For as long as I can remember, Pro Evolution Soccer has been a series defined by its past and not its present. And over the last twelve years sequels have come and gone without any of them ever living up to Pro Evo’s own genre defining moment (PES 6) where the gameplay there is regarded as the stuff of legend. And so a game which means so much to so many, has been for a long time lost in a shadow cast by its own history.
If you’ve kept your ear to the ground on all things PES over the last few years you’ll know the game has been quietly inching back towards its former glory, and arguably usurps FIFA in a number of key areas. But what PES hasn’t done is pull all those individual threads of promise together into one cohesive experience. Thankfully, this is where PES 2018 excels.
One of the main reasons ex-PES fanatics and FIFA converts still dismiss the series is clearly based on the games visuals. The licensing situation is well known, and to a degree understandable but graphically PES has still lagged significantly behind FIFA in the vanity stakes. And I know certain people would argue that “it doesn’t matter” or “it’s not high priority” but in terms of the bringing to life the football worlds Konami are trying to recreate, it absolutely does.
And that’s one of the thing that strikes you as soon as you first lay eyes on PES 2018; just how good it looks. It’s almost as if Konami have flipped the ‘next-gen’ switch for the first time because the contrast between PES 2017 and PES 2018 is that stark. The lighting, pitches and stadiums all look absolutely fantastic. And the player models and faces are some of the best recreations I’ve ever seen. Stylistically it’s still very much ‘a PES production’, but the gap between PES and FIFA graphically is now so minute that people who’ve discounted it on visuals alone, will be forced to take notice.
Then there’s the all-important gameplay, which is noticeably slower than the hi-octane PES 2017. And that more considered pacing is accompanied by a much greater weight to the way players feel to control. Crucially though that more grounded style hasn’t been to the detriment of responsiveness, with the ‘right’ players still feeling razor sharp in possession. It’s incredibly refreshing to see PES adopt this more simulation based approach to match pacing because it moves the series firmly away from the ‘arcade’ tag it’s been rather unfairly labelled with in the recent past.
As well as being slower generally, there’s also a much greater depth to locomotion across the player spectrum with Godin and Pique for example, noticeably slower to turn than Neymar and Griezmann. Who by comparison glide effortlessly across the pitch. Those are obvious examples to pick, but the distance between these players in terms of manoeuvrability is larger than in previous games, and what that creates is a natural tension within the attack versus defence meta. A tension rarely felt in football games from this generation. It also further emphasises Pro Evo’s famous player individuality, which is now more defined and important to consider than ever.
It’s a fine balancing act to get those two ends of the scale playing in harmony but PES 2018 makes a great fist of doing so, with flair dribblers (who are finally scary to defend against), countered by all new physicality and contextual shielding which give defenders a very different, but equally powerful toolset to deal with 1v1 situations. I honestly can’t think of a football game which has stuck this balance as well as PES 2018 does, and it’s something that only hands-on experience can really do full justice.
But it’s not just the way the players move that’s changed in PES 2018, as the ball also has a much weightier feel in motion. I’m a huge fan of the passing in PES 2017 and this year’s iteration feels like a natural evolution on that already successful formula. In PES 2018 there’s a lot more variety to all ball striking activity in fact, but ground passing has received special attention. For example, when you fully charge a ground pass there’s now a chance the ball will lift off the ground rather than persistently hugging the surface. It sounds trivial, but that small change creates so many onward opportunities for new and exciting things to happen. Especially when combined with PES 2018’s new trapping system which will see players attempt to control the ball at any height; thigh, chest or otherwise. It looks more natural and it makes many of the routine passes and patterns from PES 2017 feel genuinely new again.
It’s also another nod to the wider PES strategy of prioritising contextual output based on body/foot position and player stats. Rather than the FIFA model which instead offers a button modifier for each and every pass/shot/cross type that exists. Whether you like, or dislike that approach is down to personal preference I guess, but there is undoubtedly something special about the contextual approach, which in PES 2018 has the ability to produce some genuine ‘wow’ moments.
The new ball variation also works in tandem with more sensitive power control, which (finally) provides space for players to under, or over hit passes. That tweak again adds more diversity to the way matches flow and quite a few habits from previous titles need to be relearnt as a result. At the start of the playtest I was under hitting passes fairly regularly (no more tapping X) but as always you quickly adjust, and that renowned Pro Evo zip to passing is still there when the right power is applied. That said, it’s just as refreshing to see passes miss their target because it’s very rare these days that developers trust their audience to deal with imperfection.
