For the past couple of years Pro Evolution Soccer has been heralded as the top choice for those of us who live and breathe football. Its blistering pace and goalmouth action has trumped the fact that the Premier League champions are referred to as London FC instead of their official name of Jose Mourinho's Sad Face Football Club. I recently had the chance to play a little bit of this year's forthcoming entry and my major takeaway was that the blistering pace wasn't quite so evident. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. At all, in fact.
PES 2018 is slower than recent Winning Elevens, requiring you to be a bit more measured and thoughtful in your approach. It's not like play is brought to a standstill, you're just given additional time to survey the action. Because I was initially playing it like PES 2017, I was leaving myself prone to counter attacks after making silly little errors. Going in gung ho left my team open in the middle of the park, giving the opposition the chance to tear through my back line. I would've felt quite comfortable dealing with that last year, but my Atletico Madrid side are football players, not contortionists — Yannick Carrasco can't morph his body on the run just because I said so.
It's definitely a little strange at first, and will take some getting used to. You're punished for a poorly thought out attack, or for mistiming a header off of a long goal kick, more than you have been before. Borussia Dortmund's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang ran straight through my midfield and in on goal on one occasion after Barca's Sergio Busquets leaped for the knock on and failed miserably. Every breaking ball feels more important than it did in Pro Evolution Soccer 2017.
Players seem to open up the pitch more, too, offering you the option of a Paul Scholes-esque cross-field pass, or a looping through ball that cuts a back four in two. Your wingers track back when you lose possession, and defenders look alert as a rival striker is making a marauding run straight for goal. Its a better balanced, and realistic portrayal of the game, without dulling it to a snail's pace and forgetting that it is, after all, a video game.
Goalkeeper positioning still seems a bit iffy, but it's hard to tell if that will mar the whole experience as it was apparent the developer had worked on it, even if the difference is ever so slight. However, in front of every dodgy 'keeper can be a solid defence, and in my few matches, I don't think I scored over two goals in any one game. While I don't doubt the fact my rusty skills are partly to blame, the solid defences I faced can also take a bow.
If you're a fan of the razzmatazz seen in the FIFA games, you'll be pleasantly surprised by PES 2018. While still not meeting the standards set by EA's long-running series when it comes to flashy on-screen graphics, its improved telly-like presentation is appreciated. And I can't say enough about the detail of the player models. Andres Iniesta's receding hairline has never looked better, and Philippe Coutinho's innocent demeanour is captured beautifully. I can't speak for some of lesser known Championship players as there was only a select number of licensed teams available on the day, but what was on show was breathtaking. I sadly didn't get to hear the commentary during my time with the game, but I can only hope that when Alexis Sanchez has a shot that trickles wide in PES 2018 that we won't hear Drury scream his surname with ferocious gusto.
As well as straight up exhibition matches, I was able to get a bit of hands-on time with the new 3v3 mode. Basically, six players can each control one individual among the 22 athletes competing over the 90 minutes, and will be marked on their tackling, passing, and dribbling ability. With six player indicators and grading boxes on the screen, it all looked very busy. I can see some PES fans having a bit of messy fun with it, especially locally, but the amount of distractions on the TV reminded me more of an Assassin's Creed map than a sporting contest at four o' clock on a Sunday.
Even with that in mind, Pro Evolution Soccer 2018 is definitely, as the name would suggest, an evolution of the series. PES Productions has taken the thrilling PES 2017, and without losing what made that great, turned this year's title into something that resembles the sport more than it has before.
At this point it's obviously difficult to say if this new, slower style will play over countless hours, but I definitely left the preview event wanting to play it for longer. And that's always a good sign.
PES 2018 is out September 12 on PC, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation 3.