Last year Pro Evolution Soccer (PES) clawed back the deficit against FIFA thanks to a better understanding of the embryonic Fox Engine the series had used to effectively rework the entire game in the heavily flawed work in progress that was PES 2014. The quality of the football in PES 2015 was the closest to the days of the glorious six game run on PS2 (well, PES 2013 was also great too), but there was a lot of room for further improvement.
The input for passing was a little off, the edit mode of previous years was stripped back, the higher difficulties funnelled a lot of the character out of games and made teams too similar in tactics and abilities. These are things that could be addressed and dealt with to lift the next iteration to the level of classic PES if further polish was applied and tweaks made. So it’s nice to be able to say that PES 2016 has done quite a lot of this and could well be not only the best football game around, but the best sports game period. Even if some lazy sound and menu design choices take a touch of the magic out of it.
The best things about any truly great PES are often the little moments during a match. Small details such as the way a player darts into space, how a keeper claws a goalbound header off his line or even the physical tussle between two players vying for the ball. Lots of little touches that add up to a thoroughly pleasing whole. PES 2016 is chock full of them thanks to the excellently implemented physics of the Fox Engine bringing a better feeling of individuality to the stars of world football, and whoever plays for Chelsea. Alexis Sanchez buzzes about like a Jack Russell that got into the stockroom of Starbucks, Messi jinks, twists and turns like he’s auditioning for Strictly Come Dancing: Extreme Edition and Ashley Young continues his lifelong mission to become a human submarine.
The animation is crisp and to the point, rather than being grandiose and overly elaborate in the way FIFA goes for. There is nothing wrong with either method, but PES 2016’s players move more fluidly because the players are required to go through less frames in order to complete their movement. As a result, each individual player has a greater impact when played in the right place as they evoke their real world counterparts so impressively and accurately. Never before has the art of making players fit a system been done so well in a videogame version of football.
If you play as a team such as Manchester City for instance, and lose Sergio Aguero through injury (and in PES 2016 injuries actually happen as opposed to last year’s near-invincible players), City’s attack suffers without his pace and skill, so you have to adapt your game plan to make the most of what you do have. Bring on Wilfried Bony and he can outmuscle defenders convincingly, but if you don’t have the support play for him then you’ll likely find the Ivorian being ganged up on and nullified as he doesn’t possess the seemingly neverending box of tricks that the Argentine wizard does.
Equally if you were defending against that City lineup with the fragile Manchester United back four then you need the shield of Carrick and Schneiderlin or Schweinsteiger to counter the rampaging Yaya Toure and the trickery of Fernandinho and further stifle Bony. Losing just one player can now have a monumental impact on the way you play. Picking big names for the sake of fitting them in can prove disastrous. John Terry is a ‘’good’’ defender who can get physical with a forward like Oliver Giroud, but the electric pace of Theo Walcott can see the wife-collecting Chelsea stalwart resembling a lumbering tortoise with his back legs chopped off. So you’ll often find yourself using players you’d normally leave to absorb the splinters from the subs bench for their ability to fit your game plan. The magic of this is how you come to appreciate different players for what they bring you: you see why Giroud is invaluable to the Arsenal shape, why Ryan Shawcross is more than just a thug in a stripy shirt and why Nicklas Bendtner is indeed the greatest striker who ever lived (Okay, maybe not that far).
So, the football itself is better, the small tweaks that were needed last year have been applied and as a result you’d be hard-pressed to deny that it’s a thoroughly enjoyable entry into the twenty year series and easily one of the best balances of realism and joy-soaked fun in sports games. The quibbles here are minor. Moments of phantom contact with the ball seeing players get to balls they probably shouldn’t have, and the shooting (on rare occasions) feels a little soft, but these do nothing to impact the smooth beauty the rest of the mechanics provide.
Unarguably the other areas PES needed to really improve upon were its various modes. The selection of competitions online and off were either long due a makeover or in need of refinement. Become a Legend; where you take a single player through a career and aim to become something more than Dean Windass, is pretty much the same again, but quicker response time on passing means it’s far more tolerable this year. The cup competitions, such as the Champions League and the Libertadores Cup, also remain the same bar the extra bit of spit and polish in the presentation, but it’s hard to see what more can be done with those. There are big changes where it matters most though. In the online MyClub mode and best of all in the centerpiece of many a PES; Master League.
