Barça, Barça, Baaarça!
Pro Evolution Soccer 2016 was the game long-suffering fans of the series had been waiting for. Some say it was a return to form, placing it on equal ground with EA's FIFA, while others say it was the best football game in recent times. The hope was Konami wouldn't rock the boat for the next instalment, so it comes as a relief that Pro Evolution Soccer 2017 feels like it tunes the underlying mechanics, while making the match day experience the focus of more significant changes.
Since the FIFA series has locked up all the official licenses, it will always deliver the most authentic television style presentation, but PES 2017 isn't really after that crown. Konami has begun to understand that an immersive atmosphere is as important as the perfection of the play, and variety of modes. Although Konami has partnered with FC Barcelona to bring its stadium and players to PES 2017, based on our hands-on, the use of this license hasn't noticeably detracted from what the game is good at: football.
At the aesthetic level, FC Barcelona's Camp Nou stadium (exclusive to PES 2017) has been recreated inside and out with an impressive attention to detail to the mosaics that form in the crowd, the songs, the chants, and distinct day and night ambiences. Even the surrounding area is being accurately constructed to bring to life that stunning view of the city reaching out to the ocean.
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Every athlete is 3D scanned, including legendary Barca players like Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Puyol. Classic kits are also available in the MyClub and Master League modes, and the club's training grounds and academy have been opened to Konami so it can properly represent player behaviour on and off the ball.
This methodology is going to be applied to more clubs in time, but for now only Barcelona’s involvement has been confirmed. In gameplay this access translates to player specific flourishes such as ball flicks, spontaneous finishes, and other unique behaviours. Mascherano, for example, elicits a more fiery, personal reaction when being booked.
Improvements have also been made to animations and controls in order to inject dynamism into on-pitch events. Real Touch allows you to have more nuanced control over your player when receiving the ball, so you can execute a dummy, or switch the ball's direction while dribbling. The fluidity of motion is maintained without complicating controls, so players of all skill levels will be able to make a fast break or employ Barcelona's iconic Tiki-Taka style with ease.
PES has always been able to out-do its contemporaries with tactical choices, but accessibility has been a stumbling block. PES 2017 seeks to change that by offering a choice between simple and advanced tactics. You're able to switch-up your approaches on the fly to adopt a different style of play. You just need to map the tactics you want to the D-Pad in the Game Plan menu to do so. This can be anything from the Tiki-Taka to push forward, to using the Gegenpress for defense. Being able to select tactics is nothing new but the smoothness of deploying them really broadens the scope of what you can do mid-match.
PES 2017 has a strong foundation, and the new minor adjustments look to be strengthening it
If you’re playing a game and you keep getting shut out down the middle, you can deploy a tactic that forces the ball wide, changing the formation so that it actually works as a shift, rather than just moving your player to that position, which creates holes that can be exploited. You'll also be able to use the D-Pad to easily adjust the level of pressure you're putting on the opposition, and determine how aggressively you want to play. This means you can park the bus in the last five minutes without having to go through menus that take you out of the game.
The D-Pad also is used to decide on defensive strategies for set pieces such as corners. It’s up to you if you want to man mark, zonal mark, or mix it up. And if you can see that you current setup isn't working, you can quickly change it before the kick is taken.
Improvements seem to have also been made to the collision system to appropriately reflect the speed of the player. It’s still not perfect, but with the introduction of stumbles and slips, the results of slamming into other players are less binary. During some tackles, I had players stagger through but stay on their feet.
As with previous games, PES 2017 feels like it will translate what you do on the controller to what happens on your screen well, sometimes frustratingly so. Thanks to the tactical options, your players will move around and present options for passing that require precision to execute on, but these can also be easily read or covered. The new focus on adaptive AI is intended to force a player's hand by working out your play style and making you adapt tactically. It wants you to play better football.
That also means that once human error is put aside, the elation of scoring a hard-earned goal with a net shattering volley from the outside of the box is more rewarding because you controlled every aspect of the build-up. You engineered the movement, the ball control, and delivered the ball into the net. Fluke doesn't come into play here and thanks to the small improvements to the animations and controls, this is shaping up to be more entertaining and cathartic than any other football game, including its predecessor.
Some nagging issues from PES 2016 remain, however. The menu system appears blocky and difficult to manoeuvre outside of its simpler functions. How this plays into the return of the MyClub and Master League modes is unclear at the moment, but stylistically at least, not much has changed.
Another thing that has yet to be discerned is the level of licensing in the game. Beyond the Barcelona deal, and the other unnamed clubs involved in similar deals, we know that the UEFA licences like the Champions League will return. There’s also a focus on expanding the PES portfolio with mobile apps such as the manager and MyClub games, which will be a big part of the future of the franchise.
With the FIFA series moving to a new engine, EA's franchise is in a transitional year. This means PES has the first chance since its PS2 heyday to become the most popular football game. The decision not mess with what works means PES 2017 has a strong foundation, and the new minor adjustments look to be strengthening it. This could be the year.