PES 2018 is finally a football sim worthy of the PC

Konami has earned abundant—and much-merited—praise over the last 24 months for its attempts to reinvent Pro Evolution Soccer. It truly is a revolution that’s been televised; and that, in very literal terms, is the issue for PC players. Rather than receive the Fox Engine-powered version that’s delighted current-gen console owners, they—they, being you—have had to endure lackluster PS3 and Xbox 360 ports throughout that time frame. Finally, for PES 2018, this oversight is corrected. Steam receives a version of Pro Evo that easily matches its PS4 and Xbox One counterparts, and may yet surpass them once the modding community sets to work.

That’s a big deal from a visual perspective, inevitably. I got the chance to play with four club teams (Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool) on a machine running an Inter Core i7-6700 and Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080, and in 4K everything looks Champions League quality. Player faces, Barca’s especially, impressively match their real-life counterparts, crowds look like a collection of individuals as opposed to a swampy mess, and—most importantly—the on-pitch action unfolds in a manner which accurately represents the real thing. Sometimes too closely, given the Rottweiler-esque vigour with which Luis Suarez celebrates every goal.

Yet PC already has one cosmetically pleasing football game in FIFA, so it’s the feel of new PES which makes this long overdue upgrade so critical, and which will define its ongoing success. Konami’s focus in recent years has been on fundamentals over back-of-box gimmicks, and sure enough it’s the almost-natural feel of passing, shooting and dribbling here which make it—at least for these first few hours—unputdownable. Variation is plentiful and there’s no magical path to goal; even with a passing side such as Liverpool, I’m able to work chances and score goals with angled passes behind a full back, and/or direct crosses into the penalty area. 

Midfield play—for the longest time a congested, if just-about-manageable, mess in both big-name football games—is especially transformative. Here the pitch is noticeably bigger than in last year's PS4 and Xbox One versions; the players slightly smaller; and the dribbling system tighter. Receive the ball in the centre circle and precious split-seconds can be spent assessing options before picking out a team-mate or carrying possession forward, while chains of passes can be strung together without the need for Olympian reaction times and Russell Grant powers of foresight.

That one design decision alone moves human matches from basketball-style, I-attack-then-you-attack sprint-fests towards footballing chess, in which possession is pivotal and final ball placement (and timing) critical. Whether that filters down to cruder sides at, say, French Ligue 2 level is another question entirely, but for now PES’s ability to offer genuine tactical variety among AI teams on the recent console editions earns Konami the benefit of the doubt. 

I’m already convinced that this will be proclaimed the purists’ football game out on the pitch, but in the annual face-off with FIFA that’s only part of the equation. Licensing remains an area where Konami openly admits it can’t match EA’s cash reserves, so it’s taking unconventional routes to players’ hearts. One is offering champion sprinter Usain Bolt as a pre-order incentive, for use in MyClub, the PES answer to Ultimate Team. Brand manager Adam Bhatti tells me Bolt will be the fastest player in the game, and with pace deadlier than ever this year—Liverpool’s Sadio Mane is a joy to steer down the right flank—few will complain about a lack of realism once Bolt is charging past opposition defenders on their behalf.

Additional MyClub information isn’t readily available, but ‘unconventional’ is a term that’s always gone hand-in-glove with Master League, PES’ other long-term mode. This is one area I don’t get to experience during my hands-on, but Bhatti enthuses about it with confidence and zeal, promising a new transfer system—including the ability to buy any player by triggering their ‘release fee’, as occasionally happens with elite stars in real life—pre-season matches, and changing-room cut-scenes in the hope of providing a more involved world. 

While I have his ear, however, I can’t resist launching a studs-up challenge on the elephant in the room. Why did it take this long to bring the PC version of PES up to scratch? To Bhatti’s credit, it’s not a question he looks to duck.

“This was always something we wanted to do,” he says. “But being honest, the resource management internally wasn’t there. People imagine our team to be hundreds of people, and think upgrading to another format is simple, but [that’s incorrect]. Using Fox Engine on a football game took 2-3 years to get right on PS4 and Xbox One, which are our biggest markets. PC is super important to us, but until this year we didn’t have the resource. Now, we’ve learned from the Metal Gear team in terms of using Fox Engine on PC. It’s the same quality as the console version, and then some.”

And the modding community mentioned at the outset of this piece? An absolutely vital element of PES’s potential PC success, says the man in charge: “We’re not going to give them free rein… but they always find a way. In-game editing features are the same as on console, but they have been for the last 20 years on PC, and the community still manages to do some great stuff. And I don’t mean in terms of licensing: we’re talking weather settings, players faces, and so on. It’s great to see, and inspires us.”

Football fans are known to be overly positive during the summer months, as an unblemished fixture list and influx of new players deliver false hope ahead of a new campaign. With that in mind, it would be dangerous to proclaim this the title favourite prior to next season without having yet tested its online capabilities—something of an Achilles heel even through its recent successes.

But there is plenty to encourage, ahead of the fresh season. Not least Bhatti’s final thought on being properly optimised for PC: “It’s the best version, and we’re so happy."