Every year there is a battle between the two heavy hitters in football video games - FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer - but that duel has held more weight in recent years as the latter has improved drastically and become the preference of many, and now Konami is back to refine their formula even more with PES 2018. If the beautiful game is for you, this year's instalment should definitely be worth considering, because as well as new features there's also even more polish on top of PES 2017's style of play.
How much is changed from last year though? Well, there have been many things marketed to us in the months prior to release, and this includes enhanced control. This won't be apparent all the time, but the quick reactions of players (especially high quality players, and when you hold R2/RT for close control) will be very useful for those who want tighter dribbling to navigate around the opposition. Of course, this isn't a sure fire way to worm your way through a defence, but for those who want precise control over where their players go, this is surely welcome.
Another welcome feature this year is contextual shielding, and again it'll be most evident to the best of players. It's clear here that players work to shield the ball from opponents, getting their body in the way when appropriate, adding not only an extra layer of detail but also of immersion, because we can't tell you how many times we've seen the same thing done on the real pitch. Strong players do this much better than others, so strategically holding up play is simple if you know how.
One of our biggest praises of this year's PES, though, is the improvement of keepers. It used to be that if you got close to the keeper, most shots would glide past them and into the net, but they've seemed to have had a lot of work done to them to make them more effective at saving. It's not enough to try and finesse into the bottom corner now, as you often need to outwit and outplay them, leading to more realistic and pleasing plays - it now feels like a genuine game of football in how you need to score past them.
A great way to do this is the pass and run option, which we found ourselves using a lot (passing with L1/LB to create a forward run with the passer). Through balls in PES in recent years have operated in a more effective way than they do in FIFA, meaning that a chipped through ball or a defence-splitting pass should work most of the time if you time it right. Attacking in this way is also incredibly satisfying, then, and is a good way to try and outsmart the newly proficient goalkeepers.
Shooting at the end of these attacks still remains interesting and varied as well, as not once did we see a goal that looked like a copy or reproduction of another, either in terms of positioning or animations. Each goal feels unique and rewarding because of the combination of difficulty in getting it past the keeper, and worming your way through the defence, and we'd say that's pretty much one of the most important things in a football game - feeling like you've earned your precious goal and that joy when the ball eventually nestles in the back of the net.
One gripe we would have about the shooting is something we noticed when whipping the ball in low from the wing. If this ball was to come to the feet of an attacker very close to goal, it was frustratingly often that they'd scuff the ball wide from that position, rather than burying it in the goal like we hoped. It's a bit annoying to make an explosive run down the wing, drill the ball in, only for attackers to consistently fluff their lines mere feet away from the goal mouth.
Variety doesn't just apply to shooting, though, as there are many different ways a game can unfold. For instance, when we were playing during what seemed to be a torrential downpour, this changed the game hugely, making our defenders slip and slide all over the place, while also slowing the ball and made gripping the pitch in general a bit of a nightmare. We've never seen rain affect a match as much as it did then, and it totally changed the way we played.
Defensively, there's not much to report in terms of big, earth-shattering changes, but the same PES rules apply - mistiming a slide tackle will still more often than not lead to a foul and a yellow, since attackers rarely jump over them (something that slightly irked us), making standing tackles and pressure, either from teammates or the player, the preferred route for dispossessing the opposition and keeping your goal safe.
UI has been improved from last year too, even if it isn't perfect. For example, many of the big names now have actual portraits, which adds to the authenticity of the whole experience. You can now feel like you're actually substituting Jordan Henderson, for instance, rather than his virtual mock-up. In-game, though, the UI could still be a bit more useful, as clear indicators as to advantages and who is carded would have been very much appreciated.
Fans of set pieces also need to change up their approach this year too, as free kicks and corners have changed to fall more in line with the FIFA style. There's no wibbly-wobbly arrow to guide you anymore, as now you need to direct your kicks based on your own intuition, which can, of course, be learned in the training games. While this might make it harder, this is more of a test of skill now, especially when it comes to making that perfect shot in the top corner from a free kick. More gratifying, yes, but that doesn't mean everyone will be pleased by this change, although we found it to be a great one.
In terms of modes, at the time of writing the online servers aren't open to us, but one new mode we were eager to try was Random Selection, making its return from older PES games. Here you pick a kit for your team to wear, and then the game randomly assigns you players based on the parameters you choose. We ended up playing on an Arsenal team featuring Lionel Messi, while the Fulham we played against had Gareth Bale, for instance. There's also a trading round where you select which players to try and steal and which of yours to protect as well, so this is perfect for those who want something weird, wild, and unique to play. On top of the co-op multiplayer mode, there's a lot of fun new things for players to get stuck into.
Some niggles with PES remain from past instalments, though, and one of these is the commentary. The lines delivered by Peter Drury and Jim Beglin still feel a bit forced and wooden at times, not to mention the repeated phrases you'll get to learn within days of playing the game. For a game that delivers so immersion in the gameplay, the commentary really reminds you it's a video game, and some of our reviewers even turned it off entirely while playing.
The refereeing isn't always great either on PES, which is also frustrating. For example, if players collide with one another without a tackle being made (for instance, if someone pushes you off the ball, which would be a foul in real life), this more often than not isn't given as a foul, something that's incredibly noticeable in a very physical match where people are jostling you constantly.
Visually, PES still looks brilliant, especially in terms of players. There's no massive leap when it comes to this side of the game, but that doesn't matter, because all the big players still look as they should, and there's plenty of detail when it comes to lighting, sweat, etc. Some faces pulled when you zoom into player faces during gameplay are a bit terrifying, but that doesn't particularly bother us when we're not looking for it.
All in all, we came away from PES 2018 with many more positives than negatives. It's a true polishing of the winning formula that has been established over the past few years, and the added features like improved goalkeepers, advanced dribbling, and Random Selection mode should all go down well with fans of the series and football games in general.