With just a couple of months until PES 2018 and FIFA 18 take to the field, Konami has taken the unprecedented step of releasing an online beta for Pro Evo to warm-up before the game is out.
That’s a sensible move, because online is the one area where PES 2017 really suffered in comparison to FIFA, with slow loading times and non-existent matchmaking that meant you always ended up playing Barcelona or Real Madrid, even if you’d opted to take charge of LN Azure Blue White (that’s PES speak for Wigan Athletic).
But how do you get it, how long is it available for, and what does it tell us about how PES 2018 will differ from last year’s game?
1. It’s available on PS4 and Xbox One
Konami has shown no favouritism here and made the beta available on both consoles. It’s online multiplayer only so you’ll need a Gold subscription to play it on Xbox, but PlayStation Plus is not required if you’re on PS4. It’s about a 5GB download, which took us a whole morning to coax through Stuff’s wheezing internet pipes, and if you have trouble finding it, remember to be formal and use its full name: Pro Evolution Soccer. Just typing in PES will only bring back the full-game pre-order.
2. It’s only got two teams
Think the annual FIFA demo is stingy with its team selection? The PES beta only gives you two: France and Brazil. Sure, they’re pretty good ones but when you’re only playing back-to-back meaningless friendlies things start to get a bit Groundhog Day pretty quickly. It also means there’s no hint at whether Konami has addressed the useless matchmaking system from PES 2017. The most variation you’ll get is when the kick-off time changes to evening or the heavens open.
3. There's a 3-on-3 co-op mode
“Won’t the pitch be a bit big?” you ask. Very funny. You’re probably well aware that it means three humans controlling each 11-man side but we’ll humour you for now. You can play alongside two teammates of your choice or let the game pick a couple at random. It’s a lot of fun, although the latter in particular makes for a somewhat chaotic experience, with different coloured icons and indicators all over the pitch to show who's in control of which player, where they should be positioned and how well they're performing. On more than one occasion we witnessed players getting caught about 30 yards offside, which, as Andy Gray would tell you, is schoolboy stuff. Get it right, however, and there’s something that little bit more satisfying about knowing that you combined with another human being, without any verbal contact whatsoever, to score a goal.
4. It’s not drastically different
The beta isn't meant to be an indicator of the quality of the finished game but it's obviously going to give away some changes. Visually you’d be hard pressed to tell it apart from PES 2017, although many of the player likenesses continue to be mighty impressive. They’ve really nailed Antoine Griezmann’s awful bouffant hair, although no doubt he’ll have changed it by the time the game comes out. The limited menus you get access to are practically identical and nobody will be pleased to hear the commentary hasn’t changed one bit. Perhaps they’re saving that for the full game. There’s a nice organic feel to the way the players move the ball, with a bit more weight required for passes to reach their destination now, particularly over short distances. It takes a bit of getting used to but there wasn’t much wrong with the gameplay side of PES 2017, so any dramatic overhaul would’ve been unnecessary.
5. There’s an extra player indicator
Usually you just get an indicator hovering over the head of the player who is currently under your control. PES 2018 has added a second one, a fainter yellow triangle that indicates which player control will shift to next. It can be a little distracting, and if you really hate it you can turn it off, but the game not giving you the man you expect when you’re trying to defend a counter attack has been the source of much consternation during Stuff’s lunchtime Pro Evo games for a while now, so this will no doubt be very welcome for some players. If we were being critical, though, it doesn’t feel like the problem has been entirely solved, more patched up.
6. Dead ball guides are gone
You know in previous Pro Evos there was a guideline that would show you at goal kicks, free kicks and corners where the ball was likely to end up? That’s gone. It’s odd at first (unless you regularly play FIFA too) but the default view on goal kicks and most free kicks is now a lot higher, so you get a much better sense of where your players are on the pitch. You can bring it back down to pitch level if you want, but the new view helps you to aim your kicks towards somebody who’s not too closely marked, or someone with a decent chance of laying the ball off to a teammate.
7. You only need one player to kick off
At the start of last season the rules of football changed to say you now only need one player in the centre circle to take kick off. That came too late for last year’s FIFA and Pro Evo games to integrate and hardcore football nerds have been quietly annoyed by it ever since. PES 2018 will right that wrong and purists can finally sleep soundly at night.
8. You’ve got about 10 days with it
Unlike those stingy one-weekend-only betas that are practically over by the time you’ve even downloaded the file, Pro Evo’s runs until the early hours of the 31st, so if you’re really into it you can eke out a few extra hours when everyone else has gone to bed. If you miss it, don’t worry. There’ll be a more standard demo available nearer release.