PES 2016: a generational leap for football games (PS4, Xbox One)

PES 2016 is my E3 2015 game of the show. You know that, of course, because you read it up there. But by now you’re no doubt questioning the choice. ‘How can that be?!’, you’ll squeal. ‘What crack have you been smoking over there?’, you may ask. The answers, respectively, are ‘easily’ and ‘none, sadly’. Amid a sea of promising but hands-off showings, weird Kickstarters for not enough money, and potentially great but who the fuck knows, really, titles, PES 2016 wins out handily. It helps that it was both playable and a generational leap beyond what we’ve seen before in a football game.

Big talk, of course – don’t we hear this nonsense every time a new build comes out? Isn’t it a bit like those adverts for razor blades, claiming to be the best thing ever and rubbishing the same stuff they told you was also the best ever not 12 months prior? A little. Spend more than five minutes with PES 2016, though, and it’s clear that Konami – at the third time of asking – has used the Fox engine to change its game fundamentally.

PES 2016 accomplishes the most difficult of tasks: making interactions between players when contesting the ball not only central to the experience, but also far more authentic than we’ve been used to before. At its best, PES has always been about using momentum and positioning to get the better of your opponents, rather than trick-sticking or button combos or other fluff. 2016 takes this to its logical conclusion.

Physicality was a bit of a problem in PES 2015, as it generally has been in a lot of football games (remember FIFA 12’s ‘kiss’ between Andy Carroll and Fabianski?). Players colliding or falling over is a staple of the sport, especially if they’re from lower leagues or play for Liverpool. But often we’ve settled for set outcomes rather than dynamic encounters. So players would hit each other and one would bounce off, or be fouled, or you’d fall over and curse that your avatar wouldn’t get up fast enough to make a secondary tackle. At worst, they’d get stuck together, looking like something out of the end of The Fly II.

In PES 2016, Konami hasn’t just reduced these issues, it’s made the most troublesome of interactions integral to play. Before, there was little skill in tackles above and beyond timing them ‘right’ – the CPU did the rest for you. That’s replaced here with tiny yet significant battles. Receiving the ball under pressure now isn’t a case of passing it quickly or skipping past opponents, dreading the usual outcome of a tackle successfully connecting – losing the ball. Instead, players can shield more effectively, leaning in, or use their feet to dance out of (and sometimes in to) trouble. Both give the player in possession more options, but crucially it’s not done via the right stick: it’s far more reflexive than that. Muscle memory, the momentum of both opponents, and their respective skills mixed with player behaviour is what determines the outcome. Standing tackles from behind aren’t necessarily fouls, and face-on tackles aren’t always won. It feels less like a coming together of two separate entities with a set result and more like, well, a challenge.

Of the demo teams, Juventus perhaps show this off best, thanks to Pirlo. Juve’s playmaker isn’t the quickest, what with him being older than the sun, and as such is reliant on quick feet and intelligent movement. Many football games get his passing right, but PES 2016 nails his ability to move the ball to free up space for that pass under pressure. In one game a defender came charging, face on, with a standing tackle. He got the ball, but failed to make the connection count, and a press of pass saw Pirlo shift the ball out to his left, ‘free’ foot and move it along to teammate.

There are still clean tackles of course, as well as the ability to leave a defender for dead or jink right past them. But there are also secondary and tertiary outcomes of not so clean tackles now, depending on the angle of the challenge and the skill of those in control. It doesn’t feel sluggish, or that it’s slowing the pace of the game down radically. Instead, it makes it more exciting, removing the usual ‘tackled’ or ‘not tackled’ outcomes, giving greater tactical options and emphasising individual battles as well as attention paid to team style. This changes the way PES can be played: digital football is often about forward movement, American Football-style phases where you ‘attack’ and ‘defend’. Now, those lines are blurred somewhat.

The net result is that PES 2016’s players feel more distinct than ever, placing greater emphasis on positioning and decision making. The Iniestas of this world are more reactive, quicker on the ball and getting out of trouble, while star defenders also influence games more obviously. This then affects the team as a whole: both games of France vs Brazil I played in ended with overwhelming French victories, as while Brazil seem to hold all the keys to traditional PES victory – fast, skillful, superstar players – they were overmatched against the hardworking France midfield and defence which exploited how lightweight some of Brazil’s players are in the tackle and won every aerial challenge going, another beneficiary of the collision system.

While the tackling feels fresh enough to be considered revolutionary, other elements have also evolved well. Shooting, good enough in the last game, is now complemented by excellent goalkeepers and goalkeeping animations, including superb follow-up saves. Ball physics have been tweaked – there’s now more dynamism in the way it moves when controlled and on the turn, without resorting to ballooning around like a petrol station ball. There’s also no noticeable pass delay, something that kept PES 2015 from achieving its potential.

There are some issues to iron out: finesse shooting is weak, and some defender movement when fronting up attackers can be a little crab-like. But everything else is there: in terms of on-pitch action at least, the game could go out the door tomorrow. Never has a new PES been this good this early. In my review of PES 2015 I said it was inches away from being the best football game of all time. Barring total disaster, PES 2016 will take that title.

Pre-order PES 2016 on PS4, Xbox One, PC, PS3 or Xbox 360.

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