How Mandzukic Was Mandzukic & I Learned To Love Santos


The date was June 13th, 2013. It was a smolderingly hot day in Los Angeles, California. I looked at my watch, 7:00 pm. I was walking back to the metro station in a complete daze, trying not to get lost in the downtown sector of the city. I had just played PES 2014 for 9 hours straight, and I was in a state of euphoria. I remember someone in the Konami booth earlier in the day turning to me and saying "Dude, you should probably get something to eat or drink -- you've been glued to that screen all day." I turned to them and said, "I can eat and drink tomorrow, but I can't play PES 2014 tomorrow." And that sorta summed up my day. I felt like a kid again, playing the game I loved growing up. Was PES 2014 perfect? No way. Did it have issues such as goalkeepers being a bit rough, controller inputs being a bit delayed, and corner kicks being too easy to score from? Yes on all fronts. But none of that mattered. I knew it was early code, super early. Konami had time to iron out the kinks. I knew there was still work to be done, but what I was playing was the foundation for another five to six years of Pro Evolution Soccer done right. A franchise I loved playing since ISS64 – one that peaked with PES 4,5, and 6, only to falter in recent memory (though I did enjoy PES 13, serious flaws be damned). To say it was time for a new birth to the franchise is an understatement. A new engine was long overdue. Like realizing at a point you have to leave your parents basement to get a job after graduating college, PES had to get its act together and figure out what was next. So here I was, wandering around downtown, a smile etched on my face, the hunger and thirst finally hitting me. And all I could think about was my time with PES 2014. I was so excited with the game and what it could develop and grow into, that I immediately wrote my thoughts into my phone. Below are my immediate impressions after that all too short 9 hour day:   

Who the hell is Marcos Assuncao? I asked myself this very question as the starting lineup appeared on the screen in front of me during my first PES 2014 game. I mean I knew Neymar, but I had no idea who the rest of these players were. And I'd used Santos multiple times in PES 2013. And so I started my first game, figuring I'd just get the ball to Neymar as many times as possible, and perhaps, with a bit of luck, we could upstage Bayern Munich at Allianz Arena.


And so it starts. Moving from the much more attractive TEAM OVERLAYS of the select screen (Are those real photos or the fox engine? I debate.) and the rather incredible entrances (It sure seems like a PES game, but what happened to my medicore visuals? These graphics are pretty damn good -- next gen even) and onto the pitch where the Bayern faithful have constructed a rather sensational Bayern Munich mural around the arena.

At first, I'm taken aback by the lighting. It's truly the bread and butter of the FOX engine, evident already by Kojima's early demonstration videos of Metal Gear Solid V, and it carries over to PES quite nicely with some brilliant lighting effects. I played at the Allianz Arena last night on PES 13, and I mean, it's not even comparable to PES 14. You're no longer taking the ugly chick to the prom, you've upgraded to the hottest chick in school. While it doesn't have full 3D crowds, it does a great job of making the crowds feel alive and active. But enough about the graphics, I've got Bayern Munich standing across the field from me (and I think we all know how tough they are).

Now the first thing I realize upon my team entering is the staggeringly impressive faces. It's truly amazing to see these guys up close, with detail like I've never seen before. But again, I'm more impressed with the fact that I'm looking at Santos here, and everyone on the squad looks, well, different. Unique. And while Neymar passes frame looking spot on, so too, I assume, do his teammates. Some bald guy, a couple not attractive guys, some younger guys, whatever. I don't know them, but I can see Konami has taken their time with properly creating them.

Still, just because the faces look unique, doesn't mean these Brazilians are going to play unique, right? Wrong. The players take to the field, the Allianz looking sensational, and just like that, the whistle blows. This is where things get interesting because, for the next 90 minutes of virtual soccer, which I believe is in actuality 15 minutes, I come to find that every single player on the field, all 11 on both teams, feel like completely different players. It's something I've never truly felt before in a soccer game, not like this. I mean PES on PS2 had elements of this that worked great, and PES 13, assuming you played with two BIG teams, could impress with players feeling unique. But this was Santos. And these weren't subtle or slight differences. This wasn't one or two top players sticking out. This was every player being completely different. Suddenly the bald headed Marcos Assuncao was this rough and tumble midfielder with excellent free kicks and passing abilities. The dreadlocked Arouca was a creative defensive midfielder who had all kinds of energy in the tank. The tall and powerful Gustavo Henrique was battling Bayern's big boys in the air, and the super fast and almost Robben-like Montillo (though sporting his own unique feel) was dribbling down the wing and creating opportunities. While it's certainly a testament to Konami's investing even more into the South American and Latin American market (evident by the recent acquisition of the Argentinean Primera Division, and, if rumors are to be true, possibly the Chilean league), this was just above and beyond. PES 2014, after only 2 or 3 games, had me hyping up how I couldn't wait to watch Santos play in real life and how Marcos Assuncao, as I joked, was my "favorite" player on Santos (as Neymar had left for Barca).

