Pro Evolution Soccer 2017: Hands-on gameplay impressions

Pro Evolution Soccer 2017: Hands-on gameplay impressions

‘Control reality’ is a difficult tagline to live up to, but Pro Evolution Soccer 2017 has made an impressive start in achieving that aim.

Gameplay is always the starting point of Konami’s in-house discussions on a new PES title – as Squawka discovered in an exclusive interview with Adam Bhatti. That notion was evident in our hands-on preview of Pro Evo’s latest effort, as the already superb on-field action has improved dramatically.

The precision passing play of PES 2016 was seemingly leaning on perfection – or so we thought, as the development team have somehow managed to make a significant leap forward.

Especially when playing in a tiki-taka style (more on that later), passes pop between players brilliantly. Retaining the ball, whether through a one-two or a spray out wide, is always satisfying and feels more fluid than ever.

In combination with the spot-on passing mechanics, clever enhancements to the AI make PES 2017 most engaging. On the gamer’s own team, the increasingly intelligent runs made by AI teammates further the flow of Pro Evo and create exploitable space.

Meanwhile, the opposition AI now constantly modifies itself to one’s own style of play, creating more intriguing offline matches. For instance, the game may close off a fruitful supply line on the left wing, or double-up on marking a midfielder who is dictating the play.

In the hands-on preview, we breezed through a few matches on Regular difficulty, before stepping-up to Superstar (only two levels were available in this build). A string of 0-0 draws followed, during which one of PES 2017’s key qualities was highlighted – any failure was due to our own skill level and style of play, with no frustration being levelled at the mechanics.

The ‘Adaptive AI’ proved to be the key in finally making a goalscoring breakthrough. Playing as Arsenal (yes, Arsenal, not North London) against Atletico Madrid, we were suffocated through the centre of the field.

Indeed, Los Rojiblancos sought to nullify the Gunners’ short passing on the edge of the 18-yard box, so by using the full width of the pitch to swing crosses in, the opening goal finally came through a headed flick-on.

Pro Evolution Soccer 2017's lighting and player models combine to create lifelike visuals.

Olivier Giroud was playable in two of the four teams available in Pro Evolution Soccer 2017’s preview build, as his Arsenal and France joined Atletico Madrid and Germany.

One of the core tenants of that tactical switch were ‘Advanced Instructions’ – a pre-selected quartet of strategies which can be assigned to the D-pad and used on-the-fly.

In that particular instance, we chose to hug the touchline, which sent Alexis Sanchez out wide to support Nacho Monreal, who could then make overlapping runs.

The attacking tactics on offer, such as the aforementioned tiki-taka, work very well to alter the philosophy of a team with ease, and have a demonstrable impact on the play. However, the defensive options, which includes gegenpressing, are in need of refinements as those tweaks are currently negligible.

Even more so than the strategic changes, scoring in PES 2017 has been made tougher thanks to the vastly improved goalkeeping and shooting. The former has consistently been a bane of PES players, but the ‘keepers are now more skilled and use greater logic in their decision-making.

This can be seen in their positioning, such as closing down the near post well. More importantly though, the No.1s make superior judgement calls on whether to catch or parry, and said parries now push the ball away from danger areas, rather than into the path of an onrushing attacker.

PES 2017 has seen an improvement in its visuals for night matches.

PES 2017 has seen an improvement in its visuals for night and rainy matches.

PES 2017’s shooting has become more unpredictable, which again creates a more lifelike experience. We rapidly had to unlearn certain situations which were previously guaranteed goals, with some of those shots now skewing wide of the post. The enhanced player and ball physics eliminate such telegraphed efforts, while adding suitable venom to powerful, mid-range shots.

Like Pro Evo’s one-touch passing, the dribbling has also enjoyed a surprising advancement. The close control mirrors the sport’s top talents well, with a finesse to the movement which constantly satisfies. Flashy tricks and pace are simply not needed.

That said, while the slower speed of Konami’s soccer sim has been one of its great strengths in recent years, the first build of PES 2017 was slightly too pedestrian. There can be too much space between the lines, making the transition between defence and attack unnecessarily lengthy.

It’s a balancing issue that should be corrected before launch, and a somewhat natural by-product of the premium placed on using the sprint button.

New set-piece tactics and routines are promised for PES 2017.

New set-piece tactics and routines are promised for PES 2017.

The animations of players both on and off the ball are truly authentic, adding to the fluidity. The way many players shape their body to strike a ball reflects their real-life counterparts, while their reactions to certain scenarios are immersive too.

One example is the way Mesut Ozil complains about not receiving an obvious pass, another is Sanchez swinging his arms in frustration after a free-kick hits the wall.

The upgraded visuals add another layer of depth to Pro Evo’s realism. The lighting is fantastic, with night and rainy matches seeing a significant facelift.

Furthermore, player models are very impressive – even youngsters such as Jeff Reine-Adelaide (who is yet to make a league appearance for Arsenal) are captured very well.

Elsewhere, goal replays are far more dynamic in PES 2017. They have new camera angles, a less Japanese feel (which some fans may not welcome) and don’t automatically transition to the manual replay control. Other cut-scenes are zippier than before, and real-life crowd chants are more prominent.

France's impressive blend of physical attributes and technical ability made them the stand-out side in PES 2017's first build.

France’s impressive blend of physical attributes and technical ability made them the stand-out side in PES 2017’s preview build.

The line-up screen has undergone surgery for the better too, with player photos now included. One incredibly useful addition is the visible impact on overall ratings when substituting players into foreign positions.

Of course, PES 2017 must go on to focus further on the presentation, modes and online infrastructure if it is to usurp the sports genre’s best titles.

Konami were very keen to stress that there will not be a repeat of last year’s roster update debacle; the up-to-date player ratings and inclusion of Arsenal’s new home kit (less than a week after its reveal) in the preview was a positive indicator in that regard.

From an on-field standpoint though, PES 2017’s preview build was certainly impressive. A few balancing issues aside, the gameplay felt polished and suitably weighted, with its enhancements accumulating to create a more authentic and engaging experience. Albeit with the majority of this match left to play, Pro Evolution Soccer has taken a commanding early lead heading into E3.