This feels like it could be the PES 4-6 era all over again. If you've been a fan of Pro Evolution Soccer for the past decade, you'll appreciate the weight behind that statement. Could it be that PES has hit a new purple patch? Our recent hands-on with PES 2017 would suggest so.
That old saying about not knowing what you had until it was lost applies to Konami's valiant pursuit of true football so much. Throughout almost the entire Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 generation, the joy of PES was as good as gone - beleaguered by new technology, frustrated in the shadow of EA's FIFA that had found its stride (learned its lessons) with FIFA 09. In fact, PES was almost unrecognisable as the intuitive, impassioned experience that kept fans loyal.
Now that the old spark has returned, acknowledged by successive Best Sports Game awards at gamescom (PES 2105 and PES 2016), PES 2017 needs to hold on to its position as genuine contender to steal our valuable leisure time from FIFA. And it's going about this unenviable task by embracing the 'feels'; capturing more authentically the flow of the game while still building upon the spectacular Fox Engine visuals and much celebrated editing suite.
Konami cites two main additions to PES 2017: Real Touch and Precise Pass. Both are linked to how player actions are contextually driven by a combination of AI and ball physics. Real Touch introduces new animations that describe what you might've enjoyed imagining until now - receiving a ball to the chest, before turning onto it to bring it under control, or else deftly back-heeling it into the path of a team mate to continue with the build-up. This makes the game look prettier overall, but also allows for some authentically clumsy moments such as leaping too soon for a header only to go clattering into the back of the player in front.
Real Touch is an extension of the Player ID technology that Konami is proudly showing off with the latest consoles, more clearly drawing distinctions between good players and great players on the pitch. You'll know that you can rifle a pass at Andrés Iniesta for him to latch onto, for example. It's not just about having these top players move with a distinctive gait.
Precise Pass puts the onus on the player with the controller to affect how confidently a team passes and moves. It's not just about short and low versus long and high with all points in between, but the power combined with accuracy in relation to who's passing or receiving. You are more responsible for the outcomes because you have greater control, but on the flip side player AI and statistics leave more to the simulation aspect - something to blame!
Indeed, there's such an emphasis on AI with PES 2017 that this feels like the biggest gamble the series has taken in years. Even with the game set to Regular difficulty, defending teams had a far greater success rate of winning the ball fairly from a decision-torn attacker, and even when you can get a shot on goal, the keepers are bringing all their enhanced animation with steely AI to throw out a leg or tip a ball over the bar, make double saves and so on, to really force/encourage gamers to think about the whole move, not just that one moment.
There's huge contrast now between classic PES on PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 4, as there ought to be. However, previous iterations seemed more closely related whereas PES 2017 has made milestone progress in the direction of AI in particular. And it really does show.
Tinkering with options within the Game Plan makes a more noticeable difference to how the entire team responds in PES 2017. When changing from Possession Game to Counter Attack it was night and day for Arsenal, who plainly felt more at ease and in line with how Arsene Wenger's team actually plays. Similarly, Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid responded best to playing compact football and maintaining shape to become an almost impenetrable force.
Meanwhile, on the micro level, there were break out moments that caused both celebration and frustration for the assembled press at Konami HQ - numerous accounts of back-heeling which resulted in either a fabulous goal or misplaced pass only to lose possession; one of the best goals from a free kick that yours truly has ever witnessed, owing to the flight of the ball and the reaction of the keeper that almost got a finger to it as it breezed past the top corner so finely that we wondered about the collision detection of the post for a while.
During human versus human matches, the animation was the main focus until it got to the keeper. However, when playing human versus CPU it was also noticeable how the adaptive AI would step in to give favoured midfielders more support and similarly have the defence pay more attention to problematic attackers, not just in man marking but broadly as a unit.
In theory this is so exciting, because PES 2017 has this added element of mystery which brings a degree of magic to the best outcomes. In practice, it is now much harder to score! On the positive side, PES 2017 is not the same game you played last year - It's a genuine evolution, tantalising with possibilities. You could almost say that it feels alive.
Of course, the possible downside to playing 'Skynet' PES is that old routines are unlikely to yield the same results. Adaptive AI combined with more finesse required to perform simple passes could present an unfriendly obstacle in Player vs CPU. Conversely, as was also pointed out by Kazunori Yamauchi with regards to GT Sport on PlayStation 4, the more realistic it is, the more natural a simulation feels. You'll be cursing the keeper when they make a save, but, when you do finally send one past him, the roof will be raised.