The summer’s gone, the new football season is well underway, and as such, it’s time for the now annual battle between EA and Konami to see who takes the video game football trophy. With EA’s FIFA still far and away the leader when it comes to sales, it’s always interesting to see what changes Konami makes as they attempt to improve their position. Especially when recent years have found the Pro Evolution Soccer development team either focus solely on overhauling the gameplay and leaving the off-field stuff untouched or vice versa.
With Pro Evolution Soccer 2018, that scenario is definitely in play. Unless you’re a the sort of hardcore fan who was playing PES 2017 right up until this year’s version hit the shelves, you’d be hard-pressed to find what the off-pitch changes are. The menus and interface are absolutely identical to PES 2017, though Become a Legend and Master League now have their menu options running down the sides of the screen, as opposed to across the top. The soundtrack has been altered for the better, thankfully allowing us to say goodbye to that James Bay track that played 800 times in every Master League session last year. Speaking of which, a new “Challenge” option has been added to Master League, that claims to make the whole experience tougher by allowing an owner to set your targets and fire you if you don’t meet them. During my first two seasons with the game, the owner said I should aim for promotion. Then I was awarded a trophy in February for meeting the owner’s expectations after my side went on a five-match winning streak over Christmas, despite my team sitting in 15th place in the table. Then I barely heard from him again. So, that’s pretty half-baked.
The “Random Selection” match that was featured in PES 6 back on the PlayStation 2 (which for some reason was omitted on the Xbox 360 version) makes a return. Here, you select a team kit to play in, then set some filters so that the game can randomly select players for you. You might want a squad of players selected solely from the Manchester United and Liverpool lineups, or a team of French nationals who play in the Spanish league, for example. A brief (and pointless, if you’re playing local multiplayer) trading session allows you to try and snaffle players from the opposition while pawning off your less-capable ones. Then you play the match and…do it all again if you like. This apparently significant addition has been thrown in as an entirely separate mode which, much like the other modes available, don’t cross over in any way. Why not let us use the random selection tool to determine our starting Master League squad? How about taking a random selection team to the Champions League final? The trophy list – which unsurprisingly, is practically identical to last year – rubs more salt in the wound. Separate trophies for matches against the CPU in versus, random selection, and exhibition mode are awarded, despite all three contests essentially being the same thing.
It may sound as if my tone is overly harsh regarding Konami’s off-field efforts, but when you consider how other sports games have progressed this year (and how they progress every year, in fact), there’s no doubt that PES 2018 is a lackluster effort. Take a look at something like NHL 18 as an example. That game adds new gameplay modes complete with full campaign-like circuits of play, plus single-player campaigns for its Ultimate Team mode, as well as a total overhaul of Be A Pro. There’s also countless other additions and improvements, as well as the new ability to build a franchise entirely from scratch. Pro Evo’s annual update brings a new difficulty level, the chance to play in throwaway 3-on-3 co-op matches, and a mode where you can start a match with random players.
Finding improvements to Become A Legend and Master League is like playing spot the difference. Yes, you can still practically sell your entire team and buy a squad to dominate the division in the first month of Master League. Even the money-making Ultimate Team-alike MyClub mode is practically indistinguishable from last year’s sometimes enjoyable, but otherwise slow and cumbersome showing.
It’s kind of fortunate then, that absolutely none of this matters. This is definitely one of those years where the development team has focused on gameplay and the differences once you get out onto the pitch are easy to see.
The main takeaway is that PES 2018 feels a lot freer than it did before. A new system dubbed “Real Touch+” means that the ball isn’t glued to anyone’s feet and that when players come into contact with the ball, it reacts more realistically. That, combined with player movement that feels less regimented, results in a game where anything can happen. Slinging over a whipped cross from the right in last year’s game would usually end in one of two outcomes. Either the keeper or defense would get the ball, or the striker would get a powerful header on goal. Now, the ball might reach the striker, but skid off the back of his head, or he’ll mistime his jump and fluff the header altogether. Failing that, the keeper will make a hash of the catch and fumble the ball, or a defender might try an acrobatic clearance and watch as he gets it all wrong and the ball slips off his boot and narrowly misses going into the net.
Elsewhere, the most obvious way of seeing the new system is to look at goal kicks. Again, last year’s version would see the ball hoofed upfield by the keeper, and two opposing players would stand still, jumping up as the ball came down to try to win the header. The result was that the guy at the front won the ball nine times out of ten. This year, players aren’t locked to the spot, so you can jostle for position. A player standing still can get beaten by a player who takes a running leap into the air to claim the ball. Players slip more realistically on a wet pitch, so that defender who is in line to make an easy clearance might end up on his backside if he tries to turn too quickly, while the striker nips in to make a golden chance. Real Touch+ means that passes and clearances can go awry, too. You may well have a player with a super-high passing rating, but even he will fall foul of physics if he tries something too audacious when the ball is in the wrong position.
In many ways, the changes to gameplay cause things to feel a lot more organic and realistic in the way they play out. You can try to play the sort of unrealistic high-speed ping-pong passing game that’s often been rewarded in the past, but since the game itself is a slower, more methodical affair than last year, you’ll need a high level of skill and a decent amount of luck to get that going. More often than not, playing the ball around slowly and deliberately, looking for space and trying to find ways to unlock the defense without overcommitting is the way to go. When you get it right, and that perfectly planned move pays off, there’s nothing better.
Also, the targeting arrows for corners and free kicks have been removed entirely, so there’s a lot more skill involved in playing set pieces. This leads to a lot of wasted corners in the early days, and I can see that players will become frustrated with it. Practice makes perfect, though. Getting your angles and power right to calmly lob the ball across to your roaming midfielder from a corner is certainly far more rewarding than just blindly pointing an arrow and pressing the circle button.
PES 2018’s pitches don’t provide absolutely perfect play, though it comes pretty darned close. CPU teams have a tendency to be over-reliant on chipped through balls, and unless you’re playing a very, very deep defensive setup, the speed of the reactions of the defenders is often way below what it would need to be to stop an easy goal being scored. Online, the players I’ve played against are starting to see that’s the case as well so we can expect every team to spam L1+triangle a lot going forward. That’s unless Konami nerfs it or boost the defensive reaction times, of course.
Having to set your defense up to play deep or learning to switch to your central defenders as early as you possibly can (so you can make sure they run back to cover) is a small price to pay for what is otherwise a stellar kickabout. The terrible commentary – which now has a tendency to play over the top of itself – now contains about three more lines than it did before and everything outside of matches themselves has barely been touched. But the changes to the already-solid gameplay are more wide-ranging than they seem on paper and are enough to make PES 2018 an easy recommendation.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version, which we were provided with by Konami.
While the list of off-field changes is more than limited, PES 2018 improves upon the in-match action of last year’s title enough to get by and remain at the top of the footballing table.