What is it about football games? While fans of other genres can expect not just consistent output but steady improvement from their favourite series, those of us to whom pressing X means pass rather than jump have long known it's best to approach our major releases with trepidation. One year the game might feel too slow, the next too fast. One year it's too easy to score, another too hard. In what other iterative releases are the core mechanics in such a state of constant flux? (I have a theory about the most talented developers not being interested in sports - but we'll save that for another time.)
Take last year's PES, for example. While the game was universally well-received, its flaws - such as lenient referees and dodgy 'keepers - hadn't been apparent in its predecessors. If key parts of the game work less well in 2016 than they did in 2010, what faith can we have that the series is really getting any better?
It's partly this paranoia which explains why PES 2017 feels like such a breath of fresh air. For the first time in years, here's a football game that feels like a direct improvement on its predecessor in almost every way. (This is as long as you're playing on PS4 and Xbox One. The PC build is not reviewed here, and is a very different story.)
It doesn't take long to notice. Receiving the ball and turning in one movement, or spotting an overlapping fullback and releasing the perfect through ball, everything just feels, well, right. Spot on. In perfect balance.
This balance - between attack and defence, between speed and precision, between arcade and sim - makes playing matches a joy. That "one extra match" feeling comes about not because you want coins, or because you want to improve your ranking. There's a sheer pleasure in tackling the game and its challenges that's simply been lacking from this generation of releases. At last, we might have a rejoinder to those who claim football games peaked in 2006.
For next year's game, Konami hopes to bag the official license for Jamie Vardy's lookalike.
It's the cumulative effect of a raft of small improvements, rather than any one new feature, that have contributed to finding this golden mean. Player movement is a little slower and heavier-feeling, granting greater control and making you think more about body positions as you move across the pitch. The ball physics, too, seems to have been slightly tweaked, with crosses now more likely to hang in the air, just waiting to be attacked with a bullet header, and snap volleys arrowing at goal at a tremendous pace.
Kinks in goalkeeping AI and animations have been completely ironed out, with better positions being taken up between the sticks and far fewer shots flying, seemingly unopposed, into the bottom corner (by far PES 2016's most common kind of goal). Defending, too, works better, with improved control of slide tackles (and better refereeing to accompany them) and fewer moments where a team-mate's poor AI leaves you exposed. While I've had a couple of instances where a centre-back has dithered and caught out of position, such errors are forgivable when they feel only as common as human ones.
Passing is another key element that feels noticeably different, with players' attributes now playing a much bigger part in how you transition the ball up the pitch. A slide-rule through ball by Andres Iniesta, say, will seem to slow slightly at just the right time in a way one by Lucas Leiva just doesn't. You quickly learn to only take risky passes with better players - and the game is better for this more considered approach.
My Ligue 2 Master League has been a particular delight. It's a physical league, and most of the teams sit deep and send long diagonal balls to wingers or hoofs (hooves?) up to target men. The first few matches I simply couldn't cope - my fictitious centre backs were outmuscled or outrun at every turn, and I had little luck penetrating a massed defence. But then I began to learn. I started timing my leaps better, and standing off when wide men received the ball. Batterings soon became clean sheets - a foundation to build upon.
The Barca-infused presentation reminded me of a Liverpool PS2 game I had. Which isn't a good thing.
With my inferior players, effective use of tactics became my most effective weapon. And so I started experimenting with the game's new "Advanced Instructions". From tika-taka to the gegenpress, I've yet to find the philosophy that best suits my limited team. But the journey I've been on - one of learning the game and improving as a player, rather than simply plodding through matches in order to raise funds to buy better players, has been a memorable one.
As you can imagine, this challenge is flipped on its head when playing against top-tier CPU teams. Barcelona simply won't let you have the ball, while Liverpool's press offers a completely different challenge. The variety of styles on offer, and the numerous ways to counter them, offer tremendous longevity to the devoted offline player.
As ever, PES's on-pitch achievements are rather let down by almost everything beyond it. The game's presentation is consistently either odd, poorly implemented or downright shoddy, and it's hard to understand how so little effort appears to be made each year to make even the most basic of improvements.
Commentary is somewhat improved but still five years behind anything EA would put its name to - the awkward shifts in tone, from calm description of play to sudden bellowed celebration, grating more and more as time progresses. The menu system has similarly had minor tweaks, but I'd say it's still comfortably the worst of any major release I've played in recent years - across all genres. When's the last time anyone in real life used the phrases "Forward Time" or "Game Plan"?
