We take a look at the status at which Konami released what should have been an Early Access product.
Imagine that you have one of the so-called wonderkids in your team. A promising young player that can potentially explode and become a star. However, they get badly injured in the summer pre-season, and even though they're not fully recovered, you decide to line them up for the season's first match. That important they are to your club's image, performance and results. But alas, as real football has taught us many times, they end up badly injured again as they were still so fragile, making the recovery a longer, tougher process.
Something similar might have happened with eFootball 2022 at Konami. It's not that the project got accidentally worsened in the lead up to launch, but it is crystal clear that it wasn't ready to debut on September 30 at the current state. And what was a promising concept, judging by the later build that we tried out at the company's offices, showed up publicly at a so unfinished, semi-broken state, that it'll now have a harder time recovering the trust of the passionate PES community.
Now, we understand how certification and publishing works, even in digital times, more so when we're talking about three (five) platforms at once. But while we bought the idea that the first release of the new football platform was going to be just the foundation of something much bigger for players to start learning the new ways of its revamped gameplay, you need that base to be much more solid, or else it'll be a disservice to your goal.
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So, it was apparently vital for Konami to release the day before FIFA 22, even though they're not competing on the same league, in the same space, anymore. They wanted to send the message out that there was a new football game that you could download and start playing for free. But they did it in such a rushed, unready way, that what players got was food for memes, a build incapable of showing them that underneath the layer of problems there are some innovating, ground-breaking football mechanics.
In other words, if this had released as an Early Access product, open to feedback during an ongoing development phase, the approach would've been humbler, and the damage control more effective.
Because there is a better version somewhere, even though it is true that we enjoyed it in human vs human matches, as player vs CPU makes the public release all the more frustrating. We knew, and underlined, that our preview build had more features that were not going to be present yet at launch, and that it had a bunch of additional fixes and polish. What we didn't expect is that the game would release in such a buggy, unbalanced shape.
It's the lesson we've learned with so many other Early Access games-as-a-service. You release a honest in-development product, acknowledge the most obvious issues, and work from there by following a roadmap of milestones. But the timing, and the naming, are crucial in that strategy, and Konami got both wrong: they were not releasing a finished base (no matter how much they insisted in that the "real" content was coming on November), and something ruined the times of their initial schedule.
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Perhaps it was the shift to Unreal Engine 4, for most of the more hilarious issues are graphical glitches and bugs related to animations, facial expressions, and collisions. We witnessed a couple of stuttering/disappearing players during replays in our 2-hour preview session, compared to the many instances of serious dislocations, floating players, and messy clashes you find in just a couple of matches with the public build.
All of that, other than humorous, seems obviously fixable after some technical work, but the other problem is the pace, the balance, the AI. Both field players and goalkeepers freeze in some situations, or feel like they stopped 'thinking' or being focused on the ongoing actions, like our goalie here. The released game is also slower, as clumsy players have some unmanageable weight to them, while passes are sluggish, inaccurate, and CPU positions itself magically to intercept them. Add to this some other erratic and strange behaviours, such as leaving the ball behind, and how hard it is to measure distances and angles with the earlier code, and both defending and attacking become quite random, unintentional.
So, it really is difficult to have fun with this initial version, and that is always the first thing you have to get right to build upon. And, off-topic, why can't I switch the commentary off? (Perhaps I didn't find the option, which was available to us in the preview). I know the public game misses some features I enjoyed, such as sharp kicks, better feedback, more settings, but come on, this is actually removing something I don't need.
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You can always say "but yeah, it's free", but again the way it's been presented and marketed doesn't help. Now, where to go from here? With the extended content landing in a month's time, calendar is getting really tight once again for Konami to deliver. They've apologised, they promise fixes in October already (hopefully at least up to what we tested), and then they remain optimistic about the rollout on November 11 and 18, which will introduce the first paid-for content and therefore makes for a make it or break it type of deal with investing players.
On the first date, buyers of the pre-order bonus will get the Premium Player Pack, including 8 "Chance Deals" to sign 1 out of 16 top ambassador players such as Messi or Neymar, with exclusive designs, for their custom Creative Team, along with 2,800 eFootball Coins, the premium in-game currency, which activates on the second date. This sort of contract -which can be earned by playing 10-20 regular matches for free- along with a "Match Pass", is the core of the monetisation, and so far it seems it will only affect the team building mode and its upcoming Creative League, while direct matches with existing teams (remains to be seen if it's just licensed teams, and how many are there in total this season), remain seemingly untouched, immaculate of real money. At the same time, cross-platform between PlayStation, Xbox, and PC will also arrive in November, with eSports kicking off in winter together with mobile support.
Seems like too much to be ready given the problems with the base code and the uncertainty surrounding teams, licenses, additional modes (such as the beloved Master League, confirmed to be a premium DLC), and above all which modes and activities and how can be impacted via purchasable items. Konami promises a "play to win" free-to-play experience, but there's a lot to explain and to prepare in the upcoming weeks.
So, again, we can assure you eFootball 2022 holds some great promise in terms of gameplay, and we still appreciate the boldness of the move to F2P for big sport games. In other words, Steam's worst-rated game still has potential and a long road ahead to prove its worth, but its failed debut means that that road is uphill and that it has to be extra careful, humble, and self-explanatory going forward, as now both long-time fans and unfamiliar players will be much tougher to content.