Before delving into the Riyad Mahrez-deft intricacies of PES 2017, let’s do a Jamie Vardy and power headfirst towards the two questions you’ve come here wanting answered. 1) Is this the best Pro Evolution Soccer game ever made, finally surpassing its PS2 heyday? Answer: Yes. 2) Is it better than FIFA 17? Answer: I honestly haven’t played enough of the latter yet to give a decisive response. So let me add my own third question: Does it do enough to open up an early lead in this year’s virtual title race, ahead of its biggest rival hitting in a fortnight’s time? Answer: Oh yes. For the first time in many years, PES kicks off the season as the game to beat.
Distilling PES 2017’s anything-can-happen greatness down to a few paragraphs is a near-impossible task; the salient thing to take away is that it just plays like real football. Tactical changes matter. Matches tell stories that feel organic rather than contrived. And there’s a sense of uniqueness to every player, every team and every fixture that keeps you hooked night after night, whether it’s battling a mate in exhibition, wilfully getting lost in Master League, or pushing through the included Champions League campaigns (which come in both European and Asian flavours).
Konami has broken PES back down to the fundamentals in order to start anew, and the decision is a masterstroke. Ball control takes the biggest leap from last year, with some juddering physics replaced by wonderfully smooth and lifelike locomotion. Running full-speed at a defender remains as exhilarating as it’s ever been, but patiently stepping through a congested midfield while using deliberate, balletic weight shifts to shield the ball is equally pleasurable. Often more so.
Supplement that improved control with near-effortless passing, and shooting that really does snap – oh, and the most intelligent off-the-ball runs you’ve ever seen in a video game – and you have a sim that truly understands, and accurately imitates, actual football.
The Japanese dev is also clearly aware of criticisms levelled at last year’s effort, and in many areas has done its utmost to fix them. Keepers aren’t perfect, but much improved, to the point that their ability to claim nigh-on every low cross through the six-yard box occasionally grates. You see more fouls, but refs are fairly lenient when it comes to brandishing cards, which makes for a decent balance. (Although the lack of a yellow card icon above a booked player's head makes it tough to track who's on a last warning, an oversight that’s cost me some soft red cards.)
As for the adaptive AI that Konami has repeatedly pushed as a new feature: I’ve been playing non-stop for a fortnight and not registered anything noticeable in this regard. But one reason for that is the AI varies up its tactics smartly by default.
Play on higher difficulty settings and you really get to experience the difference in opposition approaches, and are forced to adjust accordingly. On ‘Super Star’ (six stars), Barcelona’s relentless, short back-and-forth passing makes just regaining possession an achievement, while Madrid’s superhuman width puts huge strain on your wingers and full-backs. Yet at the other end of the spectrum, English second division sides love a diagonal ball in behind, or cloud-bothering punt towards a target man. No danger of Rotherham mimicking Real here.
And the AI isn’t afraid to do mad stuff you’d usually expect from human opponents: dangerous passes from keeper to full back with your striker looming, crosses from near the halfway line, absurdly ambitious pings from distance. In one game as Real Madrid – AKA 'MD White' – against Barca, my keeper, Keylor Navas, fisted a corner away towards an unmarked, computer-controlled Jordi Alba 25 yards from goal. “I’d wallop that,” I thought, knowing there was no chance my opponent’s robot-brain would take such a low-percentage option. Except Alba did wallop it, into the bottom corner. My follow-up thought is unprintable.
As should be the case, things get even more difficult – and complex – when international teams are involved. For GR+’s video review, I wanted to get a clip of Neymar scoring for Brazil and whipping his top off in celebration (one of PES 2017’s more unconventional new features). Even on four-star difficulty, this required a multitude of different opponents and formations to achieve.
