s easy to get the sense that Konami is getting back on track, embracing its licensing limitations, and simply aiming for the best soccer experience you can find in gaming.
Getting started on the field is simple enough once you navigate the menus to establish the team (or kinda/sorta unlicensed mish-mash) that you want to play. It’s a short-lived encumbrance but does make you realize that getting to the actual game is a little more aggravation than many might desire. But when the lights go on, the teams are assembled, and you’re ready for action, PES 2013 starts to shine.
The ball physics—particularly in relation to how it shoots off a boot aimed in a particular direction and following a particular trajectory—is at worst realistic, and at best quite spectacular. It looks surprisingly realistic, in fact, when the ball bobbles off bodies or boots, and if you watch enough soccer, you realize that this is a very smart recreation of the beautiful game.
Still, some of the tactics are more League One than Champions League. Players occasionally have what can only be described as meltdowns, leading to clear chances or blowing (spectacularly) great goal scoring opportunities. Each incident always feels realistic in the context of the situation—the ball bouncing around in the box with legs flailing—despite an expectation that these guys will trap, get the ball under control, and be more efficient than they appear. It’s quite endearing, in fact, even if the end results suggest more random events than skill on your part.
The players do exhibit real weight, however. Not Wayne “who ate all the pies?” Rooney weight, but substance in every tackle they challenge. Any FIFA players will notice a distinct difference in how players react based on their position to the ball, pace, and what they’re trying to do. It makes for quite a dynamic flow to every possession, and every defensive situation, where even if you do the “right” thing, the situation may not go your way.
Where PES needs the most help is in its presentation. On-field the player likenesses are pretty damn good, even when it seems the team licensing situation shouldn’t allow such realism. But the menu structure remains clunky and inhospitable. Once you learn where you’re supposed to go, what you’re supposed to select to achieve what you want, it’s fine (natch…). But if you’re starting out with PES based on these legends of the gameplay it can be very frustrating to find where you want to be, get there, then access the options you want to adjust.
Even if you navigate the menus in the right way, what you see in the presentation of information isn’t slick. It’s functional for sure, but it’s not stylish, easy-on-the-eyes, or effective in drawing in new players. And that’s a frustration when the on-field action can be so appealing to any soccer fan, be they FIFA-schooled or total n00bs.
The PES vs. FIFA war has been lopsided for some time. The Champions League options in PES 2013 could make a big difference for fans looking to recreate the best of European club soccer, and it’s certainly a well-integrated option in the game world. What stands out, however, is how different the ball feels between these two soccer powerhouses. In PES 2013 there’s a distinct realism to the flow of the game, how players move, how they receive the ball, how they pass, and how they look for space. It still lacks polish in both execution on the field, and particularly execution in the menus and management to make a serious run at FIFA’s crown, but PES 2013 will absolutely wow soccer purists on-the-field, and if that’s important enough to you, then this is the pick in the 2013 virtual soccer stakes.