It isn't our policy to look at reviews from other publications before playing a game that we know we'll be reviewing here at PureXbox but this time around, we weren't sure whether or not we'd be reviewing Pro Evolution Soccer 2016, so we indulged in a little light reading. It appears that the game is universally loved and is – as one of the two was going to be – being praised as something incredible. At least one publication is repeatedly calling it the greatest football game of all time. Another has it at a perfect 10/10. A few others scored it in the region of 9 and 9.5 out of 10. High praise indeed and needless to say, as big fans of the franchise, our mouths were watering as we fired it up and headed out onto the pitch for the first time in the new season.
Not long after, we were trying to work out if there had been some sort of mistake, or if a patch had been released that had changed things. You see, while Pro Evolution Soccer 2016 does represent huge steps forward for the series in some areas, it also has some pretty massive flaws that we just can't believe people would overlook in their quest for footballing perfection. Since they're the things that are easily the most prominent, we'll start with them.
First up, the referees have to be mentioned. They're absolutely diabolical. The new physicality and weight of the players makes some challenges look worse than they are and while it's commonplace to criticize the man in the middle when it comes to real life, play through a few matches in the Master League and after a while you'll start to notice that you haven't had a free kick that you can remember.
That isn't your mind playing tricks on you.
We're relatively sure that an AI-controlled defender could take out a knife and stab an onrushing striker without going into the referee's notebook. Time after time after time, you'll be clean through on goal or will have finally carved out a decent chance of some sort against the tough defensive AI, only to find a sliding tackle - that doesn't even remotely come close to touching the ball and which leaves your player injured for six weeks - goes unpunished. When at your own end of the pitch, you can be knocking the ball around the back four, looking for an avenue through which to attack, only for a striker to punch your star defender in the mouth, run on with the ball, and tuck it home in the bottom corner.
We have to be quite plain here when we say that this is not an exaggeration. In an entire SEASON of Master League play, we saw ONE yellow card given to an opponent and even that one should have been a straight red, given that it was a tackle from behind and that he was the last man. It isn't just in human vs. AI mode, either. Watch a match in "Coach Mode" where the CPU takes control of both teams and nine times out of ten, the game will end with the only fouls called across the 90 minutes being for offside. In a full UEFA Champions League campaign played in Coach Mode, we never saw a single booking.
It absolutely defies logic and can leave a real sour taste in the mouth, especially if you're playing PES in the time-honoured fashion, where you march into the much-improved Master League with your merry band of average players and try to get the job done on a difficulty level that's one step higher than you're comfortable with. Just like in earlier versions, you'll struggle to make space up the middle (not on the wings though, since the AI likes to just run parallel with you as you sprint down the sides, refusing to make a tackle until you try to cross the ball in) and have to be super-vigilant when defending. Just to clarify how important free kicks and fouls are, imagine that you kick off a game and get chopped down in the area when you're certain to score. Then the ball is hoofed to the other end of the pitch and your defender picks it up. He gets blatantly tripped in his own area while on the ball and the opponent takes the loose ball and scores. You should be 1-0 up but instead, you're 1-0 down. It's the very definition of a game-changing issue and it should be noted that this was also a complaint last year, although it's far more obvious now.
It means that pretty much every mode in the game feels a lot less fun when you know that should you finally unlock the door and get that glorious chance to score a goal, you can - and usually will - just be smashed to the floor and not get so much as a free kick for your trouble. To add insult to injury, when the CPU-controlled opposition DOES get a free kick anywhere close to goal, it'll likely go booming into the net since they're incredibly accurate with set plays.
