PES's legacy problems remain, but the football itself has never been better.
In Malcolm Gladwell's 2005 book Blink, the pop science writer casts his contrarian gaze over the Pepsi Challenge, the 1975 marketing promotion that struck one of the most resounding blows in what has since been dubbed "The Cola Wars". Pepsi, it seemed, always came out on top in blindfold taste tests - and hence could, quite fairly, market itself as "America's choice".
What Gladwell found was that Pepsi's methodology - to offer passers by only a small sip - loaded the die in their favour. Pepsi was sweeter, and thus preferable when consumed in small quantities. The fact that cola is drunk by the can - a quantity for which, arguably, a milder drink like Coca-Cola is more suitable - was, whether by design or accident, conveniently ignored.
I feel that there might be something similar going on with PES. Every year it's played briefly before launch by scores of curious FIFA devotees, and tends to be met by a chorus of approval. But it never seems to get any closer to dethroning its rival. Could it be that PES, though initially refreshing, just doesn't have the depth to last the course of a season?
The analogy of a blind taste test is a pertinent one as, to begin with, I'll try and do my best to put PES's presentational eccentricities to one side and focus on how it feels to play.
The word that first springs to mind is "loose". While previous versions (and other franchises) have at times felt static and rigid, both in terms of player movement and the movement of the ball itself, PES 2016 builds on last year's distinctive refresh to offer a football experience that has a pleasing, if somewhat haphazard, fluidity to it.
This looseness, though, is not at the expense of precision. Receiving possession and spraying passes around midfield offers a sense of unencumbered freedom that harks back to the series' mid-noughties glory years. Meanwhile, a reworked collision system makes blocking and tackling a little less unpredictable than last year, although it still feels like something of a work in progress. PES Productions obviously hasn't quite worked out how to encourage tackling without filling games with free kicks - and so has essentially made the referees blind to slide tackles. While this does help maintain the pace of the game, it feels like a backwards step in terms of realism.
In some ways, though, realism is one of PES's strongest suits, particularly when it comes to opposition AI. The manner in which your computer opponent will tactically adapt to your game feels like a new benchmark for the genre, although this intelligence doesn't quite translate to the actions of your teammates, who are still prone to "switching off" in key moments. The capturing of different players' gaits and on-pitch personalities is also impressive - Arjen Robben's never felt so Robben-y - and muddies the argument over the value of official licenses. If Daniel Sturridge feels like Daniel Sturridge, what does it matter what kit he's wearing?
Some of the flaws of PES 2015 remain, in particular with regards to goalkeeping. Scoring often feels a little too easy, and while this may be due, in part, to the simplicity of shooting, it seems too often your 'keeper leaps from a strange starting position, or dives over the top of the ball. If it's going to be possible, more often than not, to aim an accurate shot whenever your players has a sight of goal, then the bloke standing in the way must be augmented to compensate.
Problems like these are, however, easy to forgive when they contribute to exciting games. It feels like where the developers have had to make compromises, they have always tried to do so while maintaining a sense of free-spirited fun. Games might too often be resolved by 35-yard screamers - but I can't thing of a more enjoyable imbalance to have.
Time to take the blindfold off, then, starting with PES's appearance. While it may go without saying that the series can't match the blockbuster sheen of its big-budget rival, it's frustrating to see that so many poor design decisions continue to be made, particularly when navigating between various game modes (you can't imagine FIFA ever deciding to constantly display the words "Testing Network Environment" in a dour grey box). The series has had some of the worst menus of any I've ever played, and just because most people know to expect that of PES doesn't mean it should be immune from criticism.
The on-pitch action, however, has never looked better, and while it may seem redundant to praise iterative improvement in an iterative series, I've seen enough strange-looking "new and improved" facial expressions and bodyshapes in my time to know how easy it can be to make a mis-step.
The player models and animations are every bit as good as FIFA's, if not better, although they are slightly let down by the games otherworldly shadowing and textures. The grass doesn't look like grass, the crowds simply don't look human, and the players' skin has a strange, cadaver-like waxiness to it. When combined, these faults lend a strange feeling of plasticky fakeness to PES that, while certainly not making the game any less enjoyable, doesn't give you the impression of a series moving ever closer to being mistaken for a live match watched on TV (assuming, of course, that that's where we are headed).
Peter Drury and Jim Beglin's poor commentary does nothing to help this, their comments and tone of voice often distractingly out of sync with match events. Beglin is also bizarrely underused, entire games often playing out with only one or two of his comments being triggered. Add-in the perennial problem of strange unlicensed teams (come on you Merseyside Reds!) and, in the way it presents itself, PES still feels like a poor man's FIFA - something that's particularly disappointing when you consider the clear investment that's been made in the match engine.
Sometimes I wish Konami would just cast off any attempt to make a licensed product and think (ahem) a bit more outside the box. Rocket League has shown how gameplay can easily trump authenticity - why try to pander to people who just want to play as their favourite team when they're the most likely group to just buy FIFA anyway? A meticulously realised Bayern Munich playing a fictional team in a fictional stadium will never not be jarring, and although PlayStation users will now be able to download option files, the majority of players will just plod on in their PES bizarro world.
Game modes is another area where PES has struggled in recent years. Master League was once the best season mode going, but as Fifa's equivalents have improved, its shortcomings and unrelenting oddness have become more and more apparent. It's something of a return to form this year, with a new transfer system helping to freshen things up a bit and that same, addictive "one more game" quality emerging as you level up your players and save for new signings. It's a familiar rhythm, and one that anyone that loved PES 4, 5 and 6 will appreciate (although sadly the likes of Ximelez and Minanda have long since retired).
Small improvements to MyClub, too, means it still offers a real FUT alternative, with its more balanced and considered take on competitive online play. Players can now be levelled up or converted into "trainers" to boost other squad members, lending a greater sense of attachment to your team.
On that note, I've had a week of matchmaking on Konami's servers now and its fair to say the series' historic problems in this regard have been fixed. Although it often takes longer to find a partner than in FIFA, it'd be churlish to criticise considering the huge difference in the size of their respective online communities, and I'm yet to experience a laggy game.
All that remains to decide, then, is this - is PES 2016 a FIFA-killer? Does it pass the taste test? The truth is it's too early to say. What we can say about PES 2016 is that it offers a very clear vision of what it thinks a football game should be, something that in itself deserves praise, and makes enough improvements to suggest a longevity not seen in recent versions. It's easy to forget that this console generation is still in its relative infancy, and if this year's release can be best described as a rough diamond, I feel very confident about the series' future.
Despite being "the Choice of a New Generation", Pepsi ultimately lost the Cola wars. But millions of people around the world still drink it. PES may never reclaim the spot it held 10 years ago, but maybe that just doesn't really matter.
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