Say what you will about the nature of annual franchises, but if recent history is anything to go by, incremental upgrading to the gameplay and the return of a mode familiar to long-time fans will go a long way to making the latest entry feel viable, let alone enjoyable to play. Konami’s long-running, long-loved Pro Evolution Soccer series has always been lauded on its mechanical additions, regardless of how subtle or otherwise initially unseen they might be. But this is likely why PES has garnered a more trust-worthy face in comparison to its obvious competitor, the [equally-established] FIFA series. Where EA have long strutted the glamorous and visually-prevalent route with little to show, PES has remained unabashed in its willingness to dig beneath the superficial layer of sleek graphics and vibrant presentation.
We’re three years into the series’ now-established foundation on the Fox engine and while that fact may feel like old news and not drive as much the same delighted surprise, there’s no denying that the physicality and moment-to-moment gameplay is one to admire. What’s more admirable though for this year’s entry is how well PES 2018 has transitioned to a slower but more calculating style of play, yet retaining the complexion but satisfaction in getting a[nother] win under your belt. And more importantly, knowing it’s come by way of one’s own sound and tactical use of the game’s very many mechanics on show. Despite then the conservative move away from frantic passes and hectic one-two touches, it means that the subtle additions to this year’s release can ultimately flourish. Notably the in-game physics to both the players and indeed the ball everyone is aiming to take possession of.
PES 2018 renders matches in a more realistic fashion in regards to the weight and control of one’s passing. A lot of this is down to the new Real Touch+ mechanic which adds another layer to player’s control over the ball — meaning that they will use multiple parts of their body depending on the situation. Stretching the leg to counter a fast shot, using the chest to control an aerial one, even turning one’s back to shield the ball from an approaching opponent. Given the viewing distance and perhaps insignificant presence of each of these decisions visually, it’s surprising how well these alterations benefit the overall flow, meaning that movement feels fluid at a player-level but in turn, more physically challenging across the entire breadth of the pitch.
Not that the series hasn’t already factored a real sense of strategy and emphasis on reading a player’s strengths/weaknesses into matches, not to mention staying alert to the most unlikely of scenarios or figurative spanners thrown into one’s game-plan. Reading the way the ball moves, be it under or otherwise devoid of weather/pitch conditions, or simply keeping your squad from making an unnecessary tackle from the wrong angle. It means that regardless of the final score — whether you’ve managed to come from behind to snatch a late 2-1 win, or come out runaway winners without conceding a single goal — PES 2018, at its heart, remains a game defined by your decisions. And be they good or bad, no matter how the score-line ends, part of the joy is watching all this unfold and more importantly, knowing that you’re in no way disconnected from the mechanics on offer. Regardless of how deep you go into the tactics and pre-match decision-making on offer — whether you choose to implement advanced offensive/defensive moves that you switch between at the tap of a button, or simply leave it to mastering the physics on show.
Every goal scored feels like a genuine accomplishment, a triumph of one’s understanding of the game — least of all when it comes by way of a counter-attack following a successful defense from opponent pressure. Moments such as these are the reason why the moreish “one more game” symptom of PES remains prominent, no matter the final score. Whether this is the reason why the dreaded rage-quitters are in shorter supply this year remains to be seen, but the irony is that for a game so heavily prevalent on its in-depth mechanics, PES 2018 never feels like it’s excluding any degree of skill-level or experience with the series so far. Providing one is willing to sit down and bear the brunt of a loss or two in the early proceedings — perhaps find one is learning over the slower pace that dictates large parts of the action — the addictiveness and subsequent accessibility of the gameplay is the series’ blessing in disguise.
As entertaining as it may be to watch and control all of this, there sadly remains a few legacy issues that once more taint PES’ near-flawless presentation and stops this year’s release from achieving crowning glory. And while some moments are easy to laugh off and ignore — an irate goalkeeper shouting to his defense while his face clips into the goal-post…or a forward player cycling through three preset animations after a shot on goal, as if the number-crunching parts aren’t quite sure what to offer up — others meanwhile make their presence known in all the wrong ways. Goalkeepers, despite the improved versatility in their movement, seem to favour dramatics and only dramatics, regardless of the shot and, worse, establish themselves once again as the weakest link in what might be a heavily-strategised strong outfit. Keepers will, majority of the times, decide on the wrong defensive maneuver — parrying a ball with little strength or out-right refusing to collect a ball with minimal threat.
But the game’s biggest draw is of course its in-game commentary which once again proves itself the most artificial and subsequently distracting element of the experience. Despite the over-zealous and sudden cries of “Diego COSTAAAAA” to denote every shot on goal one minute, or the ample reminders that a player “really wanted that”, PES’ commentary feels not only lacking in variety, but its disjointed tone (from analytical to celebratory in the blink of an eye) seldom runs tandem with the action on the pitch. The amount of times a keeper too has been given “an A+ grade”; it takes little time for the game’s shallow amalgamation of recorded lines to grate on the ear and worse, detract from the tension and immersion that matches genuinely carve out.
Off the pitch, PES 2018’s notable additions offer some more interesting insight to the game collectively, more so than the aforementioned commentary at least, but at points feel like works-in-progress demanding of a bit more fleshed-out substance. The return of Random Selection at least garners a notable surprise in how engrossed one can get over something so simple as holding onto a highly-ranked player. But while Master League does extend the reach you have as a manager guiding your team to victory over a season (and hoping to maintain your employment at your chosen club as a result), the simulation-esque structure won’t be pitting itself against Sega’s long-standing Football Manager series anytime soon. Despite its attempts to integrate a cutscene or two, or tabloid-style headlines to note your player’s current status/mood/opinion.
What’s more — not that this doesn’t concern a lot of other areas of the game from a presentation stand-point — but the design and UI layout feels far too stylized and contemporarily confined to the point that it makes recent renditions of the Windows OS look tolerable. The notable focus on large, blocky squares with thin, tiny writing may rub only a select few the wrong way, but its overly-designed, overly-simplified presence seems like wasted space, particularly when it comes off as a substitute for what might have been a more fleshed-out, strategy-focused manner to interact with your team or the many facets of the club you’re a part of.
All in all, the line on the graph that is PES’ progression as a series has gone up with Pro Evolution Soccer 2018. A game that might have ran the risk of deterring its loyal fan-base, the improved physicality to player animations and actions only adds another layer to the series’ already layered strategy that feels genuinely entertaining to watch as it is to play, regardless of the outcome. But while this year’s improvements are at the forefront more than 2017‘s showing, the return of series-old issues both on and off the pitch prevent this year’s iteration from reaching the same champion-level heights the likes of PES 2016 so wonderfully claimed. But it says something when even a fair handful of criticisms do little to detract from the pleasure of the core gameplay. Cliche as it may sound in the context of the sport, but it’s what happens on the pitch that matters and PES 2018 proves once again it’s the king of football titles.