When Pro Evolution Soccer 2016 was released this time last year it quickly dawned upon those who played both games that this was the year PES and FIFA were closest in quality after years of FIFA ruling the roost. Thus the anticipation building around both PES and FIFA this year has been ramped up to a whole new level, and in this instance, PES has certainly delivered. PES 2017 takes what 2016's entry did right and polishes it even further, tweaking a formula that worked so well last year and building upon that success with a variety of in-game improvements. While many of the changes that have been made are minor in the grand scheme of things, they're all to the benefit of the game.
The first thing that people will notice when they boot up the game is that the user interface has been improved and made more user-friendly in a number of ways. The home menus are altered in their design and the new setup makes for better navigation, with everything being clearly signposted and the layout generally more pleasing to look at. Everything is very sleek and stylish, and the clarity benefits from the big pictures assigned to tiles containing the various options.
User interface is improved in terms of in-game menus as well, with one of the most welcome changes being that player faces are now included on the Game Plan. Although minor, this makes it look less like a boring menu with numbers and names, and more of a tactics board on which a football manager can (attempt to) plot victory. Not only this, but tactics can be accessed more quickly and with greater ease than ever before, and you can go from All-Out Attack to All-Out-Defence with the push of a few buttons, the game showing you how it alters your team structure at the same time. It's a definite step up and Konami has made a good attempt at righting one of the series' biggest historical flaws.
The second thing people will notice after the revamped UI are the visuals on the pitch, and this is where PES 2017 really stands out. Simply put, the graphics are beautiful and the animations are smoother than ever. This is where much of the polish has been applied and replays make for gorgeous viewing, whether it's the sheen of the football or the smoothness of the player movements as they strike home a goal or make a crucial tackle. It all looks brilliantly cinematic and the player faces are at their usual high standard as well, especially with the partnered teams like Barcelona. You can tell how proud they are of the visual fidelity that they have achieved, as the replays are really prominent and shot from multiple angles; it's almost as if they want you to revel in the lush graphics as much as the well-taken goals. Having said all that, we're not huge fans of the goal celebrations, which feel disjointed. In fact, most of the in-game cutscenes don't flow from the action as well as they could have.
In terms of action on the field of play, there hasn't been a huge change from last year's effort, although tweaks have been made to keep improving the formula that impressed so much just twelve months ago. Animations look realistic, and although there could've been a bit more variation, there's effortless fluidity when it comes to player movement. This is especially true in regards shooting, and there are a variety of ways to try your luck on goal. Each strike feels unique and goals feel special, the game making you think about how you're going to work every goal-scoring opportunity. In fact, getting the ball under control in a dangerous position and squeezing off a shot is half the battle, and AI-controlled teams will make it hard for you to find the space needed to shoot on goal. To its credit, it never feels too easy nor too hard. You're made to work for every opening, and getting that vital goal always feels well-earned.
There's been a subtle adjustment to the overall pacing of matches, that in our opinion takes the game a step away from its arcade roots and blends in a touch more simulation. It might well be the missing ingredient that PES needed to take it to the next level, and there's now a stronger sense of realism in how a match plays out and feels from moment to moment. Teams have stronger identities thanks to more defined setups, with play adapting to the teamsheet almost as much as the input from the player. Examples of this include the effortless attacking ability and tiki-taka exchanges of the Barca forward line, or Oliver Giroud's holdup play that brings the attacking midfield of Arsenal into the game. There's more going on, more to think about, and more possibilities than ever before.
Skills Training now helps players get to grips with attacking options as well, such as different types of crosses, making runs and through balls. These skill games also assist with the defensive aspects of the game. As with the previous entries, defence is no easy task and tackles need to be timed to perfection, especially in regards to sliding tackles. Mistimed lunges more often than not result in a foul and a yellow card, so these are not to be launched into lightly, but there are plenty of defensive options to practice and perfect, such as team pressing, which has you using a teammate to pressure the opponent while you control your own player. One element that we're unsure about is the behaviour of players when defending through-balls, and at times it feels like your player is nought more than homing missile chasing down the ball, rather than occupying space in-between the lines.
As mentioned, though, many of the changes are subtle. All aspects of a typical match - whether that be attack or defence or the battle for midfield - work very well and although some animations crop up too often (such as the slight stumble players do when they're caught by slide tackles), there can be no complaints in terms of the overall gameplay, which is what a football game ultimately comes down to. Passing feels rewarding, accurate and with enough nuance to make your contribution feel important, attacking play is a pleasure that feels realistic, shooting and scoring even more so, and all of this is tied together seamlessly and effortlessly by improved overall presentation. Even the refereeing felt a little better this year, and as far as we could tell decisions seem to be intelligently made (although there's always going to be a few collisions that the AI can't account for and doesn't penalise).
In terms of the game modes on offer, Master League is one that has seen a lot of improvements. As with the main game, the interface is simple and more importantly explained with menus and tutorials, but the level of detail on offer is what is most impressive. You see your created manager and players a lot more outside the pitch than in other iterations, for instance when Messi picks up player of the year or when your manager joins a club, which is a nice little touch. It works in much the same fashion as other football game career modes, with transfers, negotiations, budgets, and all the off-the-pitch matters all easily accessible and easy to interact with.
Having the licenses to the Champions League, Europa League and AFC Champions League means that these competitions are on offer as game modes too, and there is also the Become A Legend mode for those who like to fill the boots of one player. Online modes like MyClub were not available at the time of reviewing due to online limitations (so if there's anything amiss expect an update to this review), although there looks to be a lot of variation in terms of online modes. MyClub, Online Divisions, Online Competition and Team Play Lobby are just some of the many options for those who want to play with others. Of course, the elephant in the room is the player rosters, and after last year's debacle the pressure is on for Konami to deliver this time around. As the time of writing the teams are out of date, but we're promised updated squads soon (and regular updates thereafter). We can't imagine a repeat of last year's events, but if we do expect the score below to take a little tumble.
When considering it as a whole, all of our criticisms are relatively minor. The commentary, for instance, is noticeably recycled (aren't they all, though), with phrases like "good defence, plain and simple, good defence" from Jim Beglin coming up time and time again, but other than a little audio and visual repetition, there's little to fault in this year's iteration. The rebalanced match engine leads to great football which looks good and feels natural. Konami has taken what worked so well with last year's release and they have tidied it up and added an extra layer of polish. It's too early to call this year's rivalry between PES and FIFA (especially with all the changes coming from EA Sports), but we can say with confidence that Pro Evolution Soccer 2017 is a great football game that's well worth a look for fans of the sport.