Pro Evolution Soccer's glorious return to form last year blindsided a lot of people who had all but given up on the series. PES 2016 was undoubtedly an impressive depiction of the beautiful game, and ranks among the best ever, but this year's follow-up shows just how much room for improvement there was, and still is.
The biggest difference between this year's Pro Evo and last year's is the tempo. Play is slower this year. Not purely in terms of speed, but in the need for more considered build-up play thanks to vastly-improved defenders. The precision of the near-perfect passing coupled with the speed of play made PES 2016 easier, and made the need for improved defensive AI a necessity.
Defenders are able to read passes better, they contain and overwhelm players ruthlessly but at the same time rarely seem impenetrable. This extends to the friendly AI too, meaning players don't always have to do all the work when an opposing team is applying pressure, or worry too much when a player gets away from them.
Goalkeepers have been overhauled, benefiting from a huge increase in the number of animations across the board, and also better transitioning between those animations. Keepers deal with long-range efforts more confidently, and react to unexpected or lightning fast shots in a much more realistic way. They're still prone to errors, but the kind of human errors we see from Joe Hart and Simon Mignolet, not throwing-controllers-across-the-room errors.
Slow-motion replays do a great job of showcasing the fluidity and grace of the aforementioned animations, as well as the improved likenesses – many of which are brilliant, a few almost flawless. Better lighting also plays a significant role in making PES 2017 the most visually impressive to date.
As good as the players look however, if they're wearing unlicensed kits the illusion breaks. Licences shouldn't matter as much as they do, but nobody can deny that authenticity informs the fantasy of playing football games. Better play on the pitch only gets you so far. If gameplay alone were enough for most people, they wouldn't play in huge virtual stadiums, relish the frenzied crowds, or play any of the single player modes that guide players towards trophy-hoisting glory. Winning the Champions League as Man Red isn't nearly as good as winning it as Manchester United.
Some teams such as Barcelona and Arsenal, are here in their full glory, and there's a full roster of player names and likenesses present (following last year's debacle squads are also up-to-date with the latest transfers at launch). Thanks to an improved, partly-automated option file system (on PS4 and PC, not Xbox One) Konami has made it easier than ever to address what's missing through typically-excellent user-created kits available online. The fact licensed elements tied up with EA's Fifa series are not there at the start is still a problem, and likely always will be, but it takes all of 10 minutes to import the vast majority of kits, club names and badges. Competition names and emblems need to be edited separately.
It's on the pitch where PES dominates its comparatively sluggish competitor. Konami's game is more fluid and interprets the will of its players with a greater degree of precision. One of the main reason's for last year's success was the focus on recreating individual players and their particular styles of play. It was evident in a handful of big names last year and is wider-spread here, allowing even more players to turn games on their head with what they have to offer.
As good as it is, it's still not quite perfect. Slide tackling is no longer as easy, but the benefits of this are offset by how easily fouls are awarded for tackles that clip opponents but get the ball first. There's also an occasional imbalance in the recovery time after being tackled. If an opponent robs the ball from you quickly and leaves you standing, control is often removed for too long as the opposing side wheels off into the distance. Switching players can also be inconsistent, with the game on multiple occasions outright refusing to switch to someone even when they were near the ball. When three players are surrounding an opponent, switching between them should not be difficult.
The presentation of games can also use work. Peter Drury and Jim Beglin's commentary is more natural and Drury doesn't yell at much, but it's still too stilted and reliant on repeated soundbites ("That is special... Olivier Giroud!" and so on). How often and how quickly the game stops in its tracks when the ball goes off for a throw is also jarring.
These (admittedly small) problems are a reminder that no modern football game will ever be perfect. There are too many ingredients, too many variables for a perfect balance to be struck, which only makes PES 2017 and other worthwhile football games all the more impressive for what they achieve.
Where PES has consistently disappointed over the years is in its offering of modes and overall presentation. After admirable improvements last year, it's disappointing to see that little has changed this time around. While little has been changed about the excellent Master League, nothing really needed to be. It's elsewhere that there are still persistent problems. In its third year MyClub continues to be a million miles from Fifa's hugely successful Ultimate Team mode, and the bog-standard tournament modes don't make use of the Champions League and Europa League licenses Konami should be getting the very best out of.
If this review appears overly-critical, it's born out of frustration. Pro Evolution Soccer's base gameplay has basically been nailed down, but off the pitch it still struggles compared to EA's Fifa. It's been the same story for years. Konami should be capitalising on the quality of its core play by improving other elements of its beautiful game: chiefly its presentation, style, and game modes. Whatever shortcomings it has before and after the whistle blows however, the pure footballing experience of PES remains second-to-none.