The ball also seems to be more disconnected from the players too, which creates yet more space for realistic things to happen. It sounds like a fairly innocuous scenario but from a goal kick Suarez was backing into Godin, and they both misjudged the flight and ball which bounced just in front of them. They both then jostled and leapt in unison for the ball at the second attempt. In PES 2017 that goal kick would have landed on a defender’s head every time, of that I’m sure. And it’s those little moments of realism which are so familiar in real football, and yet so unfamiliar in football gaming, that are a genuine delight to see represented in PES 2018.
If there’s one area, I’d like to see more variation in its shooting. Which although very much improved from PES 2017, still has a predictable feel in terms of power and lateral movement. I did see examples of shots moving in the air and dipping late, but they were few and far between during the playtest. Balancing these areas of physics requires a deft touch, but I think Konami could safely dial up the variables on shot behaviour, without causing major harm. Shooting was good, but ranked alongside some of the bolder design choices seen across the rest of the gameplay, it felt a bit safe.
Because the goalkeepers, yes the goalkeepers are actually good! I still saw a few moments (near post mostly) where keepers could have reacted better, but overall the new animation suite they possess seems to have resolved many of the core issues that have too often plagued the series. One handed and fingertip saves were both working well and I also noticed keepers holding on to a much higher percentage of shots than normal. That itself goes some way towards resolving the most annoying PES 2017 keeper habit of palming shots meekly back in to the danger area for easy tap-ins.
Another PES 2017 annoyance which I found to be greatly improved was crossing, which now sees far more situations contested by defenders, rather than a free run and header for the attacker. Cross spam was an unfortunate blot on the otherwise excellent PES League Finals this season, so it’s nice to see the devs address that exploit so quickly.
As you may have seen in the various PES 2018 reveals there’s also a new camera position for goal kicks, free kicks and corners which offers a more elevated view of the action. Visually it looks a lot nicer and functionally for goal kicks it opens up options to target specific areas of the pitch with greater precision. Rather than launching the ball aimlessly up the pitch. It’s a welcome perspective to have and for close range free kicks where you’re more likely to shoot, you can choose to toggle it on or off with R3.
The actual mechanics of striking dead balls have seen changes too, with more options available for long free kicks, short free kicks and corner routines, but the best and most pronounced change by far is to penalties. Over the last few years EA and Konami have been locked in a battle to over-complicate penalties but thankfully PES 2018 takes them right back to basics. Aim left, right or middle, power up and let the stats of the player take over. Penalties still require the analogue stick direction to be held for longer to get shots right in the corners, but it’s much more forgiving than before (depending on the taker) meaning a much high percentage of kicks actually land on target. You can still miss all together from the spot (trust me…) but it’s a welcome simplification to an aspect of football which never really needed messing with.
I spent all of my time with PES 2018 playing against other people (Gari/Nico) so I didn’t get a chance to sample the AI, but even in the absence of that I still saw clear team styles bleeding through. Whether it was Atletico’s disciplined, tough to break down shape, or Barca’s high press Tiki-Taka, both of these styles were still visible even when controlled by us. It made for some really intense tactical battles, and it bodes very well for PES 2018 online if Konami can get their infrastructure in order. The beta in July will very much be the acid test for that, and here’s hoping they can stabilise what has been a very turbulent, verging on broken part of PES 2017.
I’ve been one of Pro Evo’s biggest critics over the last few years, but I have to say I was genuinely blown away by what I played this week. Far and away the best thing about PES 2018 is just how balanced and natural the ebb and flow of matches feel to play. And when that slower pacing clicks with the individuality of the players, the ball and the team styles, it makes for a truly remarkable football gaming sandbox. And that’s with just the five teams we had to choose from on the day, let alone the full roster the final game will come with.
This is no rags to riches story either, because as I mentioned right at the start, PES has been slowly making gains on FIFA, feature by feature, mode by mode for a number of years now. But I don’t think anyone (myself included) could have predicted just how ground breaking the changes to PES 2018’s gameplay would be, and in such a short space of time too.
The challenge for Konami now is to hold fast on their vision for PES 2018, ensuring that the current build is maintained and cultivated carefully in the run up to launch. If they can deliver innovation only where it’s needed, alongside a more compelling Master League experience, they will finally topple PES 6’s nostalgia fuelled reign as the football connoisseurs’ game of choice. And in doing so, they will likely create a completely new benchmark for which all football games will be based.
And so a game which means so much to so many, is finally looking towards the future, rather than back at the past.
You can find Dave on Twitter at @Dave797