Fans will tell you that what keeps them coming back to Pro Evolution Soccer (PES) year after year is those fleeting moments of magic. When a patient 20-pass build-up throws the opposition out of formation to create a goal scoring opportunity, or when an impeccably timed one-two pass leaves four defenders in the dust and your striker one-on-one with the keeper. Such moments are plentiful in PES 2017, but what really elevates the game this year is that they are no longer restricted to goal-scoring.
You’ll find them when your defender goes in to dispossess an opposition striker and just a fraction of a second’s delay will catch his foot rather than the ball. You’ll see it when the AI anticipates your moves three passes ahead by sending runners to shadow your on-rushing full backs. PES 2017 is a masterclass in gameplay and a lot of that is down to Konami removing the fluff that often comes with overcomplicated animations and unnecessarily complex collision systems.
In previous games, the double-tap control for standing tackles was often a saviour in desperate defensive situations, and while it still exists, you won’t find yourself using it anymore because the AI now just knows when to and when not to commit to a risky tackle. Both player and opposition AI read the game unlike anything in a football game before.
A lot of the instinctiveness and crispness of PES 2017’s gameplay is also down to the new animations, which lend a lot of weight and realism to player interactions, but without ever getting in the way of what your controller inputs tell it. There’s a distinct lack of barriers between what you want the game to do and what it actually does, and there are few things more empowering to a player than that.
The game’s AI also learns your tactics and adapts, forcing you to constantly look for new approaches. One great example I encountered was with the new attack and defence presets during corner kicks. The dash preset – which moves all your attackers (and their markers) to the edge of the penalty area and has them rushing towards the six-yard box as you curl the corner in – was initially an easy way to score, but the AI quickly realised this, and switched from man-to-man marking to zonal defending, which quite effectively negated my go-to strategy.
To counter this AI cleverness though, Konami has added Advance Tactics, a feature that is easy to miss within the team management screens but an invaluable tool to adapt your play style to suit not only the match situation but also opposition tactics. From having the wide players hug the touchline to spread out play or ordering your wing backs to make forward runs, to holding a deep defensive line or playing on the counter with one player of your choice in the opposition half, PES 2017 lets you map custom tactics to the D-pad, allowing you to switch between them or use a combination of them on the fly.
A big and much needed improvement this year is goalkeepers. Aside from the strangely superhuman stretches to cut off crosses, keepers now save when you expect them to, get beaten by good strikes, and even make the odd human mistake. They do often parry when they should hold on to the ball, but on the whole, the quality of goalkeeping is on a different level this year. A special mention is also warranted for the refereeing. They play advantage well, are mostly accurate with the yellow and red cards, and even pick up seemingly minor fouls.
With so much improved on the gameplay front, you would expect Konami to phone it in with the two staple game modes – Master League and myClub – and while there are no drastic changes in either, there are plenty of tweaks for the better.
myClub is quite a divisive mode (much like FIFA Ultimate Team) – you either love it or hate it – for the sheer lottery of it all. Being forced into a set formation and having little control over your squad selection can be quite limiting, but with the introduction of the auction house, Konami has made quite a few improvements to the scouting system, making it easier to find and sign the players you want.
In the rags-to-riches Master League, most of the improvements are evident in player transfers. Where earlier you earned money from matches and were free to use it all on transfers, you’re now given fixed transfer and salary budgets to work with. This makes for interesting transfer strategies a few seasons into the mode, with you not only having to pay attention to a player’s transfer value, but also wage demands. ML also now includes a lengthier transfer deadline day to add more drama to negotiations, similar to what FIFA has been doing for a while.
That brings us to the two areas that have continued to keep the series’ detractors away – licenses and online. The net code and general server reliability has been iffy at best since the game’s launch, with frequent server disconnections, slow connectivity, and spotty matchmaking. This is also quite an annoyance in myClub, where you’re dumped back to the main menu when the server decides to drop you. Things have improved since launch, but are still nowhere near ideal.
Licenses is a strange one this year. On one hand, PES 2017 has lost the entire La Liga license, joining the absent Bundesliga and unlicensed Premier League, but in working with Sony, Konami has managed to make it much easier to get community-created content into the game. This means downloading files onto a pen drive and transferring them onto the PS4 will add authentic kits, names, line-ups and logos for every major team and league in the game, essentially negating the impact of the lack of licenses. That said, none of this is in the game out of the box and does require manual effort, and of course, Xbox One players are out of luck.
In that respect, PES 2017 hasn’t really fixed the two major issues that have always plagued the series. But in the grand scheme of things, these are easily forgiven because PES 2017 just plays so, so well. It’s as beautiful a representation of the beautiful game as Konami has ever managed, and that’s saying a lot considering the series’ dominance during its PS2 heyday.
Pick it up at full price, wait for it to hit the bargain bin, or borrow it from a friend. Do what you have to because if you’re a football fan, you owe it to yourself to play PES 2017.