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Courtesy of Konami

Anthony Martial’s cruel destruction of Mame Biram Diouf during Manchester United’s recent draw with Stoke City acts as the perfect advert for PES 2018.

The weight-shifting, leg-tangling sorcery left Diouf in an ankle-breaking heap, with Martial’s burst of pace rounding off the meme-inducing moment as the Frenchman headed towards the Potters’ penalty area. Nothing came of the ensuing chance, but the moment of skill entertained and got people excited.

PES 2018 understands how important these instances are to football fans.

Developer PES Productions has established a superb base on which to build over the last few years, and in many ways, this season’s iteration adds subtle yet important finishing touches to an already excellent product. The game strikes a contradictory balance of being instantly familiar and needing to be relearned, a task that proves extremely rewarding.

It’s the replication of the aforementioned Martial moment or another absurd piece of skill that is the most obviously gratifying flourish added to this year’s title. Strategic dribbling and an increased sense of body weight makes beating your marker a pivotal one-on-one test that can turn the tide of a match.

While it’s thrilling to skip beyond a defender who’s sold themselves short, being on the receiving end for the first time should also act as an important trigger in progressing your style. You simply can’t rush into every tackle without the risk of being exposed, or worse still, humiliated. PES 2018 is a game of intelligence, patience and seizing the moment, even if it means executing a slower plan to do so.

“Slower” will be bandied about a lot when describing the game, but it isn’t quite the correct word to use. Instead of being a more sedated overall experience, the rhythm and flow of football are represented more authentically through realistic changes in tempo.

While methodically moving the ball around is key to buildup play, it’s the potential for more things to go wrong that underlines how PES 2018’s simmering pace is far more than simply eliminating breakneck speed from a pass, run and attempt at goal.

Courtesy of Konami

It’s tougher to connect passes together, and it’s no longer possible to relentlessly focus on moving forward, because overcommitting will leave you exposed at the back.

Thoughtful passing and the recycling of possession are now important factors in securing victories against tight opposition. It’s vital to consider the power needed to execute every pass, as misplacing one can leave you struggling to make up ground conceded in the split-second change of momentum.

Space is created by working in triangles and taking advantage of artificial intelligence that makes attacking runs more aggressive than before. Defenders mark tighter and are better equipped to disrupt your play by getting a toe on the ball or using their physicality to halt your progression.

However, the addition of contextual shielding means even the tiniest of forwards can overcome the threat of a hulking marker if they’re smart. Players such as Antoine Griezmann or Luis Suarez are excellent at backing into a centre-back and nipping the ball around the corner of their man before turning into space. The flat-footed defender is rendered useless as the striker quickly advances and brings support with him.

It’s these moments—the sudden changes in pace after controlled buildup—that highlight how “increasingly measured” is perhaps a more apt description of PES 2018 than simply suggesting the entire game is played at a slower pace. The speed of last year’s game is there if you can unlock it.

Battles across the pitch play a greater role in deciding matches, as successful players will quickly pinpoint the danger men and adapt to eliminate their threat.

Aggressively hassling Zlatan Ibrahimovic when a high ball heads towards him can crush his aerial dominance. There’s a physical exchange to be had, and even if you don’t completely win the ball, your presence can provide the opportunity needed to quickly do so. Just having a body in the right area is sometimes all you need to disrupt, a feat that is made much easier with the addition of a second cursor that shows which player you’re switching to next.

These personal skirmishes are also noticeable from corner kicks that, with the removal of the trajectory guideline, place greater emphasis on reading and setting up players’ runs. Free-kicks are enhanced by the disappearance of the imaginary line, too. The ability to shift camera angles and the increased need to curl the ball once again sums up how a good reading of your position from goal can make a huge difference.

Such tweaks, which many will initially overlook but won’t want to be without in 12 months’ time, are reminiscent throughout PES 2018. For instance, although Master League is still destined to fall short of the ultraslick FIFA 18 aesthetic, a clear effort has been made to spice things up.

Courtesy of Konami

Menus are slightly clearer at the top level, and added drama has also been injected into your attempt at glory. Players make their feelings known publicly in press conferences or locker room chats, while seasonal challenges and goals need to be fulfilled if you’re to remain in the hot seat.

Master League remains a fulfilling ride for those willing to put the work in, especially when utilising PES 2018’s default array of made-up players instead of a club’s real squad. Scouting and scouring your youth team takes on a greater importance with the limited budget, meaning there’s huge scope for unearthing talent before your rivals take notice.

Challenge Mode offers a more intensive test that centres on overcoming difficulties within your club—such as players wanting to leave—but the core experience remains. Neat touches, such as transfer-release clauses, also add to the sense that Konami is thinking more and more about soap-opera antics that now litter football on a daily basis.

Adding to Master League, the return of Random Selection Match is a wonderful boost for PES’ catalogue. Two randomly selected squads are put in front of players before a trading round commences in which you are tasked with protecting your most valuable assets while trying to nab talent from the other side.

Up to four criteria choices can be applied to the random draft—such as including stars from a specific league, nationality or team—in a mode that highlights the “Where Legends Are Made” slogan that follows PES 2018’s marketing push. There isn’t a more satisfying feeling than winning one of these matches with a little-known, unfancied striker while Neymar turns away in disappointment at the other end of the pitch.

Raw, emotional reactions are often seen on players’ faces in match-deciding moments, providing a sense of character that underpins how the game is panning out. If you’ve just won the tie in the final moments after stoically defending your six-yard box, both you and your on-screen disciples will let the world know.

As such, PES 2018 will make a lot of sense to players who understand football isn’t a sport of relentless attacks and boundless energy. It rewards creativity and adaptability and wants to teach gamers as many off-the-ball skills as those needed in possession.

Serious players now have a vast challenge ahead of them. PES 2018 is a high point in the series and the product of a team that is now confidently yielding the benefits of long-term planning and design.

Offline Game Summary: Gameplay: 9/10, Graphics: 8/10, Modes: 9/10, Overall: 9/10. How will online play impact things when the servers are live?      

Editor’s note: No online functionality, including MyClub mode, was available at the time of writing. PES 2018 is available from September 12 in the United States, followed by a Sept. 14 release in Europe and Asia.

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