Master League’s formula of taking a bunch of nobodies and making them into a side that rivals the football elite has always been an engrossing, captivating single player experience in a genre that is increasingly sold on multiplayer alone, but it has needed changes to keep it fresh and relevant. This year sees PES Team not only add depth to the tactics and management thanks to the gameplay changes, but also reintroduce daft, yet immersive, touches like cutscenes to proceedings. It’s a step closer to bridging the gap between PES and Football Manager that injects Master League with some much-needed believability. It’s still a very light management sim though, but a fine blend all the same that continues the franchise’s tradition of a strong single player offering – something FIFA has failed to accomplish for years now in its pursuit of being online king.
Ah yes, online play. PES has had very mixed results with its attempts to build an online mode to counter the money-hoovering juggernaut that is FIFA’s Ultimate Team. Last year saw PES introduce MyClub. Essentially the same idea of building a team to take on the world as UT, but with welcome -if sometimes frustrating- changes to the way you acquired players and coaches. Instead of opening packs you get a spin on a roulette wheel of players; the quality of which is dependent on the type of agent you are using. It means that you can go for a guaranteed Gold or Black (elite) player. but it’s chosen from the parameters given by the agent (position, country, League, skill etc) so you won’t be pulling a Ronaldo out that easily.
Without a trade system (and no duplicate players) it’s very much a case of work with what you got until you get better. It’s refreshing because it shies away from the ugly UT model of spend, spend, spend by providing you with enough funds to buy a decent player or two quick enough and the spin of the wheel and reveal of who you got is exciting, closer to opening a mystery Lego minifigure than FIFA’s Pannini sticker set method. The downside last year and to some extent this year as well is that you could spend 40,000 points on four defenders and they all turn out to be Right Backs. Last year this meant releasing them for meagre compensation, this time you can turn unwanted players into trainers that give individual players a permanent boost It means duds feel useful beyond monetary value, a good workaround for a flawed system, but perhaps the roulette wheel approach can be altered a bit next time around to be more specific about what you’re gambling for.
The rest of the online modes are the standard regular leagues with regular teams, taking your Become a Legend player into an online team of other folk, and cup competitions. The matchmaking works well, but the abundance of rage-quitters has only become more prominent with the changes to gameplay seemingly causing woes for anyone brought up on the competition’s ‘run past everyone with Messi and score’ method. Connectivity is more stable than last year, but still there are results robbed from you because of connection issues. It certainly happens far too often for someone with a strong Internet speed like myself and always seems to punish the player for the fault. If it hadn’t been for Metal Gear Solid V’s online issues I’d have been convinced it was a fault at my end.
I mentioned the sound and menu design choices being a disappointment earlier and they are considering the improvements elsewhere. Crowd noises are generally good, but some noises repeat far too often. Commentary; a lifelong bane of the PES series, is somehow better and worse. Better because Peter Drury is a marked improvement on Jon Champion, worse because Jim Beglin sounds like he recorded his lines on the phone while having to ensure he didn’t wake his sleeping wife. The writing is as atrocious and repetitive as ever, even if Drury injects some excitement into it. It does benefit from more insight into player records, new signings and losing/winning streaks however, but overall it feels like one step forward and a somersault into a bin full of glass back. The menu design has been another longstanding bugbear of the series and while efforts have been made to spruce them up a bit this time out (and it is far more vibrant than the past few iterations) the base layer of dull design just cannot be shifted.
The important thing to remember here is that these are still relatively small issues that don’t detract from the brilliance of the football you play. Even the ever present licensing problem is easily resolved by top kit websites like PESWorld.com creating official kits and emblems for the Premier League and beyond that look perfect. Sadly the level of tinkering you could do to team kits is basic once again thanks to the lack of option files that the previous gen had (though Sony is working with Konami to implement them once more), but that’s more of a trivial matter with the assets out there. The one thing that cannot be forgiven is the game launching with the rosters being the exact same as last year’s left off. Not even the earliest of summer transfers is in at launch and it doesn’t matter when it’s rectified now, it should have been in a better state to begin with.
Where it matters most though, PES has drastically improved while adding some flourishes here and there. There’s room for improvement, as is usually the case, and next year will be a telling one, given the persistent rumors about Konami’s business plan going forward. If the budget is to be upped then PES could truly steamroller FIFA. For now, it’ll have to be content with truly surpassing it and hope that PES Team’s vision is backed by Konami in the coming years.