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The Beautiful Game

Posted: 28 October, 2015


I love football. I'm not exactly the greatest of players - my more fleet-of-foot Scottish chums summed up my play style as "his second touch's a tackle" - and it could be argued that as a Southampton supporter I've not lived a life basking in the glory of the world's greatest team, either. But, growing up watching Le God from the Milton did at least teach me about the magic this sport can conjure, even from the bottom of the table.

Unfortunately, my football credentials are only getting worse now that I live in Finland. Shonky 5-a-side matches are no more, and quick trips to St Mary's are off the table. My Saturdays are punctuated by text updates from the BBC Sport app, and furtive glances through Twitter to grab a Vine and reactions from chums at the match. Sunday morning's main activity is the long wait for a torrent of MotD to appear, before finding a time to sneak it onto the TV in the lounge... ("I'm doing the ironing, love!")

I'm OK with this, though. When I moved to Scotland, and was forced to watch Southampton's perilous decline and financial destruction, I was taught another lesson in football: it's the emotional equivalent of Highlander... There can be only one. You might like a second team, but only one captures your heart. Fortunately for Southampton (and for me), We March On, but the same can probably be said for football's digital equivalents: there can be only one... game a season.

Which brings us to the age old argument: Kick Off vs Sensible Soccer. No. Wait. I mean the other ones.

I'll be honest, I skipped Fifa for many, many years. I was one of those people that stuck with Sensi Soccer for longer than was, er, sensible. By the time I was ready to move from the top down view to full 3D (let's pretend isometric football pitches never happened, it's safer for us both), university was in full flow, the PS1 was the weapon of choice, and everyone in their right mind had not only chipped it, but were raiding the import grey-market for anything worth playing. So in all honesty I've forgotten which dingey student flat I was in when I first saw Winning Eleven, or who owned it - my own  Playstation library consisted of Metal Gear and Gran Turismo almost exclusively for 3 years - but I do have fond memories of smokey evenings punting crazy crosses into pixelated 18 yard boxes.

So yeah, I've been on the PES train for a while. As have the members of every house I've lived in. PES (particularly 4,5 & 6) were defacto Friday evening games for me and my housemates, no matter what time we crawled in or how drunk we were. But lots has been written about PES's fall from grace on the 360 and PS3, so we can safely skip that. I, like everyone else last gen, was forced to learn Fifa, and for a while I quite enjoyed it. Playing with the Scot's up at Ruffian knocked the edges off for me, and I started to learn to appreciate its Sky Sports glitz and glam. But it always felt a little slow and I was never quite at home with it. When I left Scotland I didn't buy another version, despite checking the demos each year.

Meh. Fallow times. Until PES 2015.

To say PES 2015 was a marked return to form was an understatement. I was back on the train, baby! But that's not why I'm writing. It's PES 2016 that's been the revelation.

Why? What's 2016 got so right?

Well, like 2015 before it, passing in PES requires a touch more accuracy than Fifa. It actually took me a while to transition, I was so used to vaguely waggling the stick in the right direction and hitting the button. PES only requires a touch more accuracy but it was enough for me to spend the first match watching most of my passes go astray. The same applies to the weighting of passes, lofted through-balls and crosses. It's very easy to under shoot and leave yourself open to a counter in your own half, or over shoot and waste a well worked position. Obviously you get used to this quickly, but it's never too far away.

Both versions also require the frequent (and deft) use of the Pass and Move modifier to successfully break apart more sturdy opposition. This is similar to the one-two, except the passing player will run forward much, much further. A couple of quick uses of this - especially in a packed midfield - can send 2 or more players on a charge, creating space and harrying the back four. Depending on your setup this can easily convince your frontline to run into a rapid counter. It's sublime, when it works, and can lead to some wonderfully fast tiki-taka-esque moments. When it doesn't, you've gutted your midfield. Risk vs reward fundamentals. Pass and move. Pass and move...

So the PES basics feel different to Fifa, and that there's some mastery involved that isn't centred on right-stick trickery can only be a good thing.

Shooting, also, feels like it requires a bit more thought from the player. Smashing the ball still works a lot of the time, especially if you're playing with a superstar front line. Expect a worldy once a game if you can work the space and happen to be playing with any Champions League winning outfit... But play with a mid-table team (like, er, Hampshire Red for instance) and you're going to find this a much more difficult proposition on the harder difficulty levels. No, the best way to score is by getting the ball onto the player's best side and then using the Finesse Shot. A little dink to get a yard, and a curler into the corner not only feels better, but it can give you that most wonderful of replay: David De Gea's little polygon face, swearing up at the sky. (Are those tears, David? Or did the dynamic weather just kick in?)

