Last year’s release of Pro Evolution Soccer proved football games (or soccer games; I often forget I’m writing for a mainly US audience here) can still conjure remarkable feats of accomplishment to create something that felt genuinely fresh and, more promisingly, exciting for the future of the sport. Least, the future in video game format. PES 2017 doesn’t quite grace us with as much the same significantly obvious improvements 16’s attacking prowess or improved animation brought, yet the joy in Konami’s acclaimed series has never been one priding itself on gloating about carefully-packaged, buzzword-stamped off-shoots that tend to outshine the main content itself.
To remain impartial here, there was of course an abundance of terminology provided as me and fellow press sat through the introductory briefing within Konami’s dedicated E3 booth. One of the game’s lead tag-lines ‘control reality’ bordering on frown-casting skepticism. But not for one second, shortly thereafter, did the team’s passion-drilled array feel like a distraction for something altogether less interesting. Because the truth is, for all the potential trumpet-blowing, PES’ deliverance is what drives people to keep coming back for more and it’s one that maintains Konami’s dominance over EA’s rival faction.
In a World neck-high with such nonsense terminology and straw-clutching desperation to make every new iteration look, at the very least, like it’s adding something to warrant further investment (both monetary and time alike), PES has always chosen subtlety over its competitor FIFA’s rather bombastic and technocrat-like insistency that…yes…the gameplay is so much more advanced this time round. That said, there’s no doubting PES 2017 sees Konami getting more used to the FOX Engine – the team themselves admitting, in casual discussion, that even now they’re still discovering new things and new techniques to the engine that they themselves hadn’t realised previous. So while this is as much a new chapter for fans and series enthusiasts alike, it’s clear PES in of itself has entered a new era in its 20 year life. And with it, comes a slew of more notable up-front changes to compliment the more “neat” additions that serve to add authenticity over commercialistic buzz.
PES ’17 is one of the more slower Pro Evo titles to date, yet this choice of word, “slow”, can be better surmised as one that caters to more defensive players and those who prioritise slow-burning tactics over sparks of flurry a la offensive consolidation of possession — focusing on everything else crucial to the game, in a much later period. But there’s little of the actual player pacing lost when on the pitch and it’s further sign of the series’ careful picking-and-choosing which areas to tweak so as not to impact the all-round fluid motion of the players on pitch. To that end, animation and the pure physicality of what takes place remains one of PES’ defining attributes. In contrast to FIFA’s philosophy on simulating the slick, commercialistic visibility in order to deter from the actual complex thought process and often heated emotional tinge taking hold, PES takes the opposite approach in never forgetting it’s all about the physicality and “here-and-now” of the sport itself.
Of course it’s always nice to see computer-generated models act and behave like real people — no less during the heat of the referee blowing for a free kick or waving a yellow card. And speaking of which, for those who felt the men in black (or yellow…or pink perhaps) were a little too lenient in getting their little book out, will soon find desperately sliding into an opponent’s lower half or incurring a dangerous collision will easily net you a yellow card or verbal warning. The resulting arguing from players, subsequent team-mates trying their best to keep their buddy’s stress levels in check, offer a more raw and unfiltered window into the game, as opposed to FIFA’s rather shallow delivery of player emotion and feeling said emotion. In summary, PES never forgets it’s the in-and-out control of the ball that brings out the best, and often worst, of player mind-set’s and rather than simply simulating mood, PES is a carefully crafted experience that inaugurates natural mood.
It knows when, where and where not to make these micro-calculations (both mechanically and contextually-emotive likewise) and the resulting transition from dribble to pass to build-up to inevitable wrestling over the loose ball is far more inviting. These calculations come up in no better a scenario than the AI’s new adaptability and, as Konami made sure to point out, how they’ll change their own play-style to counter your potential overuse or misuse of a preferred method. Of course, the continual cycle of countering your opponent is ever-present with such things like advanced tactics which can be selected on-the-fly during play, with seamless ease it has to be said, but for someone as defensively-minded as myself — someone who likes that slow build-up and prefers to rely on my team’s own adaptive measures — it’s pleasing to find PES giving as much time for the back-four as much they do the forwards dribbling their way graciously past opponents.
But further back, long before the defensive line-up, it’s the goalkeepers that have seen some of the most significant improvements from 2016’s build and the increased presence in their jostling and wrestling for control of the ball, is perhaps the biggest surprise of this brief albeit bold preview. Goalkeepers, be it putting their body behind a stinging thirty yard shot or diving instinctively to counter a nearby header, are given far more weight in their shape and even from such distant perspectives, PES has finally — rightfully so — shared FOX’s rendering capabilities with those not always making match report headlines. Even the less-demanding movement such as watching stray balls casually stroll by the right side of the post, look more convincing and for the first time in a while, goalkeepers look and feel far more the genuine article with clever thought processing backing up presence in the box. Gone are the days of better-than-good succession rates at a curling strike; to beat the keeper, it’s going to take far more than a well-angled shot.
As noted, for someone like me who has always played from the defense and built my strategy outward thereafter, it’s pleasing to finally see all eleven men on the pitch given the same animate and muscular presence as the strikers have often shown mustering with every number-crunching calculation and eagerness to win the ball. PES 17 may not check off the same amount of detailed improvements over its previous iteration, but the evident deeper understanding of the FOX Engine and the interlinking components governing control and strategy — for both players and AI alike — will keep many a Pro Evo fan and enthusiast alike satisfied over the coming twelve months.