There was a time when the Pro Evolution Soccer franchise was considered the better of the two annual football releases.
The high point, PES 6, is a game that’s remained so consistently popular it still receives fan-made updates and boasts an active online forum.
Since then, EA’s FIFA franchise sorted itself out and as the team at EA Sports began leveraging the company’s vast resources (including licenses, graphics and shiny new physics engines), the gap between the two became increasingly clear.
In recent years, the folks at Konami have hit back hard however, and this year’s PES may be the greatest one yet.
It all comes down to how the game “feels”.
FIFA is fast, frenetic and fun, but you are always astutely aware that you are in fact playing a game.
PES 2017 on the other hand feels (or at least looks) like a real game of football.
It constantly challenges you, asking you to change your tactics on the fly. As a result, there is less of the end-to-end sprinting that typifies a FIFA game and genuine midfield battles emerge.
Long balls over the top to the big man up front are not only a genuine strategy, they sometimes become the only option when playing against a compact, high-pressing team.
Teams aren’t just a straight palette swap of one another, and clear play-styles like Barcelona’s tiki-taka and Liverpool’s “gegenpressing” emerge.
Likewise, players actually act and play like their real-life counterparts. Not everyone has been given the same loving attention, but its immediately clear with star players like Neymar, Pogba and Ibrahimovic, who actually move and play like they should.
Few games offer something as terrifying as facing down Diego Costa barrelling towards you, or as thrilling as having Gareth Bale in possession knowing you can easily round your marker.
As a result, PES 2017 is at its sparkling best in its signature Master League (aka Career) mode.
In fact, one could make the argument that this is one of the best experiences in sports gaming, as you take a lowly team to the UEFA championships.
The minutiae like dealing with injuries and signing new players are staples of sports games at this point, but it’s the actual weight that each games carries that enchants.
It’s not easy (especially on the more demanding difficulty settings) but even a gutsy 1-0 loss feels better than many of the highs I’ve had playing FIFA and its sometimes arbitrary-feeling games.
Presentation wise, Pro Evolution Soccer 2017 is a bit of a mixed bag, but for the most part it still remains a step behind its competitor.
Graphically, it’s the best looking PES yet but there is still a layer of “jank” that permeates throughout most of the game.
This is most evident in the amount of loading present throughout the game, with long wait times every time you enter a new mode in the menus and between replays in-game.
It’s not a deal-breaker, but it acts as a constant reminder that the game could still be better.
That said, the menus are much better than previous year’s titles, sporting a crisp new visual design and bolstered by a decent licensed soundtrack.
Licensing is also less of an issue this year, and it took me all of 10 minutes to incorporate “authentic” fan-made kits and teams into my game (a feature, regrettably not currently available to Xbox One owners).
It’s also worth noting that the PC version’s graphics and performance are notably worse than the consoles, although gameplay-wise the two are identical.
Ultimate Team competitor myClub also makes its return, allowing you to build your dream squad and take it online.
Unfortunately, my experience was plagued by lag and dropped connections, although it wasn’t enough to deter me from what is ultimately a great experience.
The same great gameplay available in the single-player mode is in full-swing here, but the added chaos factor of having a human opponent who is willing to take you on or move players out of position only adds to the fun.
The various systems could do with a little less obfuscation (I’m still not quite sure how agents work) but it’s still a fun time and something you could easily lose hundreds of hours to.
Other online modes are standard fare, with the option to play single exhibition matches or take on the divisions with a ready made team.
The point I keep coming back to, and arguably the most important of any sports game, is the stellar gameplay.
If you can get through the game’s relatively minor idiosyncrasies, Pro Evolution Soccer 2017 will deliver one of the most rewarding gaming experiences this year.
No game football game has so accurately encapsulated what it’s like to travel away for a mid-week cup tie against hardy opposition or the perfectly weighted through ball after long bouts of possesion.
At the same time, this is the closest PES has ever come to FIFA’s glitz and glamour – a long time sticking point of the series.