“Nearly is nothing,” yells commentator Peter Drury as I lash a shot wide with Philippe Coutinho – and it could be said that mantra applies to the whole of PES 2018. No feature has been left untouched, no piece of gameplay left untweaked and, truth be told, the final on-pitch product amounts to the freshest PES in nearly a decade.
***UPDATE: We've updated our review on 14th September at 16.01 to reflect online play on live servers – see our thoughts below the main review***
The list of new (and returning) features reads like a checklist of complaints being ticked off one-by-one by the team at Konami: set-pieces have been completely re-worked allowing for greater freedom from corners and free-kicks; animations feel more fluid than ever; Random Selection mode (essentially a cross between a random generator and fantasy football) makes a welcome return and, yes, even the soundtrack has been given a boost. Bruno Mars and Chris Martin are just a few of the artists who’ll be providing your earworms to hum in the shower for the foreseeable future.
However, the biggest and most important change comes in the form of the game’s pace. The overall speed is a tad slower and deliberate than previous years, creating a more realistic feel, but the AI no longer employs meandering keep-ball tactics. The AI's attacking aggression makes for a more frenetic and fun intensity, so complacency will be punished. Every bobble, deflection and mis-timed pass moves the game one step closer to the uncanny football valley and away from a static, magnetic system. It not only borrows from the gung-ho real-life systems of counter-kings Atletico Madrid and Leicester City but – whisper it – might just be a FIFA-killer. It means that players such as N’Golo Kante, a midfielder destroyer whose type is regularly glossed over in virtual football, becomes a far more vital part of how you’ll play your game. Don’t worry, though, you can still employ tiki-taka to your heart’s content but the game allows far more styles of play that insist on skill, speed and movement. It’s a neat touch and duly rewards intelligent play.
The AI plays a big part in the on-field changes, too. The higher difficulty levels will see you get picked off with reckless abandon if you make too many silly mistakes which, as a Crystal Palace fan, I know all about. My first game this year was, unwisely, against moneybags Paris Saint-Germain. I recoil in horror as Cavani shields the ball from my back four as Angel di Maria runs into space in chase of a lofted through-ball. The Argentinian made no mistake in tucking the ball home but I feel like it could have been different. I know it could have been different. It never feels cheap, just purely reactive. I now know not to go gung-ho against PSG – and I’ll keep that in mind for future games against them.
But this being football, one single tactic won’t work as a catch-all, and that’s part of the beauty of this year’s PES. You have to be smart, you have to adapt and you have to be really wary of how the AI react. You get the impression that opponents study and learn from your actions mid-game rather than stubbornly stick to generic direct or short-passing styles as was their wont in prior years.
How do the changes affect the feel of PES 2018?
If the chess-match style of play makes the game sound like a chore then worry not. The gameplay feels more natural than ever, and it really hoofs FIFA’s simple style into row Z. Take, for example, a Champions League match between Atletico Madrid and Arsenal: I chest the ball down with Antoine Griezmann and, in one fluid movement, dink the ball with the outside of the foot past an onrushing Petr Cech. Simply put, it’s a goal you can’t score in FIFA; you just know what you’re getting with EA’s efforts nine-times-out-of-ten if you line things up at the right angle. Here, for better or worse, the unpredictability and ability to improvise only adds to the spectacle of the sport’s recreation.
The changes aren’t all revolutionary, though. Master League, that grand old PES mainstay, has undergone some changes but they either feel purely cosmetic or, in some cases, truly baffling. The main Master League menus have been relegated to one swish-looking screen, but that still masks a few faults that can’t be overlooked, mainly the transfers. Oh, the transfers.
If you wanted to know what it was like living in a bizarro football world then Master League is the place to be. Transfers range from the outrageous – Asensio for £15m! – to the infuriating: stupidly-low release clauses meaning your players will often be on the move for a fraction of their value. If you want a realistic career mode then you’d best look elsewhere. Football Manager carries far more depth and even FIFA has its feet placed more firmly on the ground than this year’s Master League salvo. Even the addition of a Challenge option to Master League adds more realism with contract negotiations, fear of the sack, and delicately balancing the egos of the prima donnas in the dressing room can’t massage Master League into something resembling realism.
Single-player, however, isn’t the be-all and end-all of PES. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, online features aren’t available* (Note: Please see our updated views on online play below now that servers are live). Despite that, the all-encompassing PES League eSports integration this year (fresh off a $200,000 World Finals in June) promises to be a confident, swaggering stride forward as opposed to last year’s tentative steps. This season it’ll be easier than ever to mix with the pros and be in with a chance of winning some serious cheddar. And, if online match-ups aren’t your bag, Pro Evo is still as fun as ever with to play with friends.
But, for all of its brilliance, familiar foibles remain to stop PES from obtaining true greatness: goalkeepers are still frustratingly inconsistent – a real shame when the rest of the game is fuelled by incisive, intelligent play – and adverse weather conditions make a mockery of the on-pitch action. Players slipping over are commonplace and games often degenerate into something akin a drunken pool party. The presentation, too, is still lacking, despite changes. The sterile feel of menus is ever-present, which is heavily at odds with the rest of the game – and as for the banal, irritable commentary? Hit. That. Mute. Button. I’ve heard more fluid speech from a stuttering Microsoft Sam.
If you're a PES veteran you'll also know to expect very little in the way of official licensing. Only Arsenal and Liverpool make the cut out of the 20 Premier League teams and, if you're wanting to recreate El Clasico, then you'll have to settle for Barcelona squaring off against Real Madrid's PES counterpart MD White. Thankfully, if you own a PS4, that situation should be rectified when the ever-diligent Pro Evo community whip up an Option File to include all of the 17/18 kits and badges. Xbox One users, however, will have to make do with what they've got - for the time being.
No matter the grumbles, those issues can’t take away from PES 2018’s overall recreation of the beautiful game. The same questions are asked every year of annual football/soccer simulations, is this better than last year? (Undoubtedly) Is it better than FIFA (We’ll have to wait and see, but probably) and, maybe, just maybe, is it the best football game ever? The answer is… nearly. As a wise commentator once said, nearly is nothing, but this is as close as we’ve gotten to Pro Evo perfection in a long, long time.
Online update – 14th September:
Now the servers have gone live, I can say without hesitation that PES 2018’s online offerings are comfortably the best in the series. Lag-free matches are now the norm rather than a frustrating anomaly, and there’s now truly something for everyone, veteran or otherwise. Casual players can dip in and out of the 2 v 2 and 3 v 3 co-op modes which, strangely enough for an online mode, favours teamwork and unselfish play, rewarding you for doing so. MyClub, the distant cousin of FIFA’s Ultimate Team has seen very few changes but is now easier than ever to get to grips with. Its RPG-lite style also makes it far deeper and more fulfilling experience than Ultimate Team should be willing to put in the hours.
PES League is for the hardcore only (having routinely been swept aside, I should know) and, as mentioned above, will serve as a gateway to Pro Evo’s eSports component. While companies getting involved in eSports is nothing new, the chance for console gamers to take home serious money and get involved in national tournaments has never been easier. Time to brush up on your skills… there's no excuses now.