Pro Evolution Soccer 2017 [official site] is a fantastic football game, quite possibly one of the best ever. On the pitch, it plays spectacularly well, with both individual players and teams expressing themselves as recognisable entities, and Master League is a superb singleplayer mode, making player development entertaining and simple to grasp.
Take it online, though, and things start to fall apart. And the PC port is an ugly downgrade in comparison to the current-gen console versions.
In this line of work, there's little more frustrating than having to pummel an excellent game because it fails on a few fundamentals. Pro Evo's PC release deserves a pummelling though. It is, as was the case last year, a half-step between the PS3/360 version of the game, and even if you don't particularly care that Juan Mata isn't as adorable as he is on the PS4, it's ludicrous that the system that allows for the most configurable version of the game ends up with a half-formed hybrid.
Buy the game on PC and you're getting a version with uglier player models and (for me, in these early days at least) laggy multiplayer. It's not an abomination, and playing alongside the PS4 version I haven't found the actual flow of the matches any less impressive, but the ageing graphics are immediately noticeable.
Given that I have the game on PC and current-gen console, I'll never touch the PC version again now that I've played enough to confirm that it fails to live up to the PS4 version, but it's still one of the best football games I've ever played. If I didn't have access to a PS4, I'd be playing PES on my PC an awful lot. Whatever the failings of the port – and they're significant and frustrating – this is a remarkably good sports game, despite the lack of licenses and some bizarre structural problems.
Put simply, PES 2017 creates a better sense of teams and players with their own styles of play than any football game I've played before. The teams may have fake names, but they behave more convincingly than any number of branded clubs with pixel-perfect kits and crests. I spent most of the weekend playing Master League – the game's management career mode – and experimenting with Manchester United (Manchester Red here) in an attempt to recreate their cavalier highs and current lows.
One of the questions I ask of every sports game is whether it can recreate the boredom and frustration of sports as well as the highlight reels. If every match is the perfect distillation of the beautiful game, with last minute turnarounds, goals scored from every angle, and astonishing skills, then there's a serious problem in the design. A moment of brilliance should be remarkable because of its rarity and because of the skill, effort and concentration that goes into creating it. Make those moments a dime a dozen and there's no joy associated with earning them.
Pro Evo 2017 will let you build the most atrocious, boring, anti-football team that the world has ever seen, and that is to its eternal credit. While it's a far cry from the detail of Football Manager, Master League (which allows you to play every match in 'coach mode', giving instructions for tactical changes and substitions rather than actually controlling players directly) has enough tactical options to allow for a great deal of tinkering.
I took Man Red, with their literal embarrassment of riches, and went full Louis Van Gaal with them. Possession football combined with long balls and Ibrahimovic as a target man, lacking in pace but able to control the ball well with his back to goal. Over half a season, we won almost every game one-nil, retreating into a compact defensive shell as soon as the striker had worked his terrible magic, laying off balls for the couple of creative players brave enough to venture out of their own half during an attack, and running onto the very occasional through ball to slide the ball into the net.
We were awful to watch, boasting an average possession of 38% so happy were we to give up the ball and let the other team huff and puff. There was no wing play, just a collection of solid, uncreative lumps in the middle of the pitch (thanks Fellaini and I'm so sorry Pogba), and on the rare occasion I pushed the button that instructed my full backs to bomb forward down the pitch and cause some trouble, their training soon over-rode their instincts and they retreated under the slightest pressure.
It was a horrible spectacle and I was delighted. The time we shut out Real Madrid (Madrid White) in a Champions League group match and secured a draw at home without taking a single shot was the moment I felt like a victorious Victor Frankenstein; I'd created a monster and it was alive, twitching on the slab.
Mid-season, it was time to teach that monster to walk and talk, and maybe even to pull off a Cruyff turn and engage in a spot of fluid, penetrating attacking football. The monster did not take kindly to these lessons.
