Video game review – Pro Evolution Soccer 2018 (Konami, 2017)

A personal history of football gaming

In 2003, I was in the middle of a hiatus from video games. Having grown up with the thrill of the NES, graduated to the vastly improved SNES and then enjoyed the comparatively mind-blowing PlayStation, by the time the PS2 arrived I’d lost interest. I got my first serious girlfriend in 2001 and with school exams also requiring my attention, I simply didn’t have time to commit to video games.

One of my go-to games throughout my initial gaming tenure was the ever-popular FIFA series. I had the first ever instalment. Titled simply FIFA International Soccer and featuring David Platt on the cover, the isometric visuals seemed like a massive improvement on Sensible Soccer, which I’d invested a dizzying amount of hours into. I didn’t know the word “isometric”, but what I saw was a 3D game of football on my screen for the first time.

The game grew with the consoles and no football pretender got anywhere near the brilliance of the one or two releases every year.

Such was my addiction that I even had a cheat printed for FIFA 2000 in gaming magazine CVG. I never did receive my £5 for that.

So, when I visited my brother at university in early 2004 and he and his housemates were playing a football game called Pro Evo, I was initially dismissive. It didn’t have any of the real team names or play names. It looked different. The controls were back-to-front. It was highly unlikely that in the two years since I’d given up video games that FIFA had been knocked off its crown.

But then I played it.

Instantly I realised why so much praise was being heaped on it. It felt so much more like a real game of football. It was also a lot more fun. It was more balanced. There didn’t seem to be as many cheap ways to score.

I was immediately jealous that I didn’t have access to the game, though I didn’t rectify the issue for another three years when I acquired an Xbox 360 and a copy of Pro Evolution Soccer 6.

I’ve since dallied with both sides of the fence, keeping up with the various merits and failings of both series. Sometimes FIFA has edged ahead, but despite the constants that it will always have – primarily the licences and more players for online modes – the PES series has invariably been much more playable.

Pro Evolution Soccer 2018

So now we’re in 2017 and I’ve picked up a copy of the latest game in the PES series: Pro Evolution Soccer 2018. It’s the first time I’ve picked up a copy of a sports simulator on release weekend for as long as I can remember, so is has been interesting joining in the online buzz.

The FIFA and PES series have converged on a version of events that has landed with an extremely similar setup. There’s an exhibition mode, a training mode, a league mode and a cup mode. There’s also a mode, here called Become A Legend, which involves taking over the career of a single player. There’s myClub mode, which allows you to spend points earned in every game mode on random players to create a team you can take online.

Finally, there’s the ever-popular Master League, a challenge for even the best PES player and a mainstay of the game for well over a decade. In this mode you take over a team of generic and very average players in a lower league and try to progress up the leagues and impress the owner of your club to the point that he will invest in better players for you to challenge for the top trophies.

Every mode has an equivalent in FIFA and neither are particularly better or worse than each other, so comparing the two on game mode alone won’t help anyone.

Where PES wipes the floor is with the gameplay. It has done for years and, having played the demo version of the latest FIFA, continues to do so this year.

Players are responsive and the simple controls allow basic skills to be executed immediately. Trapping the ball and close control when receiving the ball are amongst the simplest skills to master. Guesswork punts up the pitch rarely come off, reflecting real life. Calculated build up and through balls to strikers you know will outpace the defenders will often pay dividends. Try the same attack three times in a row and the defenders will learn from your efforts.

Winning in online modes is obviously never easy, but doing so feels like a huge victory and will be a crowning achievement of your abilities in the game.

There have been a handful of drawbacks I’ve noticed. Online mode has been blighted with either lack of players or poor connectivity, the latter being the first example of poor connection in any game I’ve noticed in well over a year. It’s frustrating to lose a match because of connectivity when it irreparably affects your ongoing ranking.