Where in recent football games there’s been little means of stopping human-controlled Neymar and Messi and Ronaldo, this year’s PES is no fool from a defensive standpoint. The German pairing of Hummels and Boateng practically swallows Neymar whole, putting in challenges as soon as he wins the ball. France are more patient, but the security blanket of N’Golo Kante at DMF stops me dropping deep to gain possession and shooting from range. And Pepe, of Portugal, is like that German pair rolled into one, unbalancing me with a challenge on almost every shot. I eventually get the clip, but the planned tactic of ‘give it to the best player and let him do an easy goal’ isn’t one that has much joy against PES 2017’s AI. Here’s hoping that’s the case for online matches, too. (With servers being prepared for launch day, there’s been no way to test them pre-release.)
Like in previous PESes, tactical options abound. Using myriad formations and other, deeper strategies – such as being able to instruct full-backs to overlap mid-match – is all part of the glorious learning curve. Just as promised, reality-emulating systems such as tiki-taka and gegenpressing are included, and your players respond accordingly, but these systems are initially hard to find. You need to disable Simple tactics, and head into Advanced Instructions, where you can assign a variety of attacking options (like tiki-taka or false no.9) to up and down on the d-pad, and defensive options (like gegenpressing or swarm the box) to left and right on the d-pad to activate mid-game.
Used in tandem with the preset tactics, these options allow you to more closely mirror Barca’s default attacking style (‘possession game’) and build-up (‘short pass’) than in PES 2016 if you want to play that way as, say, Bournemouth (East Dorsetshire). Slightly confusing if you’ve limited real-life tactical knowledge, but ultimately the feature does work as intended.
However, the setting you need more than any other – sadly – pertains to sound. Specifically: muting the commentary. Compared to the booth advances made in other sports games, such as Madden’s weekly updates, Peter Drury and Jim Beglin are straight out of the analogue era.
Drury’s anodyne play-by-play over-uses phrases he would never say in real life – “knocks it towards the front” – while Beglin regularly lurches from hyperbolic to insomnia-triggering and back again. A two-yard tap-in that’s “nothing short of a cold-blooded execution”? Okay, mate. However FIFA plays this season, the minimal guarantee is that you’ll get top-flight presentation. PES 2017, in this regard, feels National League.
Thankfully the same isn’t true of its menus, which have undergone a long-overdue spring clean. Goodbye, bonkers ‘establishing communications’ start-up message. Large, clear panels direct you around faultlessly, whether it’s to exhibition matches (online or off), longer-term modes (in addition to those mentioned at this review’s outset, there’s MyClub – but that wasn’t available for use before completing this review), or the game’s typically comprehensive editing suite. Arsenal and Liverpool are the only real English sides this year, while Spain is limited to Barca and Atletico, so that mode is a critical inclusion. Although the returning option to import kits, badges and so on means you can (and in my case, will) let someone else do the hard work.
[Along these lines, Konami announced earlier in the summer that you’ll be able to import option files to the PS4 version, covering all of the above. Again, those absent servers mean there's been no way of sampling this feature at present. Once the online systems are go, we'll test and provide you with an update.]
The revised menus serve to make Master League unmissable for the first time in years. While you can choose real players now should you so wish, Master League’s magic was always in taking fictional players and making them great, and a few smart tweaks again facilitate that. Budgets for fees and wages are clearly set, and there’s a nice risk-reward feel to every incoming transfer – push too far in trying to bring the price down and the deal is instantly rendered dead. New player roles include ‘hero’ and ‘bad boy’, and being able to see the in-game likeness of any transfer target, rather than a photo, is a simple-yet-exceptional piece of design. So if you only want to sign players with proper faces, now you can. Amazing.
I deliberately tried not to pop the A-word too early, because it’s both a cliche and has been applied prematurely to so many sports games over recent years. Yet there seems little danger of it needing to be retracted this time around. In terms of on-pitch play, PES is so authentic and varied that it should keep you going for the duration of this season, and beyond. It’s the game lapsed PS2-era fans such as myself have spent nine years dreaming of – one that will, at long last, have you dropping to your knees at 2am in celebration, rather than prayer.
PES 2017 was reviewed on PS4.