A lot of the fun is removed when other AI issues are considered, such as opposing strikers being positioned way, way too far up the pitch. Even when taking a goal kick late in a game that you're losing 3-0, the opposition forwards will be practically hugging your central defenders. This means that should you so much as take control of one of your main stoppers, breaking their stride as you do so, you open yourself up to huge amounts of through-ball spam circa FIFA's Ultimate Team mode online from a couple of years ago. Pro Evo is hoisted by its own petard somewhat here since in the Master League, you get a new and fantastically detailed report on your play at the end of each month. Five glorious pages of pass completion rates, average time in attack figures, tackle counts and more are shown, so you can alter your set tactics to suit your actual playing style. Every month, you'll see that you've conceded goals from through balls more than any other type of play. For a test, we set our five-man defensive line as far back as possible, disabled man-marking, and set the defenders to play tight in the middle. The result? 9 goals conceded. 8 from through balls. Again, it should be noted that this was also a complaint last year, but now there's statistical proof that's accessible to all.
Although, this isn't surprising when you consider that goalkeepers are pretty poor at dealing with most situations, especially when one-on-one. If a striker takes a shot toward either bottom corner, the best keepers in the game will lumber down as if they have all the time in the world as the ball rolls into the net. Head a pass back to your goalie so that he can catch it in his hands safely and half the time he'll act as if it was played back with the feet and decide to hoof it away or slice it out of play. Failing that, trying to call the keeper out early to deal with any one-on-one situations is a bit hit-and-miss, too. More often than should be the case, holding the button to get him to rush out will cause him to just flat ignore you. As a result of these issues with the goalies and some strangely rubber-banded AI, PES 2016 features far more goals than any other game in the series that we remember. One Champions League run to the final (on "Professional" difficulty as a test, since our Master League ventures have all been on the "Top Player" or "Superstar" difficulty setting) saw an average of 6 goals per game. A 5-2 loss to Borussia Moenchengladbach in the first leg of the quarter final was overturned by us (with the exact same first 11) winning the return leg 7-2. In the final against Bayern Munich, our Merseyside Red team scored four goals in 30 minutes to lead 4-0 as the Germans offered no response. We lost that match 7-5 after extra time, only adding the fifth goal in the final minute. On some difficulty levels, teams seem to have a breaking point where they suddenly snap out of their slumber and turn into well-oiled defensive machines. Take a 3-0 lead against Juventus within 25 minutes and you'll not get another shot on goal for the rest of the game, sneaking out 3-2 winners if you're lucky. Go 3-0 up against FC Groeningen within 15 minutes as they refuse to offer a challenge, and you'll win 3-1.
The sad thing is that with minor changes to the areas we've mentioned, Pro Evolution Soccer 2016 really would be in with a genuine shout of being the greatest football game of all time. The Master League that we've mentioned several times has seen a whole host of changes for the better, whilst still retaining the charm of the previous games. It's a deeper, more intense experience as you try to cobble together a team of championship contenders, or at least a side that doesn't get hammered in every game. Some of these touches extend onto the pitch too, with new commentator Peter Drury – who is a vast improvement over Peter Brackley – chatting with co-commentator Jim Beglin about your recently-promoted youth player who's making his debut before the game. They'll discuss winning and losing runs and make comments about how your team has scored or conceded early on in the last few games. It's all fantastically detailed and this really adds to the experience – a lot more than you'd expect it to on paper. A further nice touch is the ability to edit your favourite team into the game before you start on your quest, with the ability to edit kits, stadium colours, rivalries and even your side's commentary name. We were quite surprised to find that Drury and Beglin have laid down a batch of extra city names for the play-by-play, to the point that we could play as our beloved Exeter City and have them called out by name. Of course, it loses its lustre somewhat when you're playing against "East Dorsetshire" or "North London Whites" due to PES' now infamous lack of licences, but that's by the by. It should also be noted that none of the summer transfers have been replicated in-game so Liverpool, for example, still line up with Sterling, Gerrard, Johnson, Lambert, Borini, Jones and Manquillo when none of them are present in this season's squad, and Benteke, Firmino, Ings, Milner, Gomez and Bogdan are still at their old clubs. Balotelli is on a season-long loan to Milan, but still starts as the star striker for Merseyside Red. A data update will surely be made available at some point, but that could be days, weeks, or months away. Bear in mind that most of these transfers went through a good two months ahead of the game's release - Gomez was transferred in June, for crying out loud - and it seems strange that there wasn't a day one data update available to sort things out.
