By looking at past iterations of ourselves we can trace our progress through time, witnessing the growth that has led us to our current state. But it isn't past versions of ourselves that define the changes that happen over time, rather it's the environment in which we exist that informs the biggest leaps forward.
It's with that in mind that I consider Pro Evolution Soccer 2013. Because the advancement of this prestigious series now has more to do with the progress of the opposition: the ever improving FIFA series from EA Canada.
For PES, a series that once more than held its own, improvement can no longer be measured against past achievements; as expected, 2013 is an improvement over 2012. In the current climate, year on year refinement can't be a measure of success. Instead we must ask whether the leap forward made this season is enough to keep the series in touch with their main rival.
Last season FIFA 12 broke all records, becoming the best selling sports game of all time and shifting a shedload of copies in the process. This success suggests that EA are eating further and further into the PES fanbase, with increasing numbers of fans jumping ship. EA has always held the exclusive license, but PES fans could always comfort themselves with superior gameplay mechanics. Now FIFA holds all the cards, with recent refinements making it the undisputed champion of the sport, not only in terms of sales, but also with regards to critical acclaim.
So it is from two positions that we take in Pro Evolution Soccer 2013. From a more introspective angle, the game is decent. Tweaks and adjustments to the gameplay engine yield mostly positive improvements, and visually there is a marked improvement over last year's game (impressive considering how late in the platform cycle we are). It's is a definite step forwards for the series, and the best PES to date.
This is a good looking game, make no mistake. Player animations are well defined and look sharp. Movement and reactions feel realistic. There's plenty of nice touches to behold, with well observed goal celebrations, fisticuffs between players, dangerous tackles flying in and nets rippling under the influence of goals.
Goal replays are particularly impressive. Decorated with a gentle motion blur, they add to the drama of each goal. Less appetising is the menu system. Functional though they are, they never feel as accessible as they should.
Audio is a mixed bag. The commentary team of Jon Champion and Jim Beglin return, but within just a few matches their generic soundbites are being recycled at an alarming rate. It doesn't take long before they become nauseating, and inaccurate or belated punditry quickly leads to frustration. Mute.
The soundtrack wasn't to my tastes at all. A couple of the songs sounded remotely decent, but certainly not enough of a percentage to warrant listening to the playlist for long. Mute.
The atmosphere in the stadiums is better, thankfully. Whilst the different effects that go together to make the soundscape could've been blended a little more carefully into a coherent cacophony, the club/player-specific chants are a nice touch, and it just about holds together.
But how a football game looks and sounds isn't as important as how it plays and feels. In this respect PES 2013 is a resounding success. Player AI has been gently improved, and this leads to a tighter defence and a more potent offence. Games are exciting and enjoyable.
One of the best things about the PES series over the years has been the level of customisation available, and with the recent inclusion of fully manual shooting, this has been taken up a notch this year. Match tempo can be increased and decreased to suit desired tastes, and as both passing and shooting can be made manual, it allows for total control over play. It's tough playing this way, but scoring a chip or cutting out the keeper for a tap-in whilst playing sans assistance is incredibly satisfying.
The new FullControl system also fits well. Close control becomes accessible, allowing the ball to be pushed passed opponents with ease. It also allows for fluctuations in pace, so play can be slowed and quickened at will. It gives attackers more options, and defenders more to think about.
Another new trick is the manual one-two. Here it is possible to control two players simultaneously, using the second stick to direct passes between them. It's not an easy skill to master, and may be a step too far for casual players, but those who dedicate themselves to the game will be able utilise it as nifty way of playing out of a tight spot, or for unlocking dense and stubborn defences.
The top players all have good likenesses, and Konami has equipped the very best of them with signature skills, adding to the authenticity. Sadly it's here that the authenticity stops. PES doesn't carry the official FIFA license, and as such, many of the teams carry fictitious names and are adorned with unofficial badges. It can't be helped, and so there's no point complaining about it, but it does break the immersion from time to time. Teams and players can be edited, if you have the time and/or the inclination.
