Developing a series for a yearly release must be a tricky business. In the space of just a few months, you need to make everything look nicer and produce meaningful gameplay strides (and even think of some new buzzwords to put on the back of the box). With PES 2018, Konami's annual soccer game looks and sounds a little too similar to last year's edition--the presentation is flat and its lack of licenses is an ongoing problem--but some excellent on-pitch tweaks are enough to make PES 2018 the most satisfying football game ever made.
The most noticeable change is a distinct reduction in the game's speed. That applies to both the ball and player movement, meaning matches have an altogether more methodical pace to them. Players sprint and turn more slowly, and therefore do so far more realistically. Crucially, however, everything feels just as responsive as before.
Combined with a number of new animations, the slower pace lends each kick a greater sense of weight. It also means, when you lose the ball, it usually takes longer to get it back, which can frustrate--especially when defending has not improved meaningfully in a couple of years now. Individual tackles can feel clunky, and opposition strikers are given too much space by their markers when receiving the ball to feet--Mourinho would be having none of it.
Despite PES shifting down a gear, however, its mechanics still allow you to pull off some spectacular maneuvers. Passes feel more satisfying than ever, rising and curling and dipping oh so beautifully. They're aided by better positioning of wide men, allowing more opportunities to pick out players with pinpoint cross-field balls--too often in PES 2017 I would try a million-dollar pass to a winger that would inevitably get cut out by the full back. Now, rather than being a delightful shortcut to losing possession, these Hollywood balls are a legitimate tactic. Ground passes are now executed with greater variety, meanwhile: your players will contextually change from spraying the ball with the outside of the boot to curling with the inside to punting with the toe to tapping to flicking to threading.
Passing's versatility allows you to produce some beautiful football: play with Barcelona and you can actually play like Barcelona--but it also means you can lump it to the big man up top or play it wide and get crosses in if a particular match or situation demands it. Changes to your attacking intent level, for example, affect how deep your team sit more than ever--set it to maximum and your biggest defender will act as an emergency striker. This then allows you to play direct if you're losing in the final stages of an important match.
This is especially helpful from set pieces, which have been reworked to allow you to pick different tactics depending on the situation. You can now choose to send your center backs forward for long free kicks, for example, and hope for a knock down. Or, from corner kicks, you can ask for two players to come short or for your entire team to line up on the edge of the box before making a late dash to the back post. Direct free kicks have been improved, too, and they now feel more intuitive and more fluid--and I'm finally able to score from them.
Players also shield the ball and stumble past opponents more realistically, not only helping you hold on to the ball but also making them feel more like players, not just dots on a screen. This makes it all the more disappointing, then, that goalkeepers still act like robots: their static animations and inconsistent saves might be a little better than last year, but they still shatter the illusion that you're controlling a real-life team and serve as a reminder that you're playing a video game.
However, that's a minor sticking point compared to the licenses--or lack thereof. Of the world's major leagues, only the French and Italian leagues are licensed in PES, with the Premier League, EFL, and the Spanish leagues only included in make-believe form. As is traditional with Pro Evo, teams are replicated with fake kits and pretend team names like Man Blue (Manchester City), London FC (Chelsea), and MD White (Real Madrid), while the German league is not present in any form. Worse, the kits are often wildly different to the real-life versions they're meant to be imitating. The Champions League is licensed, but the magic of reaching it with your favorite team is killed if, rather than playing as Manchester United, you're actually controlling Man Red--playing in black. Thankfully, it's relatively easy, with the help of the community and a USB stick, to mod in authentic kits on PS4 and PC--and this can help mitigate many of PES's gripes as it appears when you insert the disc for the first time. Xbox One users, however, are stuck with the likes of West Glamorgan City and Merseyside Blue for good.
The Champions League is licensed, but the magic of reaching it with your favorite team is killed if, rather than playing as Manchester United, you're actually controlling Man Red.
