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.