Who among us doesn’t have a sick Master League anecdote ready at the slightest provocation? Even before it eclipsed FIFA on the pitch, and it did, PES was a wily master of getting us all invested in its longform modes. Year after year we’ve embarked on quixotic campaigns with, oh I don’t know, Getafe, and sent a FOX Engine version of ourselves to elite level in BAL, so it’s natural to worry about this year’s edition not only dropping that sacred three-letter acronym, but going free-to-play too.
Our hands-on with eFootball 2022 doesn’t reveal how the nitty-gritty of that model will work, nor how easily or frequently teams will be added after launch. Nor, indeed, what that means for the aforementioned longform modes. What it does showcase is a striking commitment to simulating – properly simulating – the duel between attacker and defender.
Now, more than ever, you’ve got to pay attention to players’ body positions, and the inertia of getting them from standing to making a run. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but I found it telling that the shoulder button controls for sprint and close control have been swapped this year – guess which one you’ll be spending more time holding down.
Sprinting is, at least until you get your eye in, an effective means of prompting an opposition throw-in. While it’s still a good way of eating up the flanks and creating crossing opportunities, it’s clear Konami wants you to beat your man with a feint, rather than a foot race.
One step ahead
To that end some old chap called Andres Iniesta has been drafted in as a consultant. He used to play football professionally, apparently. Perhaps thanks to his input, deft flicks and caresses of the right stick now produce subtler feints and stepovers, not of the old McGeady-spin variety, but practical misdirections you might see from players in a real game.
This in itself isn’t revolutionary – that’s what right sticks have been for, to PES and FIFA players at least, for donkey’s years. Instead it’s the manner eFootball 2022 encourages you towards actually using it. The pace of play is notably slower than previous games, and the dynamic camera zooms right in during duels with defenders like the handycam of an encouraging parent, giving you the time and vision to move laterally, wrongfoot your marker, and create space to either move into, take a shot, or pass through.
Speaking of game speed – let it be noted that the preview build I’m treated to isn’t representative of the finished product. Not just in the usual sense, but that the code’s specifically been tailored to showcase the new aspects of play. Interceptions, I’m told, won’t be as easy or as frequent, passing is to be tweaked still further, and the overall pace of the action is subject to change.
What I can surmise from the admittedly hazy crystal ball of numerous matches on this build, is that if eFootball 2022 did ship with the sliders as is, much of the community would embrace it. Not the ones who denounce Konami from the rooftops with every subsequent data pack and minor gameplay tweak, but players interested in mastering an initially unforgiving simulation.
It’s also worth noting that while plenty of the conversation since eFootball 2022’s announcement has been about what’s been subtracted in terms of licenses and content, there are additions too. Unreal Engine is the most obvious, flexing its binary biceps to render stadium crowds to a standard we’re simply not used to. Those pre-match cutscenes in dressing rooms and tunnels that previously had a whiff of Uncanny Valley actually did function to get me excited this time.
And look, it’s not the biggest addition, but there are ball boys now. They throw the balls back to players all over the place, not just teleporting to bre-baked animation points. Procedural ball boys. Who needs FUT?
If you’ve been hearing about Konami’s renewed eye on simulation and thinking ‘sounds difficult’, you’re not wide of the mark. It takes three matches of my hands-on to score a goal, such is the adjustment to eFootball 2022’s new animations, AI routines, and controls. It might take you three minutes, or three passes. But it’ll take some forward planning and some attention paid to the body shapes of both team-mates and defenders.
Tactics get an overhaul too. The systems are familiar, but the way the AI actually puts them into action does feel different. If anything, it feels more human and less perfect in its positioning. Several players can get drawn into a single press, opening gaps elsewhere. The right through ball can cause absolute disarray within a back five. You might not like it when it sends you a goal down, but it feels more like eleven men trying to hold a shape, and less like 11 AI routines.
That old bugbear did reappear during my hands-on, though – players on both sides going to sleep in order to let a long ground pass reach its intended target, and the sensation that the game has, however momentarily, taken over to ensure a certain outcome takes place on the pitch. We’ll be looking out for it following the game’s September 30 release.
The bar for impressive, meaningful innovation in annual sports games is, admittedly, quite low. But by taking the equivalent of a gap year and releasing a ‘season update’ last time, and now making good on next-gen consoles’ higher specs, eFootball 2022 feels like a big step forwards on the pitch.
The proposition will likely be the same as it ever was this year: all the licenses and the polish from EA, or great football sandwiched by comparatively primitive presentation from Konami. It’s just that this year, eFootball 2022 elects not to play FIFA’s game of official licenses up to the hilt and conventional triple-A delivery. Instead it’s asking, quite brazenly, to be judged on the quality of its football above all else. And the football is evolved and compelling. One just wonders how long it’ll stay feeling that way with limited teams, and perhaps modes, to play it in.