Player switching can be frustrating. It appears that it will never switch to a player behind the opposition, even if they’re a couple of steps away. That has been the biggest cause of conceded goals for me as I’m forced to bring a well-placed defender out of position to combat an advancing attacker, often then to have the ball played in behind me. That and the fact that the computer almost never concedes a foul will be rectified in an upcoming patch from Konami.

The final downside I’ve found is the inclusion of a handful of Legends in the game. This is great, but every copy of the game comes with Usain Bolt as a player in the myClub mode. When FIFA fans get Ronaldo but PES fans get someone who has never played professional football in his life, it does feel a little on the embarrassing side.

But that’s no problem for the wider game. When the gameplay and intelligent AI is this good, i can forgive the lack of real players. There’s always the extensive editing mode to rectify that anyway.

With an upcoming release of further game modes, including a career-spanning David Beckham career mode, this is a game that still has months of playability left in it and one I won’t be putting down for a long time.

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Musical Mistakes #01 – Football Anthems

As we fast approach the big England v Wales game in the UK, I have a confession to make. I am now the proud owner of a copy of the latest Manic Street Preachers single, “Together Stronger (C’Mon Wales)”, which is the Welsh national team’s anthem for the Euro 2016 football tournament currently making headlines for all the wrong reasons across Europe. For those outside Europe, it might not be obvious how wrong this is for a Englishman, especially when England have been drawn in the same group as Wales. Big rivals, never played each other in a major tournament before, must win match for both.

Hear me out, I have mitigating circumstances. Firstly, there was a signed copy available on the Manics’ website. Secondly, there’s an exclusive remix of “A Design For Life” as the b-side. Thirdly, it’s actually a very good song, especially for a football anthem. That said, there is something distinctly uncool about owning a football anthem, especially one for a rival team, but it’s something I’ll have to learn to live with.

This doesn’t quite compare to something similar that happened to me in 1996. As a newly-discovered supporter of Manchester United, I distinctly remember being stood in the big Woolworths in Burnley, pocket money in hand, staring at two potential musical purchases. It was always a tough decision – I got £2 a week and so I usually only had the ability to buy one single a week at the most. I had to get the decision right to ensure I had something enriching to listen to for the next week or so.

The first option was the official FA Cup Final single released by the Manchester United squad. Its name? “Move Move Move (The Red Tribe)”. It was utter tripe, but had the sole benefit of being the song from the team I supported.

Sat right next to this abomination was the FA Cup Final single released by the Liverpool squad. In hindsight, this was also utter tripe, though marginally less tripy than United’s effort. It was titled “Pass and Move (It’s The Liverpool Groove)”. Bracketed song titles were very popular back in the mid-90s, as were rapping footballers

I faced a tough decision, but it was one I found a way out of. I couldn’t afford both on CD single so I bought Liverpool on CD single and United on cassette. The utter shame. Two terrible songs entering my music collection, plus a betrayal of my team to go with it.

So maybe this Wales incident won’t be looked back on with such embarrassment. I guess much of that will depend on the result on Thursday afternoon.

Burnley v Manchester United (Unknown director, 1902)

This is a truly historic film artefact, badly damaged though it is: the very earliest footage of Manchester United, shot months after they changed their name from Newton Heath. The frenetic action shows United (in dark tops) apparently on the back foot against near-neighbours Burnley, although the home team ultimately lost 2-0. The result helps explain why the film was never advertised in Burnley. [1]

Watch Burnley v Manchester United from 6th December 1902

This is really interesting for me. I have been a Manchester United fan for as long as I remember, though I grew up in neighbouring Burnley where this film was recorded. I class Burnley as my second team, which generally means I want them to win in all but two weekends of the season.

The ground still stands in the same spot to this day at Turf Moor on Harry Potts Way, though it has obviously undergone a lot of developments. In this video you can see the single-tiered Brunshaw Road end (now the Bob Lord stand), to which a second tier was added a few years later. The ground looks fairly sparse, and a bit of research reveals that the attendance that day was around 4000.

