Despite EA Sports' nearly global dominance with its FIFA series, Pro Evolution Soccer is the undisputed football game of choice in its native Japan. The dirty secret is, EA Sports has been fine with this, regarding Japan as a completely saturated market and overtaking Konami everywhere else on the planet over the past six years.
More than once I was told Pro Evolution Soccer 2015, coming this fall for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC, as well as PlayStation 4 and Xbox One for the first time, is a title seeking to recapture that old PES magic of the middle of the last decade, when it was the only real choice for soccer enthusiasts on a gaming console. The real indication it's serious about this goal is not in the gameplay or presentation upgrades — and PES 2015 does have them. It's in Konami's creation of a second studio, one based in the U.K., to strengthen the title's appeal in European and Western markets.
"The issue we have with a limited number of staff in Japan is that there are so many different football cultures," Naoya Hatsumi, the executive producer for Konami's PES Productions, told me through a translator. "We think that, Europe being a very important market for us, we wanted to provide something to appeal to the fans there, to their football culture. We wanted to create a PES brand that is accepted by the European culture and we thought having a production studio based in the U.K. would be a very good creative space for the fans to accept our game."
The West isn't natively hostile to PES; it was clearly the better soccer game, not some boutique title, until EA Sports got its head on straight following a huge, companywide reorganization in 2007. But since then, FIFA has broadened its appeal, as much through licensing and extra modes like Ultimate Team as it has in solid gameplay, where PES has treaded water, controlling only an exclusive license to UEFA and its tournaments.
Last year's edition of Pro Evolution Soccer almost perfected the game's fractional, low-growth appeal. Rather than add any major feature or inclusion that recruited, or reclaimed, wide numbers to the game, Pro Evolution Soccer 2014 took on the Fox Engine — the thing driving Metal Gear Solid — and tried to make it work with soccer. It wasn't a disaster. But those who were tolerant enough to stick with PES through the implementation of a new gameplay engine on a year's development cycle, and the jagged timing it imposed, were the lifers — the ones who had picked it up the year before and the year before that.
Kei Masuda, PES 2015's creative producer, told me (again through a translator) that Konami is mindful of the criticism it shouldered in the implementation of the Fox Engine last year. While Fox delivered high-quality player models and more lifelike physical interactions — particularly with respect to the ball — the rest of the game appeared slow and struggled to keep up. To a keen-eyed football fan, Pro Evo 2014 showed a more realistic spacing between players; the problem is, under the Fox Engine, these players were too slow to react and too momentum-heavy to do much with it.
My limited hands-on time with Pro Evolution Soccer 2015 showcased a much more crisply played game in one-on-one contexts. The same, super-realistic sense of weight and momentum in each player are still there, but they're faster. >Players not only are faster off the first touch, with a new "jinking run" movement (a modifier keyed by a bumper button press), they can soft-tap the ball ahead and then explode into a different direction, easily catching an AI defender off guard. The defense pursues the ball — not necessarily the man — more aggressively, making complex passing strategies more difficult. Pro Evolution Soccer 2015 definitely bears the marks of a game trying to appeal to a Western audience, but so far, it's in a one-on-one way, rather than with the cooperation of AI teammates.
"The game speed has been increased to allow for that burst of speed, as well as slower technical movements," Masuda said. "The passes and shots have been revised as well, and their relation to the power [behind them] has been directly affected." Masuda said that this would be more apparent in shots inside the box, but I guess I didn't try enough to see clearly what he was describing. I'll take his word for now, though, because he's saying players will see greater variance in shot speed and trajectory the closer in they move.
The other gesture to Western sensibilities will come in presentation, particularly in replays stemming from anything happening close to the goal or with a chance of scoring. A goal triggered a long (and, though this may be only in the build I was trying, unskippable) sequence of replays from various angles showcasing the moment. Masuda said this was a particular focus coming out of Pro Evolution Soccer 2014, from "the buildup and the last pass to that goal scene, and also the one-on one situations.
"These are the exciting scenes that fans love in football, and we've tried to simplify it enough to keep casual users engaged," Masuda said. And I did see a lot of lively camera work in dead-ball situations, particularly after goals.
Hatsumi added that Konami is incorporating sophisticated data analysis from football matches — essentially what usually takes place in a certain situation from a certain spot on the field — to "set indicators" for the PES match in progress. "Those indicators from these real-life match situations would give us a good idea what we should aim for, if we want to recreate those matches," Hatsumi said, broadly describing the goal. As I've said with other developers making similar claims, it would take many replays to judge the effectiveness of the claim.
PES' greatest virtue has been its biggest limitation: If Pro Evolution Soccer is better at addressing the technical subtleties of soccer, just how much ground has it really gained against a people's champion like FIFA? Time will tell if Pro Evo 2015 is impressing new players, or just doing enough to keep lifelong fans in the fold.