Pro Evolution Soccer, supposedly Konami's last AAA series, has spent the best part of a decade trying to catch up with FIFA's success. EA's behemoth of a sports game consistently has more licenses, fans, and sales than PES could ever dream of, and the sad thing is that it'll probably stay that way for a long time to come. That doesn't mean that this year's iteration, PES 2016, falls short of being a superb football simulator, however.
Start the game up and play your first match, and you'll notice how weighty the ball feels. Dribbling feels hugely responsive, passing the ball is a skill that's easy to do, yet hard to master, and the way that the ball dips and curves when you shoot makes the gameplay feel all the more real. Everything seems a lot more balanced than it is in FIFA - wingers don't constantly blaze past full-backs, strikers never feel unstoppable however good they are, and playing as a centre-back makes you feel as in control of the game as you would be as a centre-forward. It's not perfect - we've experienced many a goalkeeping blunder that would astound even David James - but it feels very complete and well-made.
That extends to the presentation - the typical matchday graphics are on display, but everything from the groundsmen cleaning up the pitch to the players walking down the tunnel is all there for you to watch, or skip, for your pleasure. The commentators, Peter Drury and Jim Beglin, are a bit of a lowlight thanks to their repetitive commentary and the fact that Beglin only comments a couple times each match, but that's not a huge issue thanks to the atmosphere inside the stadia. Crowds chant, react to everything, and genuinely feel alive, even though they may not look it.
Of course, the fact that all English teams, bar one, as well as most of the European and Brazilian teams are unlicensed does detract from the experience a little, but the actual players themselves are licensed this time around. Unfortunately, though, they're last season's players - the squads won't be fully updated until October, which is certainly a bit of a miss kick.
The visuals are on-par with FIFA when you'e making use of the normal view. Zoom in closer, however, and you'll see some horrible stuff. The face scanning looks terrible for some players, but at least they have faces - the crowd members are simply faceless hunks of polygon. Still, as we've already said, the atmosphere that PES creates and the fluid gameplay more than makes up for its visual shortcomings.
The title is jam-packed with content, too, the main attraction being Master League - the franchise's flagship mode that allows you to manage your own team and bring them success. It's a truly excellent mode that goes beyond its FIFA counterpart; being able to customize your manager, use scouts to search for the best talent in the world, and manage your team's tactics feels better than ever thanks to recent revamps that streamline the processes.
While it is fun to play as your chosen club's squad, it's even more fun to play as the default Master League squad, one of ragtags and misfits, and rise up the footballing pyramid, buying players, winning titles, and reaching the ultimate goal - the Champions League.
Master League can be as complex or as automated as you want it to be: you can choose the team yourself, or have it auto-selected by form. You can decide who to substitute on or off, or you can get the game to do it for you. Master League feels like the ultimate football mode, and this year's minor tweaks and overhauled transfer system reaffirms that.
There's also Be a Legend mode, which allows you to play as an individual player and advance your career from the fringe in the second division to club and international captain. While a little bit lacking in content, it still delivers a good enough experience to be mentioned alongside Master League.
Of course, MyClub has also received some changes; players can level up by gaining XP after matches and by using unwanted players as trainers to train them. It's a cool system that means you can get the most out of your players, as well put your old squaddies to good use. Instead of your players gaining chemistry as they do in FIFA by being from the same country or league, PES' chemistry system is based around tactics. Each manager has a set formation, favourite tactics, and preferred player traits, and if your players match some of this criteria, your squad gels more easily.
MyClub has plenty to do, too. As well as the usual seasons matches, you can also play seasons as a simulated mode, which lets the artificial intelligence do the work on the pitch for you while you manage substitutions, tactics, and other managerial tasks. It's a bit niche, but we really enjoyed managing the tactical side of the game, and going on to make a comeback using tactics alone is a great feeling. MyClub also has cups and other timed events to compete in, which amounts to the usual football fare.
Meanwhile, there's an interesting transfer system in place. There's no auction house or player market, which is a little detrimental to the mode, but instead of having packs to open, you have scouts. Every time that you buy and use a scout, depending on how good they are, you'll be presented with a number of balls, each colour-coded depending on how rare they are. You randomly choose one and it opens, revealing a player inside.
MyClub is pretty generous with its best players - in just two days we received Sergio Ramos, Neymar, and Sergio Aguero using scouts. Of course, questionable microtransactions are implemented, but the fact that you can gain MyClub coins and game points very easily from matches means you're never truly forced to use them, even if their presence is a bit off-putting.
Elsewhere, playing online reveals no latency issues whatsoever, and the community seems good - never once in our reviewing process has anyone quit a session early, and the matchmaking system, while a bit slow, makes games feel as balanced as they should be. And fortunately, since pace isn't a huge factor in PES, you'll never be playing against Real Madrid after Real Madrid, making online matches appear comparatively varied.
PES 2016, while not being perfect, feels true to its title - it's an evolution. Master League has been revamped and fine-tuned into an excellent mode that only suffers thanks to the lack of licenses, MyClub is growing well and differs enough from Ultimate Team, and the gameplay feels refined and balanced enough to make every game a challenge but not a chore. Thanks to all of these factors, PES 2016 currently feels like it's in a league of its own.