The Pro Evolution Soccer series has always seemed to play second fiddle to FIFA regardless of its quality, what with EA holding all of the licenses to the biggest football leagues in the world. Yet what PES 2017: Pro Evolution Soccer lacks in the licensing department, it makes up for in terms of pure footy fun and passion.
An apt real-world example would be comparing the Premier League and Bundesliga. Like the former, FIFA is bloated with TV megabucks and big spenders who desperately gobble up everything that they can, while the latter is similar to PES in that it's a place for pure, untainted football.
Play a match in PES 2017 and you'll immediately be hit with how real it all feels. Tackles and physical battles crunch, and players argue and squabble whenever the referee gets involved. The ball has a real weight to it – the way that it violently ricochets when it hits the woodwork, and shots and blocks have a punch to them. The smarter goalkeeping AI is noticeable in that goals are harder to come by now – but don't mistake this for a bad thing, as it gives all the more meaning whenever you do score one.
Matches feel much grubbier and realistic now, too. Referees are now more harsh (but still fair) and often playing a derby game in Master League mode can lead to multiple red cards and the creation of an atmosphere similar to that of a rainy Wednesday night in Stoke. While the commentary is a little lacklustre – Peter Drury and Jim Beglin are mostly silent, apart from Drury oddly screaming a player's name when he shoots – most matches are charged with emotion; crowds cheering maniacally after a last-minute goal or booing a tackle, players shoving each other around after a referee's decision.
As always, the heart of the game is in Master League mode (the Be A Legend mode, where you play as a single player, hasn't received any new additions) in which you can either manage an existing club or take a ragtag squad of lacklustre players and propel them to the top. The latter is huge fun, organising a group of players taken from all corners of the globe into a coherent side while bolstering your ranks with transfers all the way, and the licensing of continental championships such as the Champions League, Copa Libertadores, and AFC Champions League make it feel all the more real.
The transfer system has now been changed, with separate budgets for transfers and wages making the financial side of the game easier to manage and the ability to sign players on six month loans with a view to snagging them long-term. Deadline Day also progresses in incremental hours to add to the mad dash of its real-life counterpart, and negotiating transfer fees for players is now more accessible, giving you a success rate if you try and lower a transfer fee for a player you're signing.
One really nice addition is the expanded range of team roles that your players can attain; if one of your squad members is particularly vicious on the pitch, he'll earn the rank of "Bad Boy" while an especially creative player can become a "Conductor". It's a nice extra that brings your squad of imaginary players to life and adds to the immersion. Also, players that are playing out of position eventually adapt to it after a few games and increase their ratings, which is really helpful if your squad is lacking depth – James Milner at left-back, anyone?
As well as increasing their player ratings and attributes, you can also teach your players new skill moves, which serves as a tutorial on how to perform them yourself as well as giving your players the ability to do so. Once again, it's a nice extra that genuinely improves the experience and also helps you improve as a player; we're usually averse to complicated skill moves in football games, but this new feature has helped us massively.
Another mode receiving some new additions is the excellent PES myClub – a competitor to FIFA's Ultimate Team if you're new to the series – and while they may not be as radical as Master League's, they still improve the mode. We've always preferred myClub's Agent system (in which you buy agents that can sign a random player that fit the agent's criteria) to FIFA's packs and auctions, but the new Scout Auctions are even better. Now you can buy scouts that fit your desired criteria at an auction house in order to buy players that fit your manager's tactics and increase your Team Spirit, which is a huge help. The fact that your team's rating doesn't depend on what league or country your players come from also gives more room for experimentation with players, which is always a good thing.
One last new feature added to myClub is an analysis of your upcoming opponent. Not only will the game now tell you your opponent's favourite moves and tactics, but also whether they play centrally or on the wings, whether they prefer counter-attacking or possession football, whether they prefer short or long passes, and whether they prefer aggressive pressing (as preferred by managing superstar Jurgen Klopp) or all-out defence (as preferred by also-ran flash in the plan Jose Mourinho). It's a nice little addition that adds a tactical element to games, and therefore makes every game in myClub just a little more interesting.
PES 2017 is also very customisable, which helps in the absence of many licenses – although players from teams that do have licenses look excellent thanks to their facial scans. The resolution of imported kits can be changed to free up space for more, while kits and badges can now be imported in bulk with a USB stick – effectively nullifying the licensing problem, as you can import realistic club kits and badges from the internet.
The biggest problem of PES 2016 has also been fixed in this year's edition: instead of the dreaded Data Packs that meant players had to wait months before the squads were updated to the start of the 2015/16 season, a new Live Update system has been added instead, where teams are updated week-to-week and downloads are small.
PES 2017: Pro Evolution Soccer is an excellent football game in which fun and realism are balanced. Every pass, every tackle, every goal feels like it has meaning, and Konami has done a great job of creating the ultimate matchday atmosphere. Master League, with its new improvements, is more fun than ever and oozes personality, while the myClub mode offers good competition to FIFA's behemoth Ultimate Team. The huge array of customisation and the game's excellent community prevent the lack of licensing from being a problem, and overall PES 2016 is very gegenpressive.