Gaming

‘Pro Evo 2017’ Shows That the Beautiful Game Can Play Dirty

Konami's kicking sim will forever remain the underdog versus FIFA, but there's a lot to be said for its purity and physical punch.
14 September 2016, 12:00am

Screenshot courtesy of Konami

If you're buying FIFA, you're buying FIFA. You already know you are. No amount of me, or anyone else, suggesting that you should give this year's Pro Evo an opportunity to impress instead, in a year where EA's runaway market leader inevitably rocks its way through the teething problems of a new game engine, changed set-piece controls and its much-showcased but largely unnecessary story mode, "The Journey", is going to change your mind. And that's fine. FIFA will be good this year. It might not be great, and from all anecdotal accounts it's pretty far from it, but the EA Sports brand hasn't been plastered on a bad sim for as long as I can remember. Rugby 2004, maybe. That was shite. FIFA 17 won't be shite. It'll be okay. You enjoy yourself.

Me, I'll be sticking with PES, after it was my go-to for the 15/16 season. Because, again, the latest iteration of this underdog series has built upon what made the previous instalment great, refining visual fidelity from better player likenesses (and behaviour: check Marek Hamšik's hair-styling celebration when he nets for Napoli) to greater environmental details, improving goalkeeper AI and – for better or worse, to be fair – making the virtual referees in the middle rather less lenient when it comes to tackles. In Pro Evo 16, a last-ditch sliding challenge on the edge of the box could often play out in the defender's favour, in my experience; here, a year later, the slightest touch on an opponent, the catching of a boot lace, and the official will be reaching for his pocket. I've played around a dozen matches now, and received a red card in a quarter of them – reds that I'm sure I'd never have picked up by playing the same way in 16.

There are a lot of small changes to this game that add up to a far greater overall experience. (And some big ones, too – the new integrated PES League will see the game increase its reach into the eSports arena, if that's your thing.) But what I really like about PES 2017 is its pure physicality – already impressively reactive but notably bruising here, like I've never seen before. Player elbows "accidentally" connect with the eye sockets and stylishly stubbled chins of rivals; tangled legs lead to four-man pile-ups in the 18-yard box; and none of it's laugh-out-loud janky anymore, with strangely bent limbs and necks at impossible angles. Everything looks like it hurts, for real. And when players are down, they're often stretchered away, albeit off camera – play aggressively and expect not only to be reduced to nine men come 90 in-game minutes, but for the opponents to be sending half their squad home in an ambulance.

'PES 2017', Gamescom 2016 trailer

For 2017, PES makers Konami agreed deals with teams like Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund, allowing developers access to said clubs to deliver unnervingly accurate player models (albeit ones content to flop about in the uncanny valley a lot of the time) and stadiums modelled on their home grounds. (They went to Liverpool, too, but as a Southampton supporter that's officially all I can write on the Merseyside club's presence here.) These are sides known for their silky passing, their multi-millionaire players, and skills to make the majority of part-time and professional footballers look on with envious eyes.

But PES doesn't typically play nicely on my PS4 – it's almost better, to me, when blows are being traded, when top-tier outfits are reduced to scrappy encounters that unfold more like a Johnstone's Paint Trophy first-round tie than the Champion's League final. This is the football I know: slow build ups and measured pressing, passing in triangles and tracking back, man-marking and going right through someone to really let them know you're there. In my games so far, I've spanked nobody and nor have I been overturned embarrassingly – my biggest win is 4-1, and my heaviest defeat 1-2. My memories of FIFA 10, the last FIFA I really committed time to, are all nine-nil thumpings and runaway league successes; in PES 2016, my Southampton edged Chelsea to the "English League" by just three points. (Although you could argue that the same "regular" difficulty level in Konami's game is tougher than it is in EA's, and I'm certainly not at the standard to play like a pro.)

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FIFA, in my mind, isn't like this. It's Hollywood, and has been for years, however great its attractive official licenses. It's the video game that's based on the beautiful game, on the fantasy of it, whereas PES is the beautiful game playing dirty through the video games medium. "The Journey" appears to reinforce FIFA's scripted spectacle, for the outlandish, the unbelievable – the superstars of the game achieving the impossible: 40-yard screamers and rabona through-balls. PES is the more stripped-back experience – there's no Ultimate Team here, no Premier League out of the box (although there's sure to be an unofficial patch for that, soon after Konami's own transfer update on September the 15th). There's just football, with all the kicking and the tripping and the hostility that comes with 22 men running themselves into the ground for a living. PES might look a lot nicer in 2017 than it did in 2016, but the frills are still subtle in comparison to the opposition.

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I haven't spent enough time with FIFA 17 personally to know if it's, ahem, objectively the better game. I know how those who are spending their money like to assess these things. Are all the teams I want in there, as they should be? Is this the game that more of my mates will be playing, so I can join in with them online? Is the English commentary of a standard where I won't be losing my mind after four matches? The likelihood is that FIFA answers affirmatively to both of these questions, while PES can't. Underdogs usually stay that way, whatever their qualities, and Pro Evo 17 isn't going to shake up that hierarchy of two, or flip the order of football gaming's forever-more duopoly. At a commercial level, anyway.

FIFA will always be Bobby Moore: the legend, the hero, the lifted-aloft icon inked indelibly into sporting history. PES is more, let's say, Tony Adams. Gets the job done, unwaveringly loyal. Sure, there've been a few problems along the way, and everything's gone a little wonky in the past, but on his day he's a match for anyone. Indeed, he's the most reliable man out there, a lot of the time, and quite ready to kick a superstar striker right up his arse. I always liked Tony Adams.

Pro Evolution Soccer 2017 is released on September the 15th in the UK. Release dates in other territories vary.

@MikeDiver

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