Pro Evolution Soccer 2014 preview Heart and soul
You could argue that EA Sports' FIFA series has a stranglehold on the simulation soccer game genre. The publisher locked up the FIFA license for many years to come, making it the only company with access to a number of real-life teams that other publishers such as Konami can't get its hands on.

If you care only about the number of teams that are in your sports games, then sure, FIFA is king. Until I played Pro Evolution Soccer 2014 at E3, I was still convinced that I am a "FIFA guy." That might be changing, now that Konami has introduced the Fox Engine to the series, which is being used to generate facial textures and animations in a more lifelike manner.

Sports game developers traditionally don't have the resources to commit to rendering lifelike emotion for in-game athlete's faces. In the case of games such as FIFA or Madden, expressions on athletes waver between lifeless and lifeless-with-an-open-mouth. Truly, one of the biggest tangible ways to convey the excitement of scoring goals or making crucial mistakes lies in generating that emotion through the athletes that players interact with, not unlike viewing sports broadcasts in real life. In my time with Pro Evo 2014 at E3, I managed to cross a ball into the box and finish the play off with a beautifully executed header to score a goal. I was rewarded with a morale-boosting moment where my team collectively showed more passion on their faces than I've seen in a soccer game before, even if a few faces were only marginally different than in the past. Likewise, after mistakenly tripping a player and yielding a penalty kick to the other team, my defender scowled at the referee for his decision to reward him with a yellow card. He displayed a noticeable glare that forced me to pause and consider how ludicrous it was that a sports game on Xbox 360 hasn't offered visible individual emotion on that level before.

Sure, my Pro Evo 2014 demo had other bells and whistles. The ball physics were more refined, yet appropriately unpredictable. A clear developmental focus on physical contact between opponents strengthened the one-on-one struggles you'd see on the field, where the ball might randomly bounce away while two players with locked arms tussle. The on-field play wasn't perfect, as one pass was called offsides because the game targeted a player downfield when two teammates waited in between, but general on-field play is better than ever. While these are all great improvements, they're also exactly what we've come to expect from annual sports games.

Delivering more emotive faces through the use of tech such as the Fox Engine isn't something other developers have spent nearly enough time on. It jumped out as the secret ingredient in pushing the genre forward in a different way that brings us closer to our love for the sport of soccer. This might all be aided by the returning PES ID feature, in which Konami has faithfully recreated 100 (up from 50) different individual athlete's faces and movements in the game. Still, it's the Fox Engine that might set Pro Evolution Soccer 2014 apart from FIFA, not a lack of playable clubs.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.

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