That's one thing I can say without reservation, that PES 2014 has, in spades, personality. Moving past the early hiccups, glitches, and still being refined (per Adam Bahtti of Konami) shooting and right stick (weight shifting), and you have a game that demands you to, at times, question whether you're watching a real game, with fluid animations and a pace on par with the real thing. This is something I've only seen with the NBA 2k franchise.



But, how's it play? Happy you asked. Like Vin Diesel in a muscle car. In other words AWESOME (and going to make a lot of successful sequels). Gone are the restrictive and broken elements that hampered the previous engine on the current gen (poor animations, so-so physics, the ball being tied to players' feet, etc.). For example, no longer are there masses of players in the midfield that bunch up and feel unrealistic. No longer does the ball magically float through your defenders, only for the attacking CPU player to magically receive it (and vice versa). And no longer can you switch direction or turn and shoot just because you push the button to do so. Everything in PES 2014 has to be earned, and everything adheres to the laws of physics (other than the occasional player collision hiccups -- but again, this is an early build). Strong players are big and push smaller players off the ball; faster players can outrun the burly defenders -- just as you'd see in the real game. 

One thing you see in the real game that you fail to see in this generation of PES (on the current consoles) is REAL BALL PHYSICS. The ball being freed up and left independent of player animations in PES 2014 changes everything. Turning direction (even with good players) can leave just enough time for an opposing player to poke away the ball or trip up your player (creating a turnover) as the ball moves much more realistically. Passing feels weightier and more under your control, but requires even more accuracy in your player's positioning than previous games, and passes no longer "snap into place" in order to reach the receiving player, making easy through balls a thing of the past. That said, through balls over the top are now an exciting way to mix up the attack (something that rarely worked in PES 2013). Everything now has a sense of potential error and added pressure, requiring your player to take his time to get positioned just right and get the power bar as accurate as possible. Juking or going for a trick can also easily lose the ball, and speed bursting, more so than any soccer game I've played, feels truly real. So if you SPRINT, the ball moves out in front of you more, making it easier for defenders to poke it away, and slowing down during a sprint, or trying to stop altogether, has a real sense of weight that must be accounted for.

Shooting also feels much more natural and weighty, but more calculated and realistic based on the physics, meaning no more "every single shot with Van Persie from just outside the box goes in," as I find it often does in PES 13). So if you push the button to shoot during a dribble or when your player is in an impossible direction, the engine won't magically create some weird animation to shoot with. The game will instead take that extra touch or move more realistically into a position to shoot, making it look a lot more realistic. Shots in general feel more rewarding with the ball spinning and moving in more unpredictable ways, even dipping. And you can certainly blast shots from outside the box now, allowing for more unpredictable outcomes with shooting than ever before. Players like Gerrard and Lampard will matter more than they have in a long time.


As I've come to find, the shooting in a soccer video game is often only as good as the keepers. A balance that PES 5 and 6 nailed so well. In a nutshell, if you have amazing keepers, you can have amazing shooting. I felt that part of the problem this generation was that PES was always so far behind FIFA when it came to goalkeepers that Konami constantly had to limit the shooting to accommodate for it. So I'm happy to say that the goalkeepers in PES 2014 felt a lot more robust and capable, having a much better arsenal of save animations for the keepers. Neuer for example felt like a true obstacle in the goal, with a real presence to him. That said, it was far too hit-and-miss with their goalkeeping intelligence in the build I played. The engine is certainly there for the keepers to be everything we've wanted (strong, smart and fast to react and move out to start the attack), but for every moment where I was drop jawed at a new save that felt super real, I was scratching my head with some moment of complete failure from the goalie to save the shot. The promising thing, however, is that Konami is well aware of the goal keepers, and I have always heard that in developing a soccer game, the keepers are usually left until the end of development because you need to create the system around them before you can create how they react to that system. So, in simple terms, you have to have all the shots and attacks finished before you can create the AI to stop those attacks, which makes sense. Still, I was very happy with what I saw here as there is a solid foundation to grow from. Because at their best, when the AI was on point, the keepers were strong on the ball, reliable to push the ball away into safe areas, and solid in the air. 

And speaking of in the air, battles for headers are much more dynamic in PES 2014 with headers feeling heavy and legitimate options for scoring. Defenders too have heading animations that really feel solid and powerful. Players jostle more for position now too, and chesting the ball and moving with the ball from your chest is a much more common occurrence, meaning you can chest and move into space more naturally.



Defending felt great too, with much more of an emphasis on waiting for the attacking player to make a mistake before going after the ball. Opposing AI defenders and midfielders give you a bit more space and time on the ball as they too (in defending) can more easily get BURNED if they overcommit. The controls ultimately stay the same but tackling feels AWESOME this year because you can win the ball with a tackle while also seriously taking out the player with the ball (Note: I didn't have huge issues with the refs in this code like many have reported, certainly something Konami is aware of though). So when you see your moment to jump in and strip an attacker, or when you see them a little off balance it's because the ball just isn't under their control(balance is a real thing in PES 2014 and is a constant factor). It forces defending to be more based on containing and shepherding the attacker into tight spots than previous iterations. The center of gravity elements Konami talked about are clearly at work here, and it's how, as a defender, you can get beaten, even by subtle movements. But it also works both ways. A real risk and reward scenario that becomes a blast due to the ball being completely unpredictable. 

So, in the end, what you'll find is a completely new world in PES. A world where every possession feels important, and even amazing players like Neymar and Robben have to work that much harder to control the ball on the field (even if they're awesome to control -- the physics win out). The great thing about this is that you WANT to get the ball to Neymar and Robben as much as possible, as using your key players feels that much more important in PES 2014. It's not easy to score -- in fact, it's more challenging than ever, but in a realistic way, mostly because the ball just can't be ping-ponged around, and your key players can't dribble perfectly into space and crack a sensational shot. It all now has to be EARNED, as slight bumps and collisions can send the ball anywhere. It requires more thought. Overall, it feels like a much more realistic and accurate representation of the beautiful game it replicates.

Because of the new engine, the ball can go anywhere and fall to anyone in any situation. For example, as Ribery, I was taken off the ball, or at least I thought, then the ball rolled out towards the goal as the defender didn't have control, and my momentum was moving towards the net. I saw the ball, moved toward it, picked back up my dribble, and was suddenly inside the box with Ribery readying a shot. This can happen now, and because of it, long balls over the top of the defense become real battles, since they aren't guaranteed to fall to the defender (like they did in PES 13). Also, in these tussles, the ball can AND WILL go anywhere. Also of note is the speed of players. In one of my games, a ball fell deep into Bayern's defensive half. It was an unexpected moment that suddenly saw Dante and Neymar running for the same ball. Dante had a slight lead, but it was super slight, and yet Neymar out ran him to the ball despite Dante's attempts to rough him up and knock him off balance before reaching it -- he was the faster man. Neymar got the breakaway. It was a beautiful sight to see. Speaking of pushing, there's a new feature, be it natural and not overused, in which two players can literally BATTLE for the ball, locking into a shouldering match (which by the way you can control with the right stick, just don't overdo it or you'll draw the foul). I only saw it about six times in my extensive day of playing, but you can imagine the thrill of having this moment occur in an opponent's box on a breakaway. It's a nail biter -- and it's a welcome addition to the PES universe.

Free kicks and corner kicks are also worth noting. While still allowing you to control any player off the ball (an element I love using in PES 13), you now have a new shooting mechanic where you see the trajectory of the ball's path. At first, I thought it would be too easy to exploit this, but I was happy to find that curving a shot to the top corner and hitting it with power wasn't an easy goal like I thought it would be. Factors, such as who takes the kick, the goalie, etc. all play into it (though Konami MUST fix the ability to score directly on corner kicks, and I've been assured they are). Free kicks, along with the realistic ball physics, get me super excited for the home and away elements Konami is implementing this year. Unfortunately, I couldn't appreciate the Heart elements (Konami's new confidence system, I'll call it) or the sounds of the crowds as E3 was too loud, and I don't think Heart was implemented in the build I played anyhow. But if anything will alter from the decrease in the mental confidence of players, it's probably big free kicks and the variables in placing passes and controlling dribbles. In short, I can see how the engine could create subtle limitations (on passing, shooting, and dribbling) or dramatic moments (free kicks especially) with the home and away element. Yes, there's probably going to be an element of scripting going on, but if Konami can make it organic in feel and doesn't take you out of the game, it could be a great feature, especially for those of us who love Master League.


Speaking of scripting and AI, I was floored by the way the AI played, and fortunately, I never felt it cheated. Though I'm guessing it was on a lower difficulty (in fact, I'd bet money on it). It was exciting to see little things like the Bayern players passing the ball back to their keeper on multiple occassions, using a physical style of play in general, and constantly getting the ball out to their wing players Ribery and Robben. In short, it all felt very much like Bayern playing their game in real life. It was quite refreshing. When I played as Bayern, I noticed Santos had a completely different style as well, one that focused a lot on using Neymar (as they did in real life at that time) and moving down the middle a lot more often. It was all much more dynamic than I've ever seen in previous PES games. I could tell completely as I played throughout the day that both Santos and Bayern each had a completely unique feel. Also, and this is just nuts to me, players will naturally (as I experienced) do moves when the situations call for it. For example, when I was Neymar, a player who can burn defenders, I dribbled the ball at a defender, tried to dribble to the right side of the defender, and then moved the ball back to the left side, when Neymar did a sweet fake. It wasn't something I had asked for, but it wasn't unwanted either -- it was an organic move that Neymar did based on the way I moved my thumb sticks. He continued in the direction I'd indicated, with that fake helping him get there. Other players didn't do this, but on that occasion, Neymar was skilled enough to do that move, like a signature move. Again, this was just Neymar doing his thing. In another game as Bayern, I was Robben. I saw Ribery take off down the wing, and so I tried to do a through ball to him with a defender on me, when Robben did a crazy-awesome behind the back through ball!? I mean it was flawless and awesome, and while I didn't ask for that necessarily (I just asked for a through ball), virtual Robben did his own signature sort of move (or a skill only a few talented players in real life could pull off). Lastly, Mario Mandzukic. Now while Robben and Ribery and every player on the pitch truly felt real and unique, Mario Mandzukic blew my mind on one occasion. He's typically a player who likes to get the ball with his back to defenders and turn, or pass off. So one game, late in the game too, I passed it into Mario. As the ball came to him, I pushed toward the goal, hoping to turn and move past the defender that was behind, nothing special, but Mario did a fake, allowing the ball through his legs, then ran around the defender, and suddenly picked the ball up behind the defender! I took a second to realize what the hell had just happened before spastically putting the ball into the corner of the net. It was a thing of beauty. I watched the replay way too many times, but the thing that shocked me was that virtual Mandzukic just did this (and yes, I told him with my button press what I wanted, but he took it to a sort of signature place). I wanted him to maybe try and turn the defender, but this was unique to him, I felt (or at least to a few top forwards). It made me realize why you will want to get certain players on your squad, as they can bring certain special skills or signature qualities into the mix that seem to just happen in the run of play.



Overall, I think it's easy to say that I was impressed and loved playing the game. And it's easy to see I'm going overboard in praising the new core system, but it's a system that, as a foundation for PES to move forward with, is exciting. To think what could be done in PES 15 and PES 16 on next gen hardware, based on this engine, is very promising. It's a great start. There will be growing pains, no doubt, and we may need a PES 4 before we get to a PES 5 and PES 6, so to speak, but what's here this year is a game that feels very organic, completely unpredictable, highly rewarding, and most importantly, very FUN. I remember the old PS2 PES days where everyone would talk about the goals they'd score or the matches they'd play like it was a religion. Well, I'm happy to say, it's time to dust off those controllers and head back to church. We've been away for far too long.

So those were my initial thoughts after playing for a long time at E3. It's funny reading them now because it's been nearly two months since I've played the game, and I still remember some of the matches and goals I managed to put away. While I was clearly super excited and "fan girling" while writing this article (as there are obvious concerns and issues that need to be improved upon before release), it's great to recall fondly how much promise the early code showed. I can't wait to get my hands on the latest build of the game. The bottom line for me, and for fans of PES, is that while there's going to be growing pains with any new engine, the product we'll be getting in late September will be a rebirth of the PES series. It looks like Konami has finally left the basement. 

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