PES 2018 review copy provided by Konami
Since the bumbling, if necessary, misstep of PES 2014, Konami’s long-running football series has been on an admirable upward quality trajectory. The football is now at a level where it holds the game together comfortably, so to improve on PES 2017, 2018 only really needs to refine and tune certain aspects, but is that truly enough? Not really, but it’s certainly a good start.
PES 2018 does indeed build on the best parts of last year’s edition, and there’s been a valiant effort to right the wrongs, and as with most years, the core of how PES plays has changed. That brings some huge positives to the football, but it creates new issues. Thankfully, not enough to prevent PES 2018 from doing the one thing it nearly always excels at. That being the art of kicking a virtual ball into a digital goal.
This year sees a shift to a slower overall pace of play, and a better conveyance of physicality and player movement. The best thing about this is you get a far better sense of how the game is flowing. You can read what the opposition is doing across the pitch, seeing potential obstacles and threats before they become a problem. When you come up against well known players and sides, it’s entirely possible to see how both your planning, and that of your opponent, lines up. Thanks to the way Konami has created a wide variety of player physicality, agility, and touch, the tactical level of PES has gone up significantly.
For instance, give Paul Pogba too much space in midfield and he’ll ping dangerous passes about. If you don’t keep your wing backs on alert, the likes of Kylian Mbappe will rampage through your backline, and without the right pattern of passes, defenders like Vincent Kompany will snaffle up every ball you dribble towards him. The possibilities are many, and it makes for a more exciting and deep game of football for a lot longer. It matters less now if someone frontloads their team with fast attacking talent, because you can truly defend it and exploit other weaknesses.
It may be utterly fantastic as sports games go, but there are drawbacks. These changes to the way the game plays has created a steep learning curve for newcomers, and a longer than usual period of adjustment for veterans. I got caught out on the break numerous times during my earliest games, steadfastly trying to apply knowledge of past entries where it is no longer applicable. I learned to adjust, to take my time, to read the game, but by golly it was a depressing slog for a while. Once it clicks though, you begin to wonder if you imagined it. Then a lapse in judgment saw me punished in that same way yet again. Now I knew for sure, this is a big shift and initially a tough one to get your head around.
Once that’s out of the way, you can marvel in the improvements made to the player animation. You miss so many little touches as you focus on playing, but the most noticeable instance you’ll see is in the goalkeepers. It’s an honestly incredible spectacle to watch how they stretch, flip, and dive to claw the ball away. In just a handful of matches, there were several ‘wow how did they save that?’ moments. Likewise outfield players move in such a natural manner far more often now, with fine little details like nonchalantly steering the ball with the outside of a foot, stooping to flick a ball of the top of their heads, and crumpling into a dramatic heap in a desperate attempt for a penalty. It all adds to the flow and believability of the game beautifully. This is an eye-catching game of football on multiple levels, from animation to the eerily accurate representation of top players. It’s much the same as last year otherwise, with the odd visual flair sacrifice made (the grass is noticeably downgraded) to improve the parts that actually matter.
So it’s a shame that the changes applied to the game’s presentation are a bit more haphazard. In the plus column we have some neat little tweaks that while not overly impressive or sizeable on their own, do add up to a slightly better look. Things as simple as throwing up more stats during matches, or showing goalscorers whenever the score comes up at kick offs. The UI gets a new coat of pastel paint in certain areas, but is otherwise the same boxy, plain presentation we’ve seen for nearly every PES since 2007. At this point, even a change to font or menu boxes shape would feel significantly fresh, yet the humdrum look continues to stink up the place with its mundanity.
Another all too familiar bugbear is the commentary. At best it’s exactly the same as it has been for three or four years (like literally the same phrases in places), at worst, the poor quality is so grating that it’s getting far too easy to just drown it out with music or switch it off entirely before you’ve played more than a single game. It detracts from the fact the soundtrack is largely tolerable, even enjoyable, and that the stadium and crowd noises remain superb.
Anyway, all of this is means nothing without modes aplenty to dip into, and PES 2018 does a very PES thing again by adding some cool new modes, whilst ignoring a fair few issues of the ones in place.
Old favorite Master League is of course back, and on a base level, is as enthralling as ever. Challenge mode has been given as an option this time, which basically means it plays like the Master League of a few years ago where you’re expected to meet targets, have players being demanding divas, and the like. You have meters for player and chairman trust that affect how they perform and support you respectively. It’s not all that in-depth, but it is nice to see it return to flesh the mode out a bit. Beyond that, it’s got the old issues of players moving inexplicably, and a transfer market where prices appear to have rolled back to the mid-2000’s. It’s still a rather good mode, but in the face of more dramatic competition, it could do with more than a nip n’ tuck next year. Other old modes (Become a Legend, leagues, cups) are identical to previous years, and remain the least entertaining parts of the product.
New modes are where things get tastier than a Pat Vieira tackle. The long awaited return of the random selection mode is a huge highlight. Personally, I adored this mode back in the day, and it feels all the fresher for its years of absence. Each team gets to choose a base kit, then has four separate boxes to pop parameters for a randomly assigned team. Each box allows you to pick a specific league, country, or team and creates a Frankenstein’s Monster of various players from those selected. The beauty of it is that even if you’re the type of person who thinks picking a side consisting of players from PSG, Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Manchester City is a surefire way to get a superteam, you’ve still no guarantee of getting superstars in every position.
For every Aguero, there’s an Otamendi, and the mode balances teams so there’s no distinct advantages (unless you’re a madman who picks a team based on say, China, Burton Albion, Stade Brestois, and the Eredivisie) . Random Selection offers a good chunk of fresh variety to a somewhat predictable side of competitive play.
The other is an online-centric mode (more on the online side in a bit). The 3v3 co-op mode is equally fresh and exciting as Random Selection, with Konami encouraging the building of ‘clans’ to get people playing together as a three regularly. It’s quite honestly a real blast teaming up this way (provided you’re not with the worst kind of strangers found on the internet of course).
If PES 2018 is going to have a fun online mode, then it desperately needs to address the erratic nature of PES 2017’s internet connectivity. Happily, it does appear to be a far more solid setup this time round, albeit with the usual questionable disconnects that land you with a default 3-0 defeat just when you’re comfortably winning against some opponents (could be my internet of course, but never has it happened while I was losing or drawing).
Online features a nice selection of modes too, including the highly competitive PES League (esports, currently in pre-season qualifiers as of writing), and the now staple fixture of myClub, PES’ answer to Ultimate Team. Nothing much has changed in this mode, except the roulette drop of players has been altered to keep any of the good players in the highest tier rather than split some off into the gold secondary tier. It’s a bit annoying in one way as you don’t build a great team so quickly, but also, it encourages you to try and work with lesser players rather than ditch them. Given the way PES 2018 plays, this change feels right.
PES 2018 isn’t a sea change, more of a refinement. There’s lots of new parts, and a couple of new modes that make it feel a little fresher, but there’s also the weaknesses that have plagued the series for a few years now. It’s still a bloody brilliant game of football, and having a more stable online only adds to its strength, but it appears that PES has hit its stride for now, and will cruise on, making small tweaks for a year or two more to one of the finest sports games around.