ProActive AI isn't as proactive as the name would suggest, and this can lead to some frustration. Sometimes players make decent supporting runs, but not regularly enough to satisfy. Threading through balls in behind defenders is glorious, when it works. But the tightness of the new look defensive line, and the decisions of your computer controlled teammates means it happens less than one would like. Playing cooperatively eradicates this problem, and attacking becomes infinitely more satisfying as players make better runs into space.
The AI of the referees was a bit confusing. Most of the time they weren't in the forefront, which is how it should be, but during my 20+ hours of play so far, there were a concerning amount of soft fouls given away. Innocuous nudges were turned into dangerous freekicks, and losing a game because of an irrelevant and mild collision is annoying.
Set plays are easy to overhit, and therefore are difficult to master. However, they feel organic, and it's easy to see your mistakes, encouraging refinement of technique. In fact, all passing and shooting is easy to overdo, meaning care and consideration are needed in equal measure in order to succeed. Hold a button for too long and the back foot is never far away.
Player select can also be quite prescriptive, and nothing is more frustrating than watching on helpless as a dangerous counter attack unfolds. It's easy to see how the plays will work out, but the AI can often assign you players behind the action, not in front of it, allowing the ball the advance unchecked.
There are, as one would expect, several ways to play. Exhibition matches are complimented by various tournaments. Official licenses have once again been secured for the Champions League (and, for those who care, the Copa Santander Libertadores) as well as for several of the top teams from across Europe. The selection is patchy at best, and there are many absentees from the lineup.
Playing through a Champions League campaign is enjoyable, even if each session is over-saturated with an abundance of official music and footage of Christiano Ronaldo doing his ball kicking thing. However, it's a knockout competition, and there isn't a huge amount of depth to the mode.
There is a manager mode included in the game, but it's a trite experience that's hard to recommend. Information is delivered by generic cutscenes. You meet the press, the board, the club secretary, all delivered via subtitles, whilst the accompanying music saps the will to live throughout. Before each game we talk the secretary and have a pointless chat with one of the coaches.
Playing the full experience means you're greeted with an almost never ending supply of save screens, with the reward for waiting never worth the time spent idle. You can skip from game to game, avoiding the in-between interactions with your club and the delays that accompany them, but that sort of defeats the point of having control over a football club.
Your control comes from the ability to tweak your game plan, manage finances and negotiate with the players you want to bring in. You can micromanage to your hearts content, and there's plenty to be getting on with, even if the delivery isn't as streamlined as it should be. I didn't care much for the transfer system (you have a finite amount of negotiations you can make), and overall I found this side of the game quite unappealing. This will be a deciding factor for some people when deciding which yearly football update to buy, and when it comes to the managerial mode, FIFA wins hands down.
There are the usual online features, and this is where a good chunk of PES 2013 will be played. PvP is much more satisfying than taking on the AI, and competitive games are tense and tactical. The rebalanced mechanics create organic gameplay, that on the whole satisfies. The attached tutorial mode provides some insight into how to get the best out of your players, but there isn't much longevity involved once you've got to grips with the controls.
So where does Pro Evolution Soccer 2013 sit when compared to both the competition and its forebears? Undoubtedly this is the finest game in the series to date, and a positive step forward for a franchise that has been stagnating of late. Konami has upped their game, and it shows. They've had to, because without pulling up their socks, they were in danger of being left behind by FIFA.
2013 compares well when held against FIFA 12. They have similar aesthetic appeal, and whilst there are some pretty significant differences between the two, both have a really good stab at depicting the beautiful game. The only problem with that statement is the fact that now FIFA 13 draws ever closer, and the improvements promised in that game are likely to once again push EA's series to the top of the table.
Put it this way: for PES 2013 to be the best football game of the year, EA is going to have to drop the ball, and from what I've seen and played so far, I can't see that happening. What I can see happening is people buying PES this year, because it's a very good game. A return to form for the series then, even if it doesn't go on to win the league.