When people – friends, well-wishers, FIFA fans – ask me about PES 2017, I tell them that the crossing is better. Not a particularly glamorous statement, granted, with which to describe the follow up to one of (if not the) greatest football games of all time, but it's true. In a world of GrassTech and BallReality and PlayerFaceMacGuffin and other buzzwords which sound nothing-y and mean even less, it's easier, less exhausting to just say that the crossing, like the passing, like the heading, like the referees, is better.
'Better', of course, is relative. Maybe not in the case of the bastards in black (and lurid yellow) who police the action, because this time they actually give bookings: a step up from last year, when they treated cards with the bemusement and imposter's logic of a man in Clinton's on Valentine's Day. They still sometimes don't give reds for clear, Roy Keane-style fouls, but it's better.
Elsewhere, however, the changes are more iterative than before, and as such are open to interpretation. (By that I mean moaning.) On the whole, PES 2017 feels slower than its predecessor, slightly more measured. Part of this is due to the changes to defenders, who have been tweaked to cope with updated passing and Player ID systems. PES 2016 has the best passing game of any football title, and making it any stronger without touching the defence would see the game tip too far over towards the attackers.
If anything, it may have gone the other way. Defenders are now much more capable of reading threats, reducing the deployment of the reliable cheat goals you know and love. In my playtime, both in single-player and 1v1, old tactics had been stamped out, old foibles reduced or eliminated. (Konami is claiming that its AI now adapts to obvious threats and repeated player behaviour, 'learning' your style, but I didn't play it enough to corroborate that.) Centre backs, when faced with a breaking number ten with two passing options, still sometimes split with the ferocity and stupidity of lovestruck teenagers, but they don't seem to do it as much. Neither are they as easily caught out from corners. Last year you could almost guarantee a goal by hitting the ball over the six yard box with the outside of the kick taker's boot, straight onto the head of whoever was unmarked at the back post. Again, this has been nerfed, with the ball far more likely to be nodded away or otherwise not hit its target.
These are small changes, albeit good ones, but the key to understanding the defensive side of the game – and as such the whole bloody thing – is that all these little elements now mean the first ball doesn't always need to be cut out. You can wait. There's now no need to go steaming headfirst into tackles, or to hopelessly draw your players out with ill-advised prods of square, because a more reliable back four means more chances to deal with incoming danger. Jockeying, movement, and contextual animations were at the fore of PES's dribbling and take-on gameplay last year, and the instinctive, satisfying nature of these battles made it what it was. Stronger defensive units now makes them even more enjoyable, but knowing beaten defenders are likely to be covered changes the way the game is played, gives it a more strategic feel.
It's not just the leg-breakