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PRO EVOLUTION SOCCER 2016 REVIEW
PES 2016 might well be the best football game ever made.
To explain why is something of a challenge. The improvements don’t lend themselves easily to snappy back-of-the-box soundbites. I can’t point to a single change or addition that makes all the difference. Rather, it’s a game that has been refined in dozens of small ways, all of which have a cumulatively positive effect. This year, PES has shaken off the last remnants of PS2-era rigidity, delivering a faster, more responsive and more fluid game of football. I’m always a little reluctant to make direct comparisons to FIFA – not least as I’ve only played the demo version of EA Sports’ game – because the two handle in such distinctly different ways. For my money, while FIFA more accurately recreates the look of the sport, PES is the game that most closely captures the feel.
For starters, there’s a much stronger sense of physicality this year. It’s most obvious when players jostle for possession (and, indeed, for position). Before, it often felt like outcomes were binary, but it’s no longer quite so predictable. Context is everything: whether you win or lose the ball in a challenge is dependent on a number of factors, taking into consideration the skill of the players involved and their position in relation to the ball and one another. A clean slide tackle is particularly satisfying: contingent on player momentum, they’re among the most tangible demonstrations of your ability to read the game and your opponent. Referees are thankfully more lenient than in real life: you can barrel into a challenge at speed, cleaning out the player as well as winning the ball, but as long as you make contact, it won’t automatically draw a foul. By the same token, if you repeatedly jab X while running alongside an opponent to attempt a standing tackle, rather than waiting for the right moment to step in, then you’re bound to concede a free-kick.
The attacking game has been tweaked, too, and it’s here you’ll first notice the effort Konami has invested in individualising players. Anyone with a low centre of gravity – like Alexis Sanchez, Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero – is a joy to control, as these players have the balance to skip over challenges, occasionally stumbling when clipped but always striving to stay on their feet.
There’s a clear difference between these players and someone like Raheem Sterling, who has whippet-like pace, but his slight build means he’s outmuscled much more easily. You might win the odd free-kick with a bit of trickery, but if you’re planning to use his pace, you’re better off playing the ball in behind for him to sprint onto – aim through balls too close to defenders and he’ll be bundled off it all too easily. Shooting is similarly contextual, and the type of strike noticeably varies from player to player. Tevez in particular has a Howitzer of a right foot, and while you’d ordinarily expect the ball to rise the longer you press the shot button, it’s a joy to see him thundering a low-bouncing strike below the dive of the goalkeeper, fizzing off the surface to send the net billowing. Talking of ‘keepers, they’re more alert and reactive this time around, scrambling across their goal to palm away daisy-cutters, and getting up quickly to lunge at loose balls they’ve just parried.
The idea of player personality goes well beyond the game’s biggest stars. As a Manchester City fan, I naturally gravitated towards them for my first few matches; I expected to find Yaya Toure would be hard to stop when galloping at defenders, and that a typical David Silva through-ball would be a thing of measured perfection. But I was thrilled to see the tenacity of Pablo Zabaleta equally well represented, while Aleksandar Kolarov’s marauding runs down the left would invariably result in a cross whipped in with a palpable increase in pace from the norm. It works both ways, of course: Vincent Kompany might be imperious in the air, but his tendency to step up and try to win the ball early can be exploited by clever tactics. One opponent was able to use this to his advantage, regularly finding gaps down the channels until I made a change to tighten things up. Like last year’s game, some players are clearly overpowered, but then that’s true to life: Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are close to unplayable, but it’s up to you to find a way to deal with them, whether it’s doubling-up on markers, cutting off their supply lines – or even tactical fouling.
The upshot of this is that game management is more crucial than ever. Substitutions and changes of formation can make all the difference in a tightly fought contest. Introducing a tricky winger for the last 15 minutes against a tired defence, for example, can create havoc. On one such occasion I brought Franck Ribery off the bench in a bid to torment a flagging Borussia Dortmund rearguard: in the minutes that followed, a red card and an own goal turned what had been a tight game into a rout.
The movement of your team-mates, meanwhile, is sensational – to a fault. If you’ve got a full-back that likes to get forward, you’ll often see them streaking down the touchline ahead of your wingers, gesturing ostentatiously to receive the ball. Give the ball away in this situation and you can end up horribly exposed. You can curb their natural instincts by tinkering with tactics, though it’s not always wise to ignore a player’s strengths when you can adjust the system instead.
There’s never any need to remember elaborate button combinations to accomplish your goals. PES subtly simplifies everything, without ever leaving you feeling like you’re not fully in control. Sometimes you might use flicks and step-overs to bamboozle an opponent; sometimes you might only need a sudden change of pace to open up space. There’s a small degree of automation involved, but it’s perfectly calibrated: you might not be directly responsible for the tiny hop that allows you to clear a last-ditch challenge, but you’ll feel it was your own mastery that enabled you to get there in the first place. A step closer to the defender, after all, and they’d surely have robbed you.
Away from the pitch, menus are much more user-friendly, with the ability to pin your favourite game types to the home screen, while Master League has undergone an interface overhaul that makes one of the medium’s best career modes even more enjoyable. I’m not about to list all the licences that are present and those that aren’t, as you can easily find that information elsewhere; besides, it’s clear that while Konami is still trying to grab as many as it can, this is one area where FIFA will always have the upper hand. That said, this year PS4 owners will be able to use option files: assuming the PES community doesn’t suffer a sudden attack of lazyitis, then you should soon be able to import accurate rosters, kits, team names and more.
If Konami has found the right kind of chemistry on the pitch, it’s still searching when it comes to the commentary box. The ebullient Peter Drury is a welcome replacement for Jon Champion, but he’s a little too unrestrained, greeting deflected consolation goals and injury-time scissor kick winners alike with the same rhapsodic, full-throated delight. The contrast with the terminally unimpressed Jim Beglin is especially stark.
With retail servers now online, I’ve been able to test how PES 2016’s netcode holds up, and so far it’s looking very promising. I’ve encountered a few instances of mild lag during games, but oddly it always seems to occur at non-crucial moments – the biggest delay I saw came when my opponent hoofed a clearance downfield. It might take a while for some to acclimatise to online play, since you’re rarely afforded the same time and space on the ball, but the boost in pace and responsiveness makes for some really exciting and closely competitive online matches. Don’t expect many cagey 0-0s: I’ve already won *and* lost a game by the odd goal in seven.
MyClub mode, meanwhile, has benefitted from a number of tweaks that make it more involving than before. Player levelling offers a more tangible sense of individual progress, while supporting squad members can still fulfil a useful role as a trainer. Players will gain additional experience by linking up with these coaches: should they form an affinity, you’ll get an XP boost. If in its debut season MyClub seemed like a slightly tentative attempt to appeal to the FUT crowd, it’s taken a clear and confident step forward to become a worthwhile alternative.