The fact that the box of PES 2018 has a Barcelona shirt-touting Neymar emblazoned on the front may seem like a bad omen for a series that, in the past few years, has often had trouble staying up-to-date. Pretty much every PES game on PS4 has had a troubled launch, taking months to update lineups to reflect the summer transfer window - but this year is an exception.

That’s right, a PES game finally has fully updated lineups from day one, reflecting a shift in Konami’s focus from gameplay to presentation. In the past couple of years the developer has done an excellent job of tweaking the gameplay so that it seems physical and punchy, yet still has a fun arcade-like feel. Dribbling has been tuned up a little to be more responsive, while skill moves are now easier to perform, but those are the only major gameplay changes - other than the addition of one-man kick-offs, which really don’t change anything.

This isn’t a bad thing at all though; in fact it’s a testament to the franchise’s stellar gameplay. The way that players collide in tackles, the fury with which the ball strikes the goal frame, the feeling when a tiki-taka move works - PES matches are thrilling and fun, and even though goals are hard to come by at times, that only serves to make the experience even more exciting.

With gameplay refined, Konami has focused on presentation, completely revamping the menu system and in-game presentation, giving it a new sprightly lick of paint. Everything’s much simpler to navigate, while matchday presentation is revamped with statistical graphics popping up and a new, brighter UI. The licensed stadiums, including Anfield, the Nou Camp, and Signal Iduna Park, are especially excellent in terms of atmosphere, with club chants ringing out and the stadia themselves being lovingly rendered.

It’s a bit of a shame, then, that the commentary and the player models are sub-par. The former suffers from a lack of quantity, with pundits Peter Drury and Jim Beglin delivering stale lines that include absolute pearls like “as they say, there’s no accumulation without speculation.” The latter suffers from a lack of quality: while some players from licensed teams - Barcelona especially - look quite good, the majority look like they’ve melted slightly, although none are on the level of PES 2012 Kolo Toure, thankfully.

Speaking of licensing, this year’s PES has signed up big teams such as Schalke, Valencia, and, uh, Fulham, but as usual a majority of the Premier League, Championship, Bundesliga, and La Liga teams aren’t licensed. This is no big issue, however, as you can easily import files via Edit Mode and nullify the problem altogether.

With gameplay, presentation, and licensing (sort of) sorted, Konami has also bolstered the title's main gameplay modes. The ever-moreish MyClub - PES’ version of FIFA Ultimate Team - is still by far the best mode, not getting bogged down in microtransactions, though sadly, they are present. Building a team from scratch, recruiting players via agents, and participating in the wealth of online and offline tournaments is all hugely fun, and while online gameplay seems different compared to offline, it still feels fair and well balanced.

The flagship Master League mode also gets new additions in the form of pre-season tournaments, a revamped transfer negotiation system, and pre-match interviews. The mode itself is fun and comprehensive, requiring you to keep both the board and the players happy as you compete for silverware, but a few glaring issues seriously harm the longevity of it. The regen system leaves a lot to be desired, reincarnating retired players into your club’s youth team. We were hugely shocked at one point to see a 16-year-old Peter Crouch gracing or team of tykes at point.

Most notably, however, Konami has improved the lineup of local multiplayer modes, with 2v2 and 3v3 modes now available - though both are also playable online. These modes are huge fun with friends, but arguably the best addition to PES 2018 as a whole is the Random Selection mode. Each player chooses up to four parameters for the computer to randomly select their squad by - clubs, leagues, and nationalities - before randomly selecting players. A draft then commences, where players try and snatch each other’s players, before the gameplay gets going. It’s a fantastic mode with endless replayability, sure to be a hit on the sofa.

Conclusion

With its peppy presentation and new lick of paint, Konami has breathed even more life into PES with its latest instalment, a celebration of everything thrilling about football. Gameplay is exciting and technical, and the selection of modes varied and replayable to the point where it's hard to see where the franchise will go next - except for fixing some major flaws in Master League and adding some more licenses. Fans of the series need not Pjanic: PES 2018 continues the series' goal-den streak.