What is it? A simulation football game that’s actually fun to play.
Expect to pay: $50/£40
Developer: PES Productions
Reviewed on: Intel i7-3990x @3.50GHz, 16GB RAM, GeForce GTX 980 TI
Multiplayer: Up to 22
Link: pes.konami.com (opens in new tab)
In most sports games, instant replays are made to be skipped. In PES 2016, however, you’ll savour every crunching challenge, every kick, flick and fumble. Watching them back in super slow-mo is a genuinely disruptive compulsion, but then even the most minor moments in PES 2016 impress.
After years in flux, unsure whether to pursue a slick arcade experience or weigh it down with lengthy animations, PES Productions finally finds the answer: do both. There are three times as many animations here but they're sped up and cut down so the window of time in which you cede control is drastically reduced. As a result, matches consistently throw up surprises, but not at the expenses of reducing your feeling of involvement in the action.
After many hours of play I'm still seeing new moves, whether it’s Pogba improvising to volley an awkward hip-high ball or Lahm riding a challenge before seamlessly repositioning his feet and blasting it wide like a dummkopf. So numerous and natural are these bespoke motions, all used in the right time and the right context, they almost seem like the player's organic reactions rather than the computer picking from a bank of appropriate actions.
That said, it can feel almost too mechanical at times, particularly shooting. For some reason I hit the crossbar seven times in the same match—seven!—suggesting there’s a limited number of outcomes. While player collisions feel meaty, there’s no compelling feedback on shots. They just seem to travel stoically through space like spherical incarnations of the Silver Surfer.
PES doesn't enforce or promote a particular playstyle, though. You can play this like the PES games of old, kicking the computer down to easy and giving yourself a platform to express yourself with ridiculous runs, outrageous skill moves, and 70% possession, or you can notch the difficulty up and answer its fearsome but not unfair challenge. A stream of thrilling moments make the former consistently exciting, and incredible tactical depth makes the latter more rewarding.
Strategy offers extra dimension, and on higher difficulties a keen managerial mind is equally important as players’ physicality. During one tense encounter against FC Bayern I command Man United’s Rojo to mark danger man Lewandowski order formally rampaging midfielders Depay and Fellaini to stay back, and make my entire team keep a disciplined shape to contain the play. Instructions are simple to use and immediately noticeable.
Where PES 2016 falls down, however, is this port’s surprisingly poor quality. It practically runs in slow motion (I actually had to whack the game speed on ‘fast’ just to bring it up to standard), and textures are hideous. Football boots look like blurred lumps of clay, logos across formally crisp kits are stretched and ugly, and the pitchside police basically waltzed in from a Playmobil set. Konami's other Fox Engine game, The Phantom Pain, performs excellently on PC, and even the last PES was solid, so why this looks and runs like a PS3/360 game is a mystery. It seems Konami can’t wait to ditch videogames and storm the pachinko market.
Still, in this curious mix of last-gen and new-gen, there is detail to be found. Sweat runs, kits muddy, players grimace during jostles, and there are some great contextual goal celebrations. At one point I run over to the advertising hoarding and my player jumps on it, arms pumping. License-wise the UEFA Champions League remains a coup, but the omission of most of the Bundesliga, and a lack of official Premier League teams aside from Manchester United, cheapens the experience. You can, however, import edited strips, logos and team files.
The lack of authenticity continues to hurt the Master League career mode. Select Chelsea, for instance, and you’ll manage a team called London FC who play out of a generic toilet bowl stadium. Diego Costa just doesn't look right in canary yellow. MyClub makes more sense by focusing on the fundamentals of squad building. Unlike in FIFA Ultimate Team, where players form chemistry with each other based on nationalities, here it’s how well they gel with the manager’s style, and while hunting for superstars can start to cost actual money, there are cheaper routes to building your dream team, whether utilising training or getting lucky with a scout. There’s a strong sense of ownership over your developing squad as you lead them into battle offline and on.
On consoles, PES 2016 successfully captures football’s complexities in the fastest, freshest and most responsive entry in years. On PC? It looks dated and runs slower. It’s still PES Productions’ best effort in some time, but the poor port is a bitter letdown.