Changing the shape of a team isn't as simple as pushing a button. Sure, you can set a new formation and give new instructions, but players take a while to adjust. Tell a defensive line to alter their game and start pressing when they're used to standing off and retaining their shape, and you'll see mistimed tackles, poor runs that leave gaps at the back of the field, and reckless challenges. On the subject of challenges, last year's PES featured referees who were as bad at finding their cards as a drunk street magician, and that's been improved but it's still rare to see horrendous tackles punished correctly. You can't quite get away with murder, but seeing replays of two-footed lunges that result in nothing more than a ticking off when a shoulder to shoulder nudge can result in a yellow is one of the few annoyances with the match engine.
Retraining and restyling a team ties into the strong emphasis on individual and collective skills, and it's there that PES excels. Ibrahimovic reacts to situations as you'd expect him to, using his weight and size to shield the ball and bully defenders, but accelerating like a freight train. The AI is superb, and intelligent, experienced players will adjust to their strengths and hide their weaknesses, while others will take unnecessary risks or repeatedly reach for the stars and land in the gutter.
You can shape them though and the systems for doing so are simple and fun. Each season you can pick a favourite player, who will develop more quickly and become the face of the team. You can assign individual skill training to players whose abilities are the right fit for a particular fancy move or behaviour, and as they learn what you want from them in their allocated position, they'll all develop traits and styles of play. It all feels natural and has an obvious and immediate impact on the pitch.
Put all of that together and you have a game in which the differences between formations are immediately obvious, not only in their success rate but in the way they affect the minute-by-minute flow of a match. And every formation (there are fifteen, all modifiable) can be used with any combination of instructions, and will play differently depending on the individuals involved. It's tremendous to watch and even more pleasing that an approach that relies on traits and named skills rather than stats (there are stats as well, of course, but a player can be understood by reading rather than simply comparing numbers) can deliver something that feels like an authentic representation of all the highs and lows of the sport.
Controlling players in the thick of all that is a delight. They're ultra-responsive when they should be and have all the loose touches and leggy movements that they should have as well. Importantly, you can get an appreciation of each player and their capabilities over time, and will soon know who is able to chase down a weighted through ball and who is likely to chase it, trap it, and convert it.
Besides Master League, there's a mode where you play as a single footballer, Become a Legend, and I've used it as a tutorial to learn various roles on the pitch. That's about all it's good for as it's a bit lacking in off-pitch departments. I wish it were more appealing because I really do want a football RPG, but in a way that's what Master League is. It's just that your character is an entire club rather than an individual player.
What else? The menus are still a bit shit, though improved on last year's, and they always highlight important things so you're not going to miss a transfer offer or contract development. Speaking of transfers, they're nice and easy, each club having two separate budgets, one for fees and the other for wages. Negotiating to reduce either when bidding for a player gives you a direct percentage chance of success, and you can choose whether to take a chance or just accept the initial terms.
If you've got a load of cash but don't know who to buy, scouts can search for players who will strengthen your weakest areas – they're not great (mine want me to buy Carlos Tevez and will not shut up about it) but I quite like limiting myself to their suggestions. It's an extra challenge and the idea that there's pressure to buy from a limited pool, either because of boardroom interference, commercial concerns or limited knowledge, fits with my roleplaying approach to Master League.
For all of these reasons, Pro Evo's Master League is my favourite mode in a football game for a long time. It's my favourite mode in any sports game for a long time, in fact. And that's why it's so annoying that there's a huge caveat sitting on top of this glowing appraisal – the PC version really isn't the best version. It's still extremely good because the actual design of the game, both on-pitch and off, is superb, but it's laggy online, and needlessly uglier than the console alternative.
I want to recommend it heartily but I can't. Not quite. The lack of licenses doesn't bother me in the slightest – and it really is stripped down, with just two Premier League teams and no Bayern Munich – but the lack of bells and whistles that exist elsewhere in the same game really does. Imagine Lionel Messi playing in that Colardo Caribous strip from back in the day. That's PES 2017 on PC.
Pro Evolution Soccer 2017 is available now for Windows, via Steam.