September 2015 is symbolic for Konami. On September 1, Metal Gear Solid V hit shelves—the last game that Hideo Kojima worked on for the company, and most likely the last installment in a franchise that made Konami a household name since the PS1 days.
Now, just a few weeks later, Pro Evolution Soccer 2016 makes its debut. This comes among a flurry of rumors that outside of the annual PES series, Konami will be focusing all of its energy on the mobile market from now on.
So in the span of just three weeks, the cornerstone of Konami's video game roster may have had its swan song, while its last surviving franchise hit the stands as gamers wonder about the venerable company's direction.
The good news? If PES is all that's left of the Konami we know, the company's console future is in more than capable hands as the 2016 installment in the famed soccer franchise has a chance at being one of the standout sports titles of the year.
Beginning life as International Soccer Superstar in 1994 for the SNES and evolving through every console generation since, PES 2016 feels like the culmination of over two decades of improvements, tweaks and innovation.
The attention to detail and the depth of the gameplay here are unparalleled, and it's evident that Konami is pushing PES towards the hardcore soccer aficionado. Everything from ball handling to passing and shooting has several layers of strategy, depending on circumstances and positioning. This makes for a rich experience that, while never simple, becomes extremely rewarding as you master all of the intricacies.
The in-game tutorial isn't just a suggestion; it's basically mandatory, as any attempt to dive in headfirst without the proper instructions usually winds up in catastrophe. I learned (and re-learned numerous times) this the hard way when I tried to slide tackle my way to victory during my first match, which resulted in me getting shellacked 6-0, with a ticker-tape parade of red cards raining down on the pitch.
However, for as dense as the control scheme can be, PES is also incredibly smooth to play, and once I got the hang of it, all of the different passing, scoring and dribbling techniques didn't just become easier—they become second nature.
Defense, on the other hand, is refreshingly streamlined. Squaring up to your opponent in order to steal the ball, intercept the pass or go for the ever-satisfying slide tackle is simple, but never dull. In general, defense in sports games is tough to make responsive enough to feel satisfying, but here it's all about perfectly timing your actions and making sure you're in the right position to strike.
Both sides of the ball combine for a frantic back-and-forth pace that will either have you hurling your controller at the screen or sliding across your living room floor on your knees after a perfectly-placed score. Either way, PES is not a relaxing game, by any stretch.
Going for more of a simulation feel, this game is all about ball movement and passing from player to player in rhythmic choreography until you find your perfect moment to shoot. None of this is simple, though, and you might spend your first few matches throwing up goose eggs until you conform to the PES style.
That's where the game becomes so rewarding. Moving the ball from player to player and finding that perfect patch of daylight to take your shot for a goal feels like an actual accomplishment, rather than the gunslinger mentality of so many other sports games.
This is a title that rewards patience and strategy, just like the sport itself, and once you start to appreciate the grace and fluidity of the gameplay, you'll want to save all of your goal replays to your hard drive, like proud pelts nailed to your wall.
PES is easily one of the most impressive looking sports titles on the market today, and it's the implementation of the Fox Engine that makes this game pop off the screen. The faces are emotive, the bodies are perfectly rendered, the pitch is lush (with different options for grass height) and the roaring crowds add an intensity unmatched by anything other than an actual soccer match.
Weather effects are another highlight, with little details helping to create a living, breathing environment, such as jerseys getting visibly drenched during rainy matches, causing them to hang off of players differently than games on warm, dry evenings.
There is also a mammoth selection of stadiums to choose from in PES that just adds to the depth of customization of every match. The different sizes bring a different ambiance to each bout, with some giving off a claustrophobic feel, while others provide an open-air atmosphere that make matches feel larger than life.
The camera angles and presentation are all modeled off of what you see on TV, with close-ups on players' faces after a wide-right shot or during a post-goal celebration. Everything here is nearly indistinguishable from the real thing, and the facial expressions that convey the joy of victory and the crushing certainty of defeat all help bring a level of realism to PES that not only doesn't exist in most other sports games, it doesn't exist in many games, period.
On the presentation front, there is also the option to fully customize post-goal celebrations, whether you want pre-rendered animations to do all of the work for you, or if you want to control all of the theatrics yourself. It's a small touch, but it's something that feels true to the spirit of the sport...plus, it's always nice to forego sportsmanship for the occasional dance number.
PES doesn't fall short in the audio department, either. Like in real life, there is a constant roar of cacophonous cheers, chants and jeers from the crowds that change depending on the team, stadium and game situation.
All of the game's commentary is captured by Peter Drury and Jim Beglin, who add actual insight into the game, and, if you listen closely enough, give out tips for how you can improve your strategy. There are, of course, plenty of repeated phrases throughout, but the duo does an admirable job of capturing the high energy of soccer matches, despite some tepid lines sprinkled throughout.
Obviously, without the FIFA license, PES 2016 lacks a certain all-encompassing authenticity that a game like FIFA 2016 will have. PES has to secure licenses on a team-by-team basis, and while it has full access to a squad like Manchester United, it lacks other iconic clubs. However, PES did land the Champions League license, which is a real, rare win for the franchise.
On the downside, there are no women's teams to choose from, and with the recent success of the USA in the World Cup, that's a crushing blow for fans in the States, especially because that's one of the highlights of FIFA 2016.
Despite the overall beauty of the presentation, there are moments when stiff animations or bizarre player movements bring you back to reality. Players will sometimes warp into a certain position in order to pull off an animation, and some of the transitions between movements can be stiff and lifeless, compared to the graphic renderings. While this isn't immediately noticeable during a match, it can be distracting during a slo-mo replay.
None of the on-field beauty of PES would be worth much if you didn't have anything to do with it; thankfully the game offers multiple modes that tie everything together. The most prominent feature is myClub, which allows you to create your own soccer club—complete with uniforms and custom name.
In this mode, you can craft your club from the ground up, compiling a roster of superstars to take on the world with. Along the way, you'll oversee budgets, managers, trainers and numerous other details that longtime soccer will be able to spend hours with. There is even an upgrade system, similar to an RPG title, that allows your club to evolve as you improve.
The off-field management is as dense as the on-field gameplay, and it's a testament to Konami's investment in the series moving forward that it would dedicate itself to both sides of the sport.
In addition, there are numerous online and offline matches you can join, as well as tournaments that you can participate in. The online menus, lobbies and matchmaking system are all clean and responsive, but before you get into online matches, you better brush up on your skills against the cpu, because it doesn't take long to get embarassed out there.
Don't roll your eyes at a soccer simulator (like I did) until you really give PES 2016 a shot. The incredible graphics, combined with deep gameplay, customization and overall atmosphere puts this game in rarified air for a sports title in this console generation.
Konami will always fight an uphill battle against the juggernaut that is EA's FIFA franchise, but for the hardcore soccer junkie, this title has more than enough to offer. It hits the perfect balance between a title that is fun to just pick up and play, and one that you can obsess over for hours.
|• Incredible graphics
• Tight, smooth gameplay
• Realistic strategy and atmosphere
• Plenty of customization and online match options
|• Gameplay can be unforgiving without practice
• No women's teams
• The layman may get lost in the strategy of it all
• Some stiff animations can undermine the beautiful graphics
• Lack of the all-encompassing FIFA license
This game was reviewed on a PS4.