The player models are impressively detailed close-up, albeit with a strange, waxwork-like sheen, but possess a square-shouldered physical homogeneity that robs them of their individuality when seen from afar. While some effort has been made to capture different players' gaits and playing styles, there's not quite enough difference between how a generic centre-back runs to a generic winger - a problem felt more keenly by those of us who prefer lower league play.
And then we get onto the licenses.
Now, this may come as a shock to some readers, but there is, in fact, another annual football game that comes out at the same time of the year as PES. It has similar struggles with its match engine but the main thing that differentiates the two is the fact that this other game - let's call it Anti-PES - has for decades now had licenses to pretty much every football brand you can imagine. As a result, gamers whose top priority is playing as their favourite team in the right kit, in the right stadium, with a completely up-to-date squad, have only ever really had one choice.
Even if you don't like football, you should check out Barney Ronay's writing. The man can do no wrong.
While uploading option files - a process made easier for PS4 users this year - meant there's often been a way around this problem, it's a hassle many understandably can't be bothered with - and that's if they even know it's possible in the first place.
Konami's answer to this problem, this year, has been to throw money at a handful of teams (around half of which are South American) to purchase club-specific licenses. As a result, fans of Barcelona, Liverpool, Man City and, er, Red Bull Brasil, could arguably now decide PES was the better choice if they're seeking the most detailed and lovingly rendered digital incarnation of their favourite team.
To my mind, however, the whole enterprise seems utterly short-sighted. A Liverpool fan who wants to play as Liverpool in every game may well be more satisfied by PES this year than he was last. But what's the point in James Milner having slightly more accurate eyebrows if the team he's scoring against are called South Norwood? Only when the licensed teams play each other will PES be able to provide an experience that can compete with its rival. And even then the use of the licenses outside the match experience seems poorly thought-out.
The amount of Barcelona branding and imagery in the game is simply bizarre, from the creepy title sequence (the echoey rendition of the Barcelona anthem sounds like something out of a horror film) to the use of Suarez and co as stand-ins in tutorial modes. This may come as news to Konami, but Barça aren't everyone's second team, and so the fact that PES 2017 at times feels like it was made in Catalonia could well put off as many players as it pleases.
The Barcelona license also means the Nou Camp stadium is a PES exclusive this year, and while in some ways I applaud the effort to snatch something from Anti-PES's grasp, the move sets a worrying trend. If one game has all the licenses, and the other has some, then at least one kind of gamer will always be happy. If we end up, a few years down the line, with both games having a mish-mash of licensed teams, leagues and players, everyone loses out.
With, I imagine, most of its production resources being devoted to gameplay (and paying Lionel Messi's tax bill) this year, the core PES game modes have remain relatively unchanged. MyClub, in which you can now purchase scouts, remains diverting but still can't shake off the feeling of being a poor man's FUT. Master League, however, sees something of a return to form, with streamlined menus and an improved transfer system making it once again the best offline season mode around.
Sadly, PC users will again feel short-changed with an inferior version of the game. While one can understand that the financial incentive might not be there for Konami to invest outside the console market, it could be made a lot clearer that there are essentially two versions of the game.
Football, eh? Football!
It's early days still for the PES servers but one key improvement is the promise of more regular roster updates. After last year's debacle, in which most players were stuck for months with squads that were six months out of date, we can only hope that these are maintained throughout the year. But the day one patch at least means this summer transfer window has been included.
Speaking of which, having spent the weekend testing the game's different online modes, it seems, again, that PES 2017 represents an improvement on last year. With a relatively small online community, matchmaking can be a little slower than some might be used to, but once connection is established I found consistently smooth and reliable games - no signs of the lag that can often ruin these sorts of things.
I had few problems finding opponents in MyClub, though it was harder to find players for online friendly matches with smaller teams. If you're happy to play against Liverpool or Barcelona, though, you can often find an opponent with seconds.
Like the offline game, the balance in PES's engine can lead to some fantastic online matches. With (at the time of writing) no noticeable exploits, you'll find a real variety of playing styles, and as a result tactics come into play far more than in other online football offerings. It's not uncommon for an opponent to pause a change formation in the first half, and responding to such changes really forces you to think on your feet (well, thumbs).
Online or offline, PES 2017 is simply a wonderful football gameplay experience - the kind of which this generation of consoles has been waiting for. The presentation issues are, as always a pain, but that all simply melts away when the first whistle blows. By focusing on incremental improvements, PES Productions have demonstrated a clarity of vision that money simply can't buy.