If Pro Evolution Soccer was a footballer, it would be Wayne Rooney. The series occasionally shows glimpses of greatness, going on to win plenty of critical acclaim and plaudits without ever really convincing the public that it’s the real deal. It used to be the most popular football game out there, competing toe-to-toe with flashier rivals before some complacency set in down the line. Despite its rough edges, PES has almost always been charming enough that you could easily look past its lack of finesse, just like the current villain of Old Trafford.
With the release of PES 2017, Konami’s storied football series is now Wayne Rooney at 18: the bullish, fresh young man who raised a few eyebrows and won plenty of fans. Pro Evolution Soccer is back and better than ever.
Owing much to the changes brought in for PES 2016, this year’s PES didn’t need to go back to the drawing board to improve. The gameplay, although not drastically different, clearly benefits from an extra year of familiarity with the Fox engine. Most of the kinks have been ironed out and what worked well last year remains largely the same, which isn’t to say that PES 2017 has just been a $60 roster update. Without wanting to stray into hyperbole, it’s probably the best football game since Pro Evolution Soccer 3 on the PlayStation 2.
The beauty of football games, whether their deriders like to admit so or not, is in the ability to truly feel like you’re on the pitch. At almost 25 and having not kicked a competitive ball in five years, I realise that I will probably never be able to emulate Roberto Carlos, despite what my inner child wants me to believe. As ridiculous as it may sound, PES 2017 makes me feel like a footballer, like it’s me switching the play with a beautiful pass, lashing the ball into the top corner, or providing an exquisite through ball. Each pass and shot feels incredibly satisfying.
The ball goes where you want it to go with the pace of your choosing, meaning that with a little bit of practice, Barcelona will soon be on the phone asking how you do it. Last year’s PES put a heavy emphasis on crossing with plenty of complaints coming in suggesting that any ball put into the box would end up in the back of the net. Konami have noticed that and changed things as defenders close down properly and predict where the cross will land. Scoring in PES 2017 is a much harder task, meaning that you’re going to have to have an expansive game plan if you want to get ahead.
As much as FIFA’s fans may laud the game, it’s almost undeniable that the AI is rudimentary at best. Where FIFA’s players may haphazardly bulldozer their way to the ball and hope for the best, PES 2017 takes a realistic approach. Every tackle, block, and run is similar to real life and is based on individual skill and common sense – when your teammate has clear space to run into or an overlapping attacker to contend with, they do their jobs. Blaming the AI for your failures has never been more difficult.
Goalkeepers, the bane of any football game, still aren’t perfect here, but they’re probably the best they’ve ever been. They still have an affection for pushing saves into the path of attackers, meaning that low crosses are an easy exploit. That being said, speculative shots from outside the box won’t go in half as often and being through on goal still isn’t a certainty, creating heart-pumping moments during close matches. Despite having played almost every football game available since FIFA 97, PES 2017 somehow manages to get the adrenaline pumping and the fingers twitching.
Mode depth is something that can really define the longevity of a sports game. Series fans have nothing to worry about with PES 2017: there’s plenty of content here, online and offline, that will keep you busy until the cycle begins again next year.
MyClub is the mode that Konami want to push you the most, owing to its microtransactions. However, you don’t even need to spend a penny; in fact, grinding it out and patiently growing your team from the ground up is infinitely more pleasing than doing an Abramovich and buying an advantage over the competition. Finding the right chemistry between teammates, choosing the perfect manager with a decent system, and keeping the team ticking over until you can really compete against other players is hugely rewarding.
Master League, a name which could probably do with a little bit of contemporising, is barely different from last year, if at all. Having played last year’s edition to almost exhaustion, notable changes weren’t obvious when I decided it was time to take Everton to the summit of football once again. That isn’t to say it plays exactly the same, though – it feels even more like being a manager than before, owing a lot to the gameplay changes in general. PES 2017 offers more depth than ever in a tactical sense, so if you want to do a Mourinho and park the bus whenever you’re scared of the opposition, you can. Playing as Everton, a team in transition, I put a heavy emphasis on defence and counter-attacking so that my speedy wingers and the brutish Lukaku could bully the opposition. With more than a handful of 5-2 scorelines, I walked to the Premier League title. Yes, Premier League. Not English League.
Probably the biggest complaint PES’s detractors have is that it’s not properly licensed. Each year they seem to do a raffle to decided who should have licensed kits and who should not, meaning that a lot of the time, you will come across some pretty atrocious unofficial names for teams and basic kits. This has never been an issue for me personally, especially considering how easy it is to add the proper licensing. You can even change competition names and logos, which helps the immersion a great deal.
However, just like Wayne Rooney, PES 2017 does not flatter with its presentation, sometimes looking a little scrappy and less than refined. In many ways, it’s a rough diamond that will never be fully polished, owing much to its Japanese translations and underdog nature. Menus are better and easier to navigate, but there’s still the sense of preferring brand familiarity over what’s popular. The fonts are dated, the spelling mistakes are aplenty, and in many areas it still feels like it’s stuck in its PlayStation 2 era. For those who prefer FIFA’s contemporary and immaculate presentation, PES 2017 won’t convince them to change sides.
The commentary also doesn’t waste time in sounding like your two most annoying uncles talking about football in different rooms using a cup and string. No disrespect to either Peter Drury and Jim Beglin, but it seems like they aren’t taking the right direction, probably due to language issues. Odd phrases (“we await the end of the pre-game formalities”) and pacing issues really take a lot out of you after a while – Drury will be saying something and have a delayed reply for Beglin, who will then just keep talking as the play changes. Having him rabbit on during the intense moments is beyond annoying.
Network problems have always plagued PES games and it’s no different here. It takes minutes to find a simple match and lag is far too common for it to be a smooth and satisfying encounter. Instead of feeling like you’re going toe-to-toe with another player, it’s like you’re trying to take on Konami’s servers. It’s still early days and it may yet improve, but the roughness of online play means that I have spent most of my time with PES 2017 offline. For the biggest indication of the budget difference between PES and FIFA, try to play online in both and it will become obvious pretty quickly.
Despite its flaws, PES 2017 is absolutely the best game of simulated football in years, if not ever. FIFA 17 may shift the most copies as the series always does, but PES 2017 is the smarter option, just like it was back in its glory days. Pro Evolution Soccer truly is back.