In many ways, last year’s PES was a better game than FIFA 17.
It was more nuanced, less reliant on pace and allowed you to employ more varied tactical approaches, rather than just looking to play through-balls in behind the opposition defence or shoot from distance. Pro Evo’s crossing in particular was a revelation, allowing deadly whipped balls where FIFA could only manage to launch harmless, floaty crosses into the area.
But PES 2017’s online mode was a shambles, with a matchmaking system that was at best unfit for purpose and at worse entirely absent. That cost it dearly in a world where online play is key to Maldini-esque longevity. Taking on Barcelona all the time, even if you’d chosen to play as Burton Albion (or at least the game’s version of them), got tedious very quickly.
So can 2018’s version improve even further on the pitch and fix the underlying issues that so fundamentally hobbled it? We pulled on our virtual boots to find out.
The first thing you’ll notice, after the overdue addition of the one-player kick-off, is that passing feels a little looser than before. It could get a touch magnetic in PES 2017, and while that was great for your metronomic tiki-taka, it sometimes felt like the game was going a bit too easy on you, even on the hardest difficulty setting.
That means you’ll spend the first few games raging at your players for their inability to complete what used to be fairly straightforward passes, but soon you’ll become accustomed to the slightly more relaxed style and concentrate on playing it safe. Playing the ball into your frontmen requires good control, strength or a combination of the two, and without support, more often than not it’ll go nowhere.
In fact, do everything at one pace and you’ll struggle to get anywhere. Creating opportunities is about taking risks and the changes to the passing only emphasise that. Players are now better at using their bodies to shield the ball, so you can combine changes of direction with bursts of pace to keep the ball and recycle possession.
Occasionally a pass will inexplicably go astray, either to a teammate it wasn’t intended for or, if you’re unlucky, to a point where it’s easily intercepted by an opposition player. A certain number of these are an inevitable result of the game and your button inputs not quite being in sync - how does it tell the difference between a short, hard pass and a softer, longer one? - and they’re acceptable up to a point. Besides, no real-life team has ever finished a game with 100% passing accuracy and if everything you did went exactly as you imagined it you’d score with every attack, but there are times when a move will break down as a result and you’ll want to pull your hair out.
A defensive masterclass
Perhaps the opposition teams have just got better. Against AI PES 2018 is definitely a tougher game. Failure to maintain defensive shape will more often than not result in conceding a goal as opposition forwards look to exploit gaps left by your wandering back line.
Defending in general seems tougher but more satisfying. Winning defensive headers, particularly from corners, is all about timing, with a couple of steps usually required to get above your opposite number and head the ball away. It feels like there’s less luck involved, giving you more chance of winning the ball against strikers that are good in the air.
Konami has also added an indicator to show which player you’ll take control of next when you’re defending, which goes some way to taking any guesswork out of your defensive organisation, although it still has a habit of refusing to give you control of a man behind the ball when you’re chasing an opposition breakaway.
All your hard work can also be totally undone by a goalkeeper parrying a shot rather than holding it, which they seem to do just often enough to make it annoying. Although perhaps we just spent too many games playing with Simon Mignolet between the sticks.
Setting the pace
PES 2018 is played at a slower pace than your typical FIFA fan will be used to, but it’s a better game for it. Tear around the pitch at full speed and you’ll regularly find yourself dispossessed. Laying off the sprint button opens up the pitch, giving you time and space to find a teammate or take your marker by surprise by suddenly bursting past them. That makes it possible to play on the edges of your opponent’s penalty box looking for an opening.
Konami has added what it calls Real Touch+, which basically means that dextrous use of the left stick can be used to manipulate the ball in tight spaces, allowing you to beat opposition defenders and exploit the smallest of gaps without having to learn any beat-‘em-up-style button combos. Wannabe Ronaldos can still spend hours perfecting stepovers, flip flaps and rainbow flicks but the point is you can beat players with just a good old-fashioned burst of pace.
It also means a player will attempt to use the most suitable part of their body to control or pass the ball depending on how they receive it. Sounds like a really basic thing, right? But it opens up the possibility for Zlatan-style kung-fu finishes, cute outside-of-the-boot control and ensures defenders try to head the ball back to the keeper when possible rather than putting him under pressure with a back-pass. It sounds minor but it helps build confidence in possession, which is important when losing the ball in your own final third can so easily mean conceding.
Dead ball specialist
One of the most noticeable changes is the new system for dead balls. Gone is the ghostly indicator that showed the general trajectory of the ball, meaning its final destination is much more about guesswork.
To help, at goal kicks the camera defaults to a higher vantage point, although finding a man wearing the same shirt seems to be almost pure luck unless you pass out from the back.
Corners have a similarly low success rate, although that’s in line with the real-life stats, and while the free-kicks have lost the angle indicator too, it doesn’t seem so hard to get them on target anymore. In fact, giving them away in dangerous areas is not a good idea at all.