There’s clearly a huge difference between the way the game is played today and how it was 113 years ago. Immediately the attire is completely different, with most wearing their shorts way higher up than their bellies. The pace of the game is much slower, probably due to the thicker clothing, longer grass, heavier ball and general lack of fitness of the players (note Bulldog cigarettes advertised above one of the stands). On the plus side, there are no free-kicks given for soft fouls, no diving, nobody shouting at the referees and no shirt advertising.

So what does it show? Is the game better or worse today? Well, it is certainly different. This is a fantastic early artefact of the game. There is earlier footage available – the earliest of which is thought to be Blackburn Rovers v West Bromwich Albion from 1898. It’s also only 1 minute and 35 seconds long, so you might as well watch it.

[1] From the BFI Player page for the video.

Fußball, Wie Noch Nie / Football as Never Before (Hellmuth Costard, 1971)

In 2004, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, the much-celebrated documentary following footballer Zinedene Zidane throughout a 90-minute match, was released. The film featured a cracking soundtrack from Scottish band Mogwai and was overlaid with a one-on-one interview with the man himself. It was eye-opening and served as a fantastic snapshot of one of the greatest sportsmen of the modern era, providing an intriguing insight into a man many consider to be a genius.

33 years prior to this, however, there was made a now-long-forgotten German film called Fußball, Wie Noch Nie. The premise is so similar to Zidane that it really undermines what I thought at the time was a unique concept. In this film, we follow footballer George Best over a 90-minute match against Coventry City, which took place on 12th September 1970. There is no soundtrack and no interview overlaid, just Best doing what he did best – playing football.

George Best was at the back-end of the peak of his career when this film was released.

George Best was at the back-end of the peak of his career when this film was released.

Of course, it wasn’t the only thing he did well. For a full picture of the footballing legend you’ve got to include women, drinking and drugs in that list. As a Manchester United fan it can be frustrating that nowadays this overshadows what was a fantastic career, even though it was cut tragically short through his alcoholism (he essentially hit decline at the age of 26 in 1972 and spent the next decade never quite achieving the dizzy heights he’d already reached in the early parts of his career, playing in Scotland, Ireland, USA and Australia before retiring). This documentary serves an excellent purpose in that it gives us a chance to remind ourselves just how good he was on a game-by-game basis, and was taken during the back-end of the peak of his career: the 1970-71 season finished with Best as top-scorer and United finishing a respectable 8th; his team-mates included Brian Kidd, Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and Alan Gowling; Sir Matt Busby was eventually back in charge (though not in time for this game); memories of the European Cup victory were still fresh in the mind of the players and the fans. Manchester United were in transition, but for Best this season would prove to be one of his last memorable ones.

In case you’re wondering (spoiler alert), the game finishes 2-0 to Manchester United, with Best scoring one of the goals. Charlton scored the other. It perhaps wasn’t the most interesting game to select for this subject, but it’s nice to see a United victory and you get to experience what it was like to be in Old Trafford in the early 1970s.

It is by all accounts an experimental film. The half-time whistle goes and we are treated to a bizarre experience of staring directly into Best’s eyes whilst some hypnotic visuals serve as a backdrop. I suppose the aim is to challenge the viewer to try to imagine what goes through a player’s mind during the half-time interval, but it certainly doesn’t feel like that. Essentially, aside from this half-time segment, the film is more of an artefact than anything else.

It’s not particularly easy to get hold of. I had to import my copy from the German Amazon store, though as it’s PAL it will work perfectly well on your UK DVD players. Was it worth the effort? Well, I’m still undecided. It certainly isn’t for everyone, but I got a level of enjoyment out of it. For fans of both foreign, experimental cinema and Manchester United then I’d recommend it. Otherwise, you might be better suited to one of the highlight videos on YouTube.

Fussball, Wie Noch Nie is available from Amazon UK, though it will be cheaper to get from Amazon DE via import. No Blu-ray is available.