Also improving the experience this year are the visuals. Running on the much-ballyhooed Fox Engine, PES 2016 runs at a full 60fps and only rarely misses a beat during play. Stadiums are represented in absolutely stunning fashion, with the lighting being a particular high-point, even if players can sometimes look a little plastic-like in close-up. Rain – while otherwise rendered fantastically – most definitely adds to that effect, although the benefits to gameplay that inclement weather can provide more than outweigh that little negative. Play a pass to a player who has to seriously alter his footing before controlling the ball on a rainy day and there's a chance that he'll end up on his backside, slipping over on the wet grass. This effect could well have ended up being a comedic mess, but the development team have used it to perfection so that it doesn't happen every ten seconds. Add that to the fact that controlling the ball is a lot harder in the rain anyway and that shots can slide off the boots of the strikers rather than being hit with pinpoint accuracy and you have the first soccer game where the weather really and truly does play an important part in the outcome of proceedings and isn't just a fancy visual effect.
Also going under the knife this year is Konami's myClub mode. To call it a competitor to FIFA's Ultimate Team would be a little bit much, given that EA's version of things relies on blind-purchasing packs of cards and is – if we're honest – a little bit too simplistic. myClub goes a lot further than Ulitmate Team while still containing a lot of similar constructs, allowing you to build your dream club from scratch and use agents and scouts to draw new players to your side. Rather than just getting a handful of players every time you can afford to buy a pack of cards, you can earn the loyalties of different scouts, using them to unearth individual random players along the way. To improve your chances of attracting a top star, you can even use multiple scouts at a time. Of course, better scouts can be purchased using in-game currency which is awarded through every area of every game mode, even on the pitch. Buy a player in the Master League or pull off a perfect rainbow flick in an exhibition match and you'll find that you've been awarded a few points that will enable you to buy a new scout in myClub mode. It all ties in very well and while you can still purchase packs of coins via microtransaction, there's little need to do so given that the game so readily awards you just for playing. You can even discard players that you don't need any more in a useful way, converting them into coaches to improve a player that you're keeping on. If your discard is a right-footed Brazilian defender and you use him to train your main right-footed Brazilian defender, the training is more effective than if you'd tried to get him to train a left-footed Croatian goalkeeper.
Once your club is created, you can play in tournaments against the CPU, in "Divisions" mode (which is identical to FIFA's "Seasons" mode) against human opposition online, or sit back and take on a managerial view of things in a simulated Divisions match against another human manager. There's plenty to do and outside of the Master League - which is nothing short of excellently compelling - we'd say that myClub is where players will spend most of their time.
But that's only if they can see past the shocking refereeing, the shabby goalkeepers, and the AI oversights that we've mentioned. If these issues weren't in such key areas, then they would barely be worth mentioning and Pro Evolution Soccer 2016 would probably indeed be one of the most enjoyable and realistic football games of all time, despite the general spongy feeling about the controls and the many uninterruptable animations that still plague things. But goalkeepers and free kicks are a relatively important part of football, we think, even if Konami's focus on the pitch now always seems to be on how many different types of Rabona or scorpion kick their cover star can do in the Champions League final, as opposed to what happens in the remaining 99.99% of the season.
Pro Evolution Soccer 2016 is a strange entry in the series. The improvements are obvious and clear to see from the outset but the areas in which it has taken a step backward take a lot longer to actually uncover. You don't realise that you haven't conceded a free kick for ages until you've played more than a handful of games. You don't realise that the keepers pretty much can't save low shots until you've conceded a dozen goals in the bottom corner. This means that your time with PES this year will be spent playing for an hour or two and then putting the controller down in frustration. It's to Konami's great credit that it somehow always calls you back to it.