PES 17 (PlayStation 4) review

Such was my malaise this year with the PES v FIFA debate I missed the release date of Konami’s yearly foray into the football game market. PES 16 had lured me briefly as it had with it’s 15 and 14 incarnations before it. However it was more a case of showing courtesy to an old friend, a nodding glance backwards at days when it was the king of the genre.

Inevitably FIFA comes along with it’s flashy presentation and massive licensing and little old Pro Evo gets put to one side. They don’t do themselves any favours though when buying licenses like Euro 16 and then delivering a really disappointing add-on. It was this poorly presented summer release that convinced me FIFA was the way forward. I was already planning how to live through the career of young Alex Hunter in the brave new EA Sports feature ‘The Journey’.

Curiosity got the better of me though and when I actually discovered Pro Evo had been out for a week or three I decided to give it one last bash. I had no intention of doing so but an old friend (Mr Judson) recommended PES this year based on the demo he’d played. For me this was big news.

Chris was the first person to recommend FIFA over PES to me way back in 2008. I bought FIFA 09 and the corresponding PES release in a break from tradition. I had never bought a FIFA release over Konami but as Xbox 360’s broke onto the scene EA Sports stole the crown, and in truth since then they’ve ruled the roost. Recently people have said ‘this years PES is a winner’, but ultimately  it’s almost always been dewy-eyed respect for it’s past glories or hipsters wanting to back the lesser known soccer release to be trendy.

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I’m not going to talk you through the licensing and presentation issues in this review. They’re still there. Going online and downloading official kits and names is possible and it is easier this year than in past years. However the commentary still grates like fingers down a blackboard, so to try and heighten my pleasure I switch off Jim Beglin and Peter Brackley.

I launched straight into the master league mode which is what I played as a younger man. I put a little work in before hand looking up how to design Lincoln’s kits and badge and how to upload them. It sounds geeky I know but in my heart I wanted PES 17 to blow me away, and the only way I could help was to make sure I could be Lincoln. FIFA can’t give you that.

The first few games weren’t great. I have played so much FIFA the controls are like second nature, and I found myself trying the use the skill buttons from FIFA on PES. That didn’t work as you’d expect. I lost a couple of games to nil on regular difficulty, so I switched to amateur. I won my next five games by six or seven goals. The difficulty levels are certainly not well stepped.

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My first six game-months as a manager did nothing to convince me that I shouldn’t attend a midnight lanch of FIFA last night. I struggled along and scraped by, looking at tutorials on YouTube and trying to figure out  some sort of strategy and game plan. Once upon a time I had been a Pro Evo king, when games could only be played by being in the same room as your opponent. I went undefeated for almost two years in 2001/02. Now I was struggling to beat Brentford on regular mode and I couldn’t even afford to sign players. I was stuck with the lame master league eleven of nobodies and no means to improve who I had.

It seems obvious now but as the games rolled on I learned a few new tricks and moves. I began to recognise my nameless players skills and strengths and I began to adapt my formation to suit.

Okay I wasn’t waltzing around defender after defender with neat shimmies like FIFA, but I was dissecting something much more realistic. I began to see the runners, and I started to understand the fundamental differences in controlling my players. Slowly but surely I was getting rid of my ‘FIFA programming’ and learning how to play PES properly.

I’m not sure at what point I forgot I was playing my so-called second choice game. Maybe it was the heart breaking moment Birmingham pulled back two goals in a game I’d dominated by suddenly attacking me in the final ten minutes. It might have been the moment my new six foot six loan striker headed in a cross just as I’d hopedwhen I signed him. It might have been as Coutinho (‘S’ Coutinho. Steve maybe?) turned a Reading defender and scuffed a weak shot into the ground and past the goalkeeper. I realised I was becoming immersed in a truly brilliant game, a game that had grabbed me like no FIFA release since 2009.

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Everything began to feel so organic. Opponents missed glorious chances to leave me with my heart in my mouth, but they had the ability to conjur things up out of nothing as well. I noticed Barnsley begin to press further forward 60 minutes into our clash so I switch my tactics to an over the top approach looking to hit space. I won that game with a late ball over the top and found myself leaping off the sofa with joy. The result left my sixth in ‘English Division Two’ as it’s called, or the Championship as we know it.

At first I had been trying to play FIFA on PES and I had simply been found out. This isn’t just a game, it’s a proper simulation. Every team has a different approach and I found myself trying to adapt as games wore on. I even upped the game time from 8 minutes to 12 minutes just to experience more of the tactical cat and mouse. I found the longer game allowed more time for slow build up, passes sideways probing and looking for the space to open. Some games I could swarm all over my opponents just looking for an opening, and then others I barely get a touch as a slick CPU packs the midfield and stifles my threats.

I didn’t need the frostbite game engine or the bundles of official teams and players, I just needed this wonderful simulation of the game I love, perhaps not catching the drama of the pitch, but perfectly recreating everything that is glorious on it. The sound isn’t great, the commentary is awful and even the additional effects are very 2006. PES have made no major strides in audio in the best part of a decade. I can forgive that.

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Before I knew it I’d hit the transfer window on my master league game, and a youth team player I’d brought in sold for £12m. I could go out scouting, but it had to be measured and calculated. The team chemistry system is brilliant and really makes you think about which strategies to play. The menu may well still be clunky but what you do off the pitch in PES is as important as what you do off it. On FIFA I marvel at scrolling through page after page after page of real players and data, but on PES I barely read the names. I didn’t care who I signed, I cared what I signed. I needed a six foot six striker to aim my big lump forward at, and whether that was A.Brown or Z.Zubizaretta. I didn’t care, and I still don’t.

The truth is that FIFA is presented much better. Graphically FIFA is better and in terms of options and depth FIFA is better. It clearly has a much bigger budget and much more mass market appeal. However these are football games, and all of the bells and whistles in the world do not change the fact that the action is judged on those 90 minutes your pixelated players spend out on the turf. It’s those 90 minutes that truly matter and this year, more than ever PES has the upper hand in this crucial area. The simple fact is that once you can play it properly it is a significantly better football simulation.

I know when I want an additional challenge that I will yearn a little for those options and game modes over on FIFA. I know as a football game addict I will have both and I will occasionally stray across to FIFA to assemble my ultimate team or to play the Alex Hunter thing. However I will always know that whilst the goodies FIFA offers outside the game engine will give them some of my attention, I will always be wishing that it was the Konami game I was playing when the ball is on the pitch.

I haven’t played FIFA 17 yet. I will, tomorrow and I’ll do a review as well. However I don’t need to play it to make the following statement: FIFA 17 is a beautifully constructed video game version of football.

PES is football.