Shooting is a definite improvement on the last few PES games, but still a mixed bag. In general, having more control over shot direction along with the potential for more human error adds variety to the types of goals scored, stopping players from resorting to tried and tested set-pieces (goal-line cutback abusers we’re looking at you). Another thing preventing this is the newly improved keepers. They may still be prone to the odd David James worthy moment of insanity but are wise to cheeky tricks and as of yet we’ve not discovered any cheap exploits.
Letting the shooting side of things down a bit is the powerful Knuckle shot that seems magnetically drawn towards the goal, ruining any illusion of full control. It’ll rarely go over the line but can force saves that sometimes lead to frustrating follow-up goals. It’s a cheap tactic we’ve seen used by some players online who were having trouble getting past our defence and is infuriating to concede a goal from. Compared to the rest of the game’s improved mechanics it feels like an unwelcome remnant from PES’s artificially scripted football of the last few years.
A system similar to FIFA’s Tactical Defending has been implemented, and along with how the ball reacts it has the biggest effect on how PES 2013 plays. Past versions encouraged chasing down the player with the ball but now the focus is on reading attacks, keeping your distance by holding RT and X to jockey then timing the tackle just right by releasing the trigger. When attacking, it’s hard to drag defenders out of space with a quick change of direction and instead a bit of imaginative passing or fancy footwork needs to be employed.
AI defenders also hold their ground much more stubbornly and it’s in defence that the ProActiveAI really shines, not only in how it helps keep strikers out of the box but how the full backs and wingers help to establish counter-attacks by moving with decisive urgency. Though most of the control when attacking now falls on the player it’s heartening to see the intelligence of the off-ball runs made by AI controlled teammates as opposed to the stock, predictable movements too often seen in the last few PES incarnations.
The last of the new features is PlayerID, which replicates the physical mannerisms of individual players. For example, PES 2013’s poster-boy, Cristiano Ronaldo is easily identifiable from his running style, the way he shoots, the tricks and shimmies he uses to coast past defenders, even the deep breath he takes before free kicks. Defenders have been given the treatment too, so you'll recognise the aerial physicality of the likes of Terry, Vidic and Pepe. Compared to the revised AI and control systems, PlayerID isn’t quite as ground-breaking, but it’s still a worthwhile addition that lives up to the marketing hype.
Numerous tricks and flourishes can be performed with Street Fighter-esque flicks and circles of the right stick. You could happily play without ever using them, but come up against someone who does and you’ll have a reason to spend a few hours in the comprehensive training mode once you see the inventive ways they can be used to create space and initiate movement. For the first few hours PES 2013 is tough, but things fall into place when you realise all you need to do is take on the player in front while getting teammates into space, which may sound simple but hasn’t really been the case with PES’s last few run-and-gun outings.
Importantly for a football game, most goals feel truly earned, giving you free-reign to fist-pump, dance, scream or whatever you like to do when scoring against friends or online challengers.
While PES 2013 has sure-footedly sidestepped out of FIFA’s shadow in terms of gameplay, in most other aspects it still has some catching up to do. Menu layouts are obtuse, commentary is grating and despite some impressive player likenesses, dead eyes and wooden movements keep the graphics well within the confines of the Uncanny Valley. Worst of all, the main single-player mode (Master League) is drab and soulless with a needlessly confusing transfer system and too much time spent staring at a grey calendar screen. Play with friends or online though and none of these issues matter one jot.
Unless FIFA 13 somehow manages to completely drop the ball, this year football game fans find themselves in the privileged position of having two top-flight titles to choose from.