The lack of attention paid to how kits look is reflected in the game's presentation as a whole. While PES's main rival, FIFA, replicates the experience of watching soccer on TV pretty closely, Pro Evo 2018 looks somewhat flat by comparison. Player models look largely fine (and some obscure players have surprisingly accurate faces), but crowds appear like cardboard cut-outs and sound almost as fake as they look--cheers when you score and moans when you miss sound muted, while chants are just a cacophony of noise with no discernible tunes or words. Peter Drury and Jim Beglin's awful, stilted, disjointed commentary returns, with a cliche-ridden dialogue library that contains few new lines and zero extra excitement. These complaints are not new to PES 2018 of course, but as EA continues to make strides in these areas with FIFA, PES's continued poor sights and sounds are put in starker contrast with every passing year.
The same is, to an extent, true of PES's online offering. MyClub is Konami's answer to FIFA Ultimate Team, and this year its big new feature is 3v3 co-op online play, a mode in which you sacrifice most of the control in return for some laughs with your friends. You and your teammates each contribute a few players to a combined squad, which the three of you then control in the match, sharing the rewards at the end. However, far too often PES is unable to connect enough human players to the lobby, meaning rather than simply giving me full control or searching again, I was dumped into the worst-of-both-worlds option of controlling one third of an otherwise AI-controlled team. It's not quite the fun addition it should be, especially when I was occasionally subject to some egregious input lag when playing online.
Far too often PES is unable to connect enough human players to the lobby.
The offline, single-player-focused Master League, meanwhile, makes strides in some areas while remaining infuriating in others. The new menu layout is a welcome change that makes the mode easier to navigate, but Master League as a whole still contains a number of glaring oddities that need to be addressed next year. Youth teams are still littered with unknown players whose names were seemingly assembled by a monkey on a typewriter (those well-known Liverpool prodigies Fighejlani and Tzarqamilov are my favorites); wage budgets and salaries are still displayed in yearly terms rather than weekly; and transfer budgets are still criminally low--while PSG were out spending £150m / $200m on Mbappe and £200m / $270m on Neymar in real life this summer, I was restricted to just £50m / $67m in total with them in PES 2018. Thankfully, a couple of neat touches such as customizable training regimes and release clauses in players' contracts do add some depth, and the new Challenge Mode keeps things interesting with unexpected scenarios like players wanting to leave.
Thankfully, I think I have a new favorite way to play PES. Random Selection Mode returns from Pro Evo 6, and if--like me--you can't remember all the way back to 2006, it shakes things up wonderfully. You and a friend (who has to be in the same room, as the mode is local only) are each handed a squad of random players from a selection of leagues or countries you choose, so you might end up with a weird hybrid team of players from across the world of varying standards. What follows is a psychological battle of attempting to steal your opponent's star players while protecting your own. Up to three trade rounds allow you and your friend to pick a player from the other person's team who you want to pinch. You then pick a player from your own squad who you want to protect, and one you want to get rid of. Crucially, at no point until after all three are chosen do either of you know who the other person has picked, leading to a tense moment at the end of the round where it's revealed if you've successfully robbed that 92-rated striker your lucky friend got dealt. Manage to steal their top player and the bragging rights are all yours--at least until they manage to win the following match against the odds, that is.
It's a small addition that some people may never even see, let alone try, but it's the best silly party mode I've seen in a soccer game since FIFA 12 unceremoniously ditched Lounge Mode. Along with (slightly) improved player stamina and (also slightly) improved goalkeeper animations, it's one of a few unglamourous but nonetheless important changes Konami has made this year. Another of these, a simple gray marker that shows which player you'll switch to next when you press L1 / LB, is a tiny masterstroke, and one that seems so obvious I'm now kind of annoyed I didn't think of it sooner myself.
When you get onto the pitch, no other football game feels as good as PES 2018.
PES 2018, then, is the proverbial game of two halves. Off the field, it's sorely lacking; online modes and server issues leave much to be desired, and the game's presentation as a whole is lagging behind the competition--even if the PES community produces some sterling work in recreating the unlicensed kits every year.
And yet, when you get onto the pitch, no other football game feels as good as PES 2018. The slower pace is a definite improvement, helping tread the line between realism and fun near-perfectly. There's just something about the players' movement and the kinds of arcs the ball makes in the air that's just so pleasant to control--every pass, header, and shot just feels right. And when it clicks, and you score a thunderous strike from the edge of the area or finish off a slick passing move or even when you launch an ugly long ball forward to grab a last-gasp winner, it's the closest feeling you'll get to being out there scoring yourself.