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Pro Evolution Soccer 2016 review – Kicking goals

It’s been a long time coming, but Pro Evolution Soccer is back after almost a decade in the doldrums. So often relegated to run-with player on the big stage, this year’s entry in Konami’s revered football franchise bulldozes its opponent with slick skills and inspiring realism. While licensing issues persist and its UI could do with a clean, PES 2016 is undoubtedly the year’s most enjoyable football game.

A crafty balance between attack and defense is fuelled by significant enhances in the fields of AI and physics. It’s a joy to adjust and reevaluate pitch spacing, because why else would we play a football sim if not for its attempt at replicating the tense standoffish nature of a real match? No football game I’ve played has simultaneously made goals feel like a genuine reward without having to completely downgrade the general pacing of a match experience. Where defensive structures and AI responsiveness have been improved, there’s an attacking flair that exploits defensive breakdowns and gives the PES 2016 experience a unique flash of elegance.

Two years ago I applauded Konami’s attempt at using the Fox Engine to completely overhaul the game’s collision system. It worked well in parts but overall what we ended up with was an at-times slow and unresponsive football experience. Last year’s game improved on that, but PES 2016 goes to great lengths to perfect it. The sheer combativeness of a collision between players amplifies a feeling of refinement that the PES series has been lacking for so long. Every tackle, every pass, every shot has the potential to crumble under the weight of aggression, and this is what we should expect from a football sim crying out for attention: an ability to highlight the importance of maintaining possession.

If one thing stands out in PES 2016, it’s that almost every battle has to be won. It feels like less of a arcade football game this year, and more of a lesson in ruthlessness. It’s more punishing in its goal to reignite long-lost passion for its name, but all that means is that for every win you do have on the pitch, you’ll feel like it’s a genuine win for your team. There’s a sense of physicality that wears you down, and the elusive goal — all so often scored after a flurry of through-balls, slick on-ball maneuvers and precision passing — is the video game equivalent of slamming down a beer after a long week at work. To simply call it “fun” would be underselling it: PES 2016 is rewarding in the way a sports game should be, successfully broadcasting the pandemonium of a match-winning goal or tackle.

In that transition to ruthlessness comes a game that needn’t hold your hand, even if that means sacrificing the sport’s pedantic rules. Maybe it’s just the way I play, but the referees in PES 2016 don’t like calling free kicks. Its physics and collision systems have been improved to a point where almost every act of physicality looks as though it would be a free kick in a real match, but the game just keeps chugging along, hesitant to interrupt the hectic nature of an intense match. Does this make it less of a “sim”? Maybe. But it actually makes it a better football game. It lets them play. PES Productions seems to have found a nice balance between making scoring seem so elusive and rewarding — which it is — without actually having to submit to the sport’s imperfect officiating. In a way I feel that it’s part of the PES charm, something I think has always existed in the franchise: a genuine intent to be a sim, but not one to ever forget its arcade roots. Sure, there are times when PES 2016 seems to cling onto this philosophy a little too much, but it’s not like it damages the broader football experience. In fact, sometimes it actually helps improve it, particularly in close matches between two high quality teams. Then of course you have an AI system that adjusts to the natural progression of a match in a way I’ve never seen in a football game. I thought other games had set the standard here, but PES 2016 is the benchmark. What’s fascinating (and awesome) is how the AI directly responds so vigorously to bad tackles (when there is a free kick and card), and how midfielders and attackers adjust so seamlessly to the general placement and pacing of the ball and match, respectively. It’s actually really interesting to watch, and PES 2016 is one of those rare games that acts as a highlight package for a neutral person watching their friend play.

Take these amazing traits across PES 2016’s extensive range of game modes, and you’ll probably forget that the game once again lacks the branding appeal of its competitors. Become A Legend is yet another great mode to feed into gamer cravings for personalised “rags to riches” RPG-esque stories, while MyClub is an engrossing and addictive “build-a-team” mode that relies on Konami’s own in-game currency and microtransactions (think FIFA’s FUT). Master League is my personal favourite, and the changes here — namely in UI and how the game redirects your focus onto team chemistry rather than individual player value — make it a far more engaging, personalised mode than it’s been in past years.

The Final Verdict

PES 2016 celebrates the franchise’s 20th anniversary in style, offering up the best outing in years. It hits the pitch with a confidence and flair that has been sorely lacking, with enhanced physics and AI systems giving the broader match experience an added element of charm and elegance.

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