PES 2018 hands-on: Usain Bolt, sublime gameplay and the 'end of history'

In 1992, political scientist Francis Fukuyama posited that western liberal democracy may signal the end of mankind’s social evolution. His argument was that we had reached the final form of government, where no further iteration was possible, which he described as the ‘end of history’. In 2017, the latest instalment of Pro Evolution Soccer, PES 2018, is making a similar argument for football games. We’ve reached a stage where PES and FIFA are so sophisticated, there is no language to describe them which doesn’t sound like an echo of previous sequels. Football games are approaching their final form – for the foreseeable future, at least – but they’re no less fun.

So, officially, PES 2018 is everything PES 2017 and PES 2016 was, only more. Or less. Players are more individual. Keepers are more varied. The pace is slower. You get the picture… it’s all just more intuitive and, well, like *football*. Master League is being re-over-overhauled. Again. Most welcome, there will be 3 vs 3 online games, and the ‘random team’ matches of ye olde PS2-era PES are back; so luck allowing, you might get to play as Eden Hazard, Alexis Sanchez and, er, Lee Cattermole in a Random Selection Match Premier League team.

"Stars like Messi are able to weave geometric patterns as if tracing a William Morris print laid under the turf"

I got to play four 10-minute matches, from a demo roster including Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, Atletico Madrid, Liverpool and Brazil. Fans of PES 2017 will immediately feel at home. It’s tactical, physical and with an emphasis on slowing play down; initiating runs, playing cross field balls and really working gaps in the opposition defence. Close control is sublime, with stars like Messi and Suarez able to weave geometric patterns as if tracing a William Morris print laid under the turf, using subtle sweeps and juts of the analogue stick. Huge circle button hoofs feel more effective at spreading play, flying lower and quicker than before.

How does PES 2018 feel to play?

It’s as difficult as ever to work clear shots on goal, but the variety is thrilling: An angled corner kick thundered into the bottom post by a charging Suarez header, an audacious overhead kick from Neymar (that flumped over the bar), and a 60 yard hit and hope / through ball, taken on the half-turn by Messi’s chest, leaving the advancing defenders flat-footed as he scampered through to pass the ball cooly (with an R2 finesse shot) into the bottom corner. Those are the highlights, though – and the norm was a series of rushed snap-shots that flashed wide, or drilled innocently into the keeper’s safe hands. Except when the keeper spills an innocuous shot under pressure, that is. As we said… it’s unpredictable. Football.

PES 2018 looks fantastic, of course, peppered with incidental animations, like dangling legs left in tackles, last ditch toe-poke passes and delicately lofted dinks applied in a context-sensitive situation by skilled players like Coutinho to avoid onrushing defenders. Further praise, or criticism, feels moot based on our very limited play time, but it feels almost certain to be the most iterated, and almost by default, best PES yet. So, based on the exceptionally high bar set by PES 2017 – and barring any balancing flaws yet to reveal themselves – only on course to be the best *playing* football game of all time.

History suggests the real battle won’t be fought on-the-pitch, but in menus, licensing and game modes. PES has lagged behind FIFA in that regard, and we’re yet to see any new modes to rival FIFA 17’s interesting The Journey mode (a rags-to-riches football RPG, of sorts), which has made a micro-star of its imaginary hero, Alex Hunter. PES 2018 does, bizarrely, star Usain Bolt as a playable character, available as a pre-order bonus, which feels about as fitting a signifier for the ‘end of history’ as one might dare to imagine. We look forward to playing more PES 2018 soon, with an iteration of the E3 demo, as you'd expect, likely available at Gamescom in August.

Make sure you check out our full E3 2017 schedule to stay tuned for all the details as they arrive, and check out our roundup of all the E3 2017 trailers.