This review for the casual gamer isn't your typical gaming review in which you can expect to read about frame rates, modes, hard disk space required and other technical information. The purpose of the 'Review for the Sports Fan' is to focus on the game in the context of the real sport. In other words, if you're an enthusiast of the real-life sport, this review will tell you what you are likely to enjoy about the virtual experience and what's likely to pique you. And now, lace up, because we're about to see if Pro Evolution Soccer 2018 makes sense .
The Pro Evolution Soccer (or World Soccer: Winning Eleven as its known in Japan and other parts of Asia) franchise has often been viewed — largely unfairly — as the poorer relative of the fully-licensed FIFA series. After all, aside from featuring such glamorous teams as Aragon, London, Liguria and Cataluna (you know them better as Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Barcelona respectively) the first few editions of Pro Evo featured a Dutch national side with players named Oranges 1, Oranges 2, Oranges 3 and so on.
Of course, there were always unofficial patches available to turn team names, crests and uniforms into likenesses of their real-world counterparts, but the feeling at the back of the mind that this was a compromise was unshakable.
Flash-forward to 2017 and all those Oranges have been consigned to the dustbin of history. Teams like Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, Schalke, Liverpool and Arsenal are licensed and rendered accurately. Unfortunately, there's only a handful of leagues and tournaments that are fully (or almost fully) licensed. So, alongside a fully licensed Arsenal, you can expect to see a West Glamorgan City (Swansea City) and in an almost accurate Serie A, you'll find yourself picking PM Black White if you wish to play as Gonzalo Higuain, Gianluigi Buffon, Paolo Dybala and Blaise Matuidi. If you're a fan of the Bundesliga, it's best to warn you beforehand: There's no Bayern Munich. Apart from Dortmund and Schalke, there's little trace of the German leagues. Elsewhere, while the days of Aragon are long over, you'll still have to make do with Man Red playing at Konami Stadium.
Fortunately and as with the last few instalments, all you have to do is download the relevant PES 2018 option files and you've got yourself a fully authentic (or near enough) bunch with whom to hit that grass. And once you've done that, players and teams will start to look and feel a lot more like the real thing:
Players may have the wrong names or play for fictional teams in ridiculous kits, but by and large, they somewhat resemble their real-life counterparts. However, unless they're members of Barcelona — whose visages also adorn the edition of the game available in India — who look almost exactly like the real thing, it's a bit hit-or-miss. Meanwhile, stadiums like Anfield, the Bernabeu and Signal Iduna Park are beautifully rendered and the build-up to matches carries the pedigree of a slick TV presentation. Commentators Peter Drury and Jim Beglin will spend time analysing the makeup of a small number of teams and even their tactics.
But this treatment is reserved for the PES 2018 equivalent of the 'one percent'. For everyone else, there's a standard introduction in a non-descript stadium and near-radio silence from the commentators while the lineups are being laid out. Commentary is limited, repetitive and arbitrary at times. For instance, upon over-hitting a lofted pass to a winger and watching it roll harmlessly over the goal-line (near the corner flag), the commentators reacted as though I'd smashed a volley millimetres wide of the goal. This does take away from the TV-esque experience and serves to remind you that you're playing a game and not watching it on TV. Another thing that takes you further away from the experience of watching it on TV is the cardboard cutouts that are masquerading as members of the audience. The less said about that lot the better.
While we're on the topic of presentation, loading menus and in-game menus appear to have been preserved in a time capsule that was launched in the early 2000s and revived for 2017. Navigating through these can be fairly laborious and off-putting.
But once those cleats hit the turf, the story changes entirely.
The PES franchise has always been viewed as the purists' choice as far as the on-field action is concerned, when compared with its aforementioned wealthier relative. The latest edition goes some way in demonstrating just why. Right from kickoff, the fluidity of the game becomes clear. The first few PES titles featured very quick gameplay, but over the years, in addition to tweaks in gameplay, the speed has been reduced to make for a more realistic experience. And it shows.
You can't simply bomb down the middle of the pitch and expect to outrun every defender and slot the ball past the goalkeeper; you'll be dispossessed long before you've even had a sniff of the 18-yard box. You can't expect to do fancy tricks and run circles around opposing defenders; you'll end up miscuing it eventually.
Actually, let's hold that thought. You probably can do all that if you're playing at the lowest difficulty, as Barcelona and against West Glamorgan City. But where's the fun in that? Instead, for a far richer and more realistic experience, crank up the difficulty rating to Professional or Normal at the very least and play as a variety of teams. The first thing you'll notice is that passing needs to be precise. The concept of 'married passes'— ie passes that are automatically programmed to arrive at the feet of a teammate — is virtually non-existent. If you're hoping to turn a defensive situation into a quick counter-attack, you'll need to master those through balls, lobs and weighted passes, as well as the variations available when you hold down one of the shoulder buttons.
Another thing you'll swiftly notice is the need for strategy. PES 2018 ensures that you cannot approach every single match with a one-point agenda of bombing forward with all your players. You'll likely concede a bucketload of goals. One of the best aspects of the PES 2018 is that it requires you to understand your team, but more importantly, your opposition. So if it's against an aggressive team that you find yourself pitted, you will need to hang back, play defensively and look for that window of opportunity. And if it's against a bunch of players who like 'parking the bus', you will have to play a more possession-based game and gradually work your forward before you pepper the goal with shots.
The fluidity of the game alluded to earlier can be seen best in three different areas:
First, there's the visual standpoint. To this point, there's been no noticeable break in animation to shake you out of the immersive illusion that you're not just playing a videogame.
Second, there's the collision detection that allows for quick transitions when a misplaced pass or running headfirst into an opposition player sends the ball bouncing around all over the place — much like the real thing.
Third, there's the ability to quickly get through dead-ball situations. The ability to take quick free kicks and throw-ins — a far cry from the bygone era in which you had to wait for a cutscene to play out before you could get the game up and running again — replicates the real-world experience and also adds a new tactical dimension to your game.
This fluidity really helps you bring your strategy to life, particularly if you're going for one that involves plenty of cutbacks, quick passes, one-twos and feints.
And once you've mastered all that, you will find scoring goals to be one of the most rewarding experiences to be found in any football game. And that's no exaggeration. That feeling you get when you've worked the ball around, pulled off a series of smart passes, positioned your players in anticipation of the next move — yes, you can select which player you want to bring into the move next and position him accordingly, whipped in a quick cross and watched on as your striker buries a powerful header into the back of the net sets a very high standard for future games. And for that moment when you finally nail a free kick and send the ball sailing into one of the top corners of the goal, it's probably best to ensure beforehand that there are no fragile and breakable objects around you.
In summation, PES 2018 takes, much like its predecessors, a decidedly non-arcadey and more simulation-esque approach to football and succeeds. There are a few issues with presentation, commentary and licensing that may dilute your experience, but if it's pure gameplay that you're after and willing to put in the effort to master it, you'll find few sports sims quite as rewarding.
Keep watching this space for the full review.