Visually PES 2018 is almost identical to last year’s game. The box-based interface is a game of spot the difference, the pre-match team selection and tactics screens haven’t changed a bit, and graphically it’s a case of marginal gains. It’s a good job they’ve changed the music or it might be difficult to tell whether you’d put the right disc in.
Player likenesses were already impressive and that hasn’t changed. The Agueros, Pogbas and Hazards of the world look every bit the part, with Olivier Giroud’s beard a thing of exquisite beauty and Kevin De Bruyne’s ‘grown-up child star’ look absolutely spot-on - but you don’t have to delve too far into the squads of lower Premier League sides before Johnny Generic’s face starts appearing.
There’s still little going on in terms of facial expressions, too, so things can get a bit Thunderbirds during close-ups, although to be fair, not even the world’s most powerful supercomputer could replicate the gurning face of Phil Jones in full flow.
No more Neymar
That brings us to the thorny issue of kits and teams names. Konami have thrown almost all of their eggs in the Barcelona basket again this year, although that means Neymar is all over the menus and intro sequence wearing the stripes of the Blaugrana rather than the red and blue of his new club Paris St Germain. Awkward.
That almost feels representative of the game as a whole: it’s nearly there, there’s just something glaringly obvious that’s not quite right.
Team licensing hasn’t improved from last year, so only Arsenal and Liverpool have their correct kits in the Premier League, Fulham are the lone Championship team with the right kit and aside from a smattering of clubs the Bundesliga is entirely absent again.
France is fully licensed across the top two divisions, as is the Eredivisie from Holland, but Spain only has Barca and Atletico Madrid, while only the three major teams in Portugal are all present and correct. Italy fares a lot better but the glaring omission is Serie A’s most famous side and current champion: Juventus.
There are plenty of fully licensed South American sides but Gremio, Racing and Palmeiras just don’t hold the same appeal for most people as Chelsea, Bayern Munich or Real Madrid.
Editing the club names is easy enough, if a bit of a pain, but you’re still left with a load of teams wearing the wrong kits. Sure, it doesn’t affect how the game plays but kits are such an emotive part of football - why else would Cardiff fans be so fussed when their crazy owner tried to change their shirts from blue to red?
It won’t be long before some enterprising PS4 players on the internet will upload option files that’ll allow you to overwrite the kit designs and ensure all teams are wearing the right colours, but not everyone has the time or inclination to do that. For more casual fans, the fact is that it’s off putting and will only make FIFA 18 look like the better option.
Offline is the new online
These are all criticisms that were levelled at the game last year but the fact that you can play an officially licensed version of the Champions League but the current holders of the trophy are only known as MD White hasn’t got any less preposterous.
Elsewhere Master League is the same time sink it always was and if you play as a team from one of the fully licensed leagues it actually does a pretty good impression of FIFA’s career mode, with in-game graphics specific to the competition.
The transfer market within the Master League universe is a little unrealistic but no more so than FIFA’s, and who wants to play a game of fantasy football that doesn’t allow a bit of escapism anyway?
There are also Europa League campaigns, ongoing leagues that allow you to play without worrying about transfers or contracts, and various domestic cups, but it’s the online modes that most people buy football games for.
Pro Evo’s online seasons give you 10 games to earn enough points for promotion, but it’s not as simple as three for a win and one for a draw. The better the team you pick the more points you receive for a victory, so East Sussex (aka Brighton & Hove Albion) will earn you a maximum of 630 points per win, while Man Red (aka Manchester United) only bag you 355.
It then matches you up against a player who has won a similar number of points to you overall but doesn’t take your choice of team into account, so unless you pick one of the game’s best sides, you’ll often find yourself playing very mismatched encounters.
The team of choice for Pro Evo players with no imagination this year seems to have switched from Barca to PSG, which we’ll attribute to the Neymar effect. Getting a win against the odds is hugely satisfying but it also results in a fair number of predictable defeats where the standard of the opposition’s players is just too high.
It’s a real shame, because when you come up against a player of a similar skill level, with a well-matched team, PES 2018 has offered up some of the most enjoyable online football matches we’ve ever played: absorbing, exciting and most important of all, competitive. It’s just a shame they’re all too rare.
Like last year there’s so much to recommend about PES 2018 but it comes with significant caveats.
Anyone buying it does so in the knowledge that it won’t be like playing an interactive version of Super Sunday and if you’re not prepared to at least edit the team names it’s hard to recommend. Even the most hardcore football hipster will only get so much out of playing as Eredivisie and Ligue 1 teams.
If you’re willing to accept its flaws, on the pitch PES is a football game with real depth, that recreates the patterns of play you see on real pitches every Saturday afternoon more closely than ever before. It rewards teamwork, vision and patience rather than pushing people towards individual skill, although the most talented players can still do damage on their own.
That makes its offline options more appealing than they might otherwise be but with its online mode still a frustrating experience you might find yourself craving new challenges before next season starts.
Anyone unconvinced by PES before won’t find anything new here to tempt them now but those who had submitted to its charms won't be disappointed.