Since the mid-2000s, Pro Evolution Soccer (now formally abbreviated to PES) has resembled one of those once-great footballing names now reduced to scraping an existence in the lower divisions – a Leeds United or Sheffield Wednesday, say. In the early 2000s, though, PES’s annual tussle with EA Sports’ Fifa was one of the games industry’s great rivalries. PES was the option for the purists, its stimulating fast-paced and highly tactical gameplay providing a thrilling simulation of the beautiful game. But Fifa had the flashy presentation and its expensive official licence, and from 2008 onwards a much-improved on-pitch experience, allowing it build a seemingly unassailable lead. As a result, Fifa became one of the UK’s best-selling games, PES stagnated.
However, last year’s PES 2016 represented an impressive comeback, thanks mainly to vastly improved graphics and physics brought by a switch to the Fox game engine, which also powered Metal Gear Solid V. Happily, PES 2017 builds considerably on that sudden improvement, addressing many (though not all) of the criticisms that still dogged its predecessor. Compared to the commercial might of Fifa 2017, it’s still an underdog of Leicester City proportions, but in some fundamental areas it outshines its brash, flashy rival.
PES 2017’s standout attribute – which harks right back to the glory days of the series – is the sheer football feel it offers. Passes go exactly where you aim them, at the speed you specify. Loose balls ping around convincingly: you must work hard to get them under control, and your adrenalin levels are just as likely to be spiked by a scrappy period of penalty-box pinball as by an immaculate volley from a perfectly executed cross.
The game’s AI is exemplary. Forward players, for example, are wont to point when they embark on runs, rendering the through-ball pass much more useful than in Fifa, and central defenders steadfastly refuse to charge upfield like headless chickens when opposition attackers encroach on your penalty area. There’s an incredible amount of fine-control over tactics, which can easily be switched according to match situations – you can even instruct your players to ape Barcelona’s tiki-taka style or Jurgen Klopps’ gegenpressing, with potentially hilarious results if their close-control skills fall short of those possessed by Messi et al.
The most notable area which drew criticism in PES 2016 but has been comprehensively fixed in this year’s offering is the game’s menu system. Previously, it was a scrappy mess, with key screens buried in odd places, but in PES 2017, it is sufficiently logical that it doesn’t stick out as a weakness. You still find some rather odd terminology when trawling the menus (as is often the case with titles translated from Japanese), but at least the key elements are easily accessible now.