Once you understand the finesse shot it's a wonderful way to work a goal. Jay Rod has broken through into a one-on-one situation? Put him to the left of the keeper and hit that Finesse Shot into the bottom right hand corner once you've opened up the angle. On lower difficulty levels this would be a cheesey, 100% goal. But at Pro or above he deserves every inch of the resulting knee slide. You worked hard to put him into that position and may only get one of these a match.

Speaking of difficulty... Playing with a mid-tier team at Pro level in the master league (I've not been brave enough to try Superstar yet) is a wonderful experience.  Meet any of the Premier League top four and you're going to be under immediate and constant pressure. You're going to be out run. Passes longer than 5 yards will be intercepted. Your team will flag considerably past the 60 minute mark due to the amount of sprinting. And, as Alan Shearer is so keen to remind us, you have to take the goal opportunities that come to you. A wasted shot can cost you dearly. This feels like football, something I find myself thinking quite often. Much more so than 2015 because, on top of these changes - and this is where we get into much more hand-wavey territory - 2016 has imbued more 'personality' into its teams.

What do I mean?

It took me a season and a fairly good champions league run to notice this, but each of the top tier teams has a favoured setup and way of playing. For most this differs slightly in tone between home and away matches, depending on the competition. Some examples:

Manchester United, in their somewhat odd PES line-up, tend to play with one up front, and they're not afraid of a long ball from any point on the pitch. This makes close pressing a waste of energy. It's better to stand off a bit and entice them to run.

Arsenal play with the ball on the deck, and they pass it so quickly that the chances of a tackle are slim. You can rack up the yellows. Instead, move to intercept a mid range pass, and they'll most likely go one back and attempt to play through the midfield again. A bit of patience and you can catch them out.

Chelsea are deadly on the counter but resolute without the ball. Fortunately their back four are slow as fuck. Early crosses, dinked lofted passes, one-two play, backed by aggressive front line pressing when you lose the ball, can work wonders when applied over the course of a match. Pelle - Hampshire Red's Fox In The Box - can make mincemeat out of Terry, but only if you isolate him.

Manchester City are my current bogey team, with pace and flair all over the pitch that I've yet been able to counter reliably. My League winning ambitions are constantly scuppered by their greedy dominance, but I'd rather have City at the top than United...

But it's not just the opposition, both teams seem to react to how the match progresses. The more pressure you apply, the more runs you can see your midfielders make. The more goals a side score, the more they're likely to score... I've seen my own back four absolutely crumble after the first goal has been conceded, leading to a sloppy 15 minutes where we're leaking like a sieve. A late goal, on the other hand, can have my players scurrying up field to level the play of their own accord (I rarely manually adjust tactics mid-match).

I also had a situation during my second season where I faced Chelsea in the FA Cup, Champions League Final and second to last game of the season, all within the space of a 'month'. The first and last matches were tough, 1-1 draws, where I was on the back foot for 2/3 of the game, but that Champions League final? Because we were both away it was much faster and open. Both sides were aggressive, and passing was crisp and fast. For the first 45 minutes I couldn't quite find the breakthrough, but 2 minutes into the second half, Pelle held up the ball, waiting for Jay Rod to run before gifting a gentle pass to feet. Jay broke past Cahill to leave an inch perfect through-ball return (Pass and Move, remember) for Pelle to run onto and smash into the top-right corner. In the next 10 minutes of game time I put another 3 past them in quick succession, and everything I did just worked. For the rest of the game Chelsea offered nothing, barely breaking forward or even trying a direct loft to Costa. It honestly felt like they'd given up, so I finished the match with a soft curler from Jay Rod and won 5-0.

I've never put that many past Chelsea since.

So, ok, I may be reading into this, Konami's team may not have worked any psychological aspects into the AI, but it doesn't matter. This feels like football (I'm at it again...) and I'm 100% sure that there's some hidden buff when playing at home.

So what else?

Well, let me come clean. I've only played the Master League. I've not been online, I've not played an exhibition match and I've not tried My Club. But there are plenty of significant changes in this iteration of the ML, compared to 2015.

One of the most notable is transfers. Instead of being able to set your price, you merely control the tone of the negotiation. For me this is a good, positive change. You can't just drop 200 million on Gareth Bale and force a sale like in 2015. You need to target the right players, and only go in for those that you have a solid chance of getting.  And since you ask, yes, after 2 or 3 seasons in the ML it's entirely possible to rack up massive sums of cash. Unfortunately PES apes the modern game when it comes to transfer fees, so it's not hard to make a 10-15 million profit on some players if you happen to have them at the right time. By the end of my second season's Champions League run, and after a clear out of Hampshire Red's peak-level players, I had 143 million in the bank. Which, to be honest, is still game breaking.

Another instantly felt change is how the stats work when setting up a team. In 2015, pick the high overall stat value, preferably with a red up-arrow and off you go. In 2016 this has been completely negated. Each player's style of play needs to match your tactics, and having an off day (a "Blue Arrow" day - Hello, Pompey fans!) is no longer a reason to drop someone. Active members of your team earn XP for playing, so you're subtly encouraged to play the "Still Developing" youth members as much as possible, even through a little dip. Doing so leads to the "breakthrough" moments, and these are pure gold.

Lloyd Isgrove and Sam Gallagher both hit this point in the middle of the same season, which meant I had a RWF and Second Striker that went from low 60's to high 70's over the course of 15ish games, with nearly every combination of play between them leading to an assist or goal attempt. It's insanely addictive stuff, because the more you can give the ball to players going through this period, and the more successful plays (passes, tackles, intercepts etc) you can have with them, the better they do. The run these two had is solely responsible for my Champions League place, so I was fucking gutted when Lloyd informed me that he was off. I'd not noticed his contract had run out. Sam stayed ("take my money!") and gave me 22 goals last season, despite an overall rating of 77 and a very low price tag. Stats can be deceiving.

To further enforce this aspect, tags are given to certain team members, "Youth Prospect", "Maestro" etc. These players being on the pitch give a bonus to the hidden XP earnings of those around them, so again, sticking with the peak-level "old guns" isn't the best way forward. Admittedly, tagged "Superstars" in your team do become popular with the fans, and can sell merchandise, but this only seems to be a short-lived part of the game and certainly doesn't earn enough to really move the needle as far as picking them is concerned.

The only two positions where I've found experience and overall stat rating really count are CF and GK. And even then, I'll regularly switch out the experienced players for the youth prospects when facing bottom of the table opposition.

Injuries have also made an unwelcome return. During a year of playing ML in 2015 my team remained injury free. After a month of 2016 ML I've had 3 injuries. Two from my over use of key players. I've since spent a season trying to have cover for every position with a promising Youth Prospect, and the 32 player squad limit has started to feel quite constricting once loan transfers are taken into account.

In general, team setup is a much more subtle prospect. Play the same tactics over the course of a season and your players will adapt to them. Decide that you want to switch to a fluid formation halfway through the season, or move to all out defence having never played it before, and you can actually expect to lose a match or two. This can be felt most keenly at the start of a season after a summer of transfers. Those new players take a few matches to become useful, which isn't a lot of fun when you have Barcelona in the group stages of the Champions League. But, this feels like football...

It's not all perfect though. As ever, PES out-of-the-box doesn't have all the correct strips and names. This never normally bothers me (although this year the datafile is back, at least for PS4) except for some reason the artists at Konami have been fucking about with the colour chart and decided that Orange is the new Red. This leads to some very strange home and away combinations, one of which makes it nearly impossible to tell the two teams apart. There's also a green strip that's basically the same colour as a wet pitch, which fortunately doesn't crop up too often, but can be a fucking nightmare to play against if you're sat any distance away from the screen. Because of this I'll eventually get around to the data update, just to improve visibility.

My only other real negative is that the music is a little more tiresome than last year's offering. But on the plus side, it must have been quite cheap. I've heard 2 of the tracks in every shopping mall and gym I've been into over the last month, so  I'm thankful that they're not wasting any cash on big-room EDM licenses. I remember how much music licensing costs (cough Crackdown 2 cough) and it's really not worth it.

Despite these two niggles this has to be my favourite iteration of the franchise in years, possibly ever. My ML team, the mighty Hampshire Red (who disappointingly only wear Orange) have ended up being very much like my real-life love, Southampton FC. I've recently signed 6 youth team members, most of which are out on loan. Two of them are currently going through their breakthrough patch and will be in my first team next season. 1 performed so well before I could find him a loan deal that he's my regular CB, despite being 17yo. The others I'll give a couple more years to, probably on loan, before moving them on for a tidy profit. I'm out of the habit of buying the top tier and focusing on grabbing the bright young sparks from my scouting report...

As you can tell, for once I've become just as deeply addicted to the management side of the ML as I have the on-pitch action. And I've still got online and My Club to check out. Maybe. After I finish this season of the ML. And see if Jake Hesketh improves.

So thank you, Konami. This feels like football. And I love football.




P.S. I sincerely hope this isn't the peak of PES, but with Hideo leaving (along with most of the Fox Engine team) and Konami's management walking around in dazed circles counting their mobile F2P earnings, I very much fear that the tech will slowly wither and die, and with it, what has to be close to the greatest ever football game will be no more.