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Is PES 2017 the greatest football game of all time?

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Of the many things you’ve got to be aware of when playing a pre-release build of any sports game – alongside such formalities as embargo dates and the fact the person you’re playing is an obvious cheater and the game is also probably broken because you’re better than this – is the fact that what you’re playing, what you’re going to be writing about, is subject to dramatic change seconds after you stop playing it. It will change in fact, or may already have done, and not always for the better. Many a football title has shone in beta form, only for its creators to decide to tweak some settings here and there and crash the whole fucker into a mountain. PES 2017 has, so far, avoided this fate: it’s still as good as it was when I saw it earlier in the year.

Despite this, PES 2017 may well have its share of detractors. It’s not worse than what came before – in fact in places it is demonstrably better. But it’s slower, more methodical. It feels ‘heavier’ even if in actuality it isn’t: control of the game (and not just goals) is so important that there’s a large focus on using the ball well in both attack and defence. It makes every action feel vital and, as such, pressurised. PES 2016 has the best passing of any football game: PES 2017’s is better still, and it needs to be, because this is a game where opposing midfielders and defenders will close you down quicker than a YouTube copyright strike.

Before we get into all that, however, let’s talk about the changes that everyone is going to be on board with. Firstly, the referee is now much more proactive at giving cards and generally staying on top of the situation. It’s not at PES 5 levels, where the ref would blow up for any contact, but he’s always there. It now seems impossible to exploit the advantage rule by fouling a man with close support and then using super cancel to stop your player touching the ball and giving a free kick away, as was the case in one of PES 2016’s more noticeable issues.

Keepers, too, are improved, and by improved I mean that they keep a lot out: maybe too much. I tried all my little scoring sweet spots to no avail: running on a steep diagonal (almost parallel to the keeper) and lifting the ball with chip into the far corner doesn’t work much anymore, and neither does pinging it far corner with loads of curl from outside the box: the ‘Neymar’ sidefoot animation is no longer very effective. Keepers, too, aren’t locked to following the player’s run when they go through – in one instance, knowing he wouldn’t get the ball Barcelona’s Ter Stegen checked his run and back pedalled, stopping me going round the keeper with ease.

PES 2017 screenshot

These features are all welcome additions to a game which was already great to begin with, but it’s the passing and shooting which is at the forefront of this PES. There are flatter, contextual crosses (no need to double tap circle) which change up attacking options, and new flicked far post headers which fly past the keeper. There are superb goalkeeping animations for the new or refined shots, including keepers desperately collapsing/lunging – more a fall than a dive – when low crosses are flicked by the striker to their near post.

The amount of contextual flicks and tricks when receiving, trapping, and playing the ball are instinctual and satisfying, and it’s now easier to play the ball into channels other than just the touchline: splitting the full back from their nearest centre back is particularly effective. Also effective is the over the top through ball, which is a little too powerful at the moment, especially when used by an expert playmaker: the amount of curl you can get on it is borderline obscene.

PES 2017 is an evolution, then, but an evolution of a classic. As with the PS2 PES series, though, 2017 isn’t just better than what came before, it’s different, and just as there were those who prefered PES 4 over 3 (spit) so too may some prefer the last game’s more frenetic pace. Everyone else, however, will find another great football sim. Providing, of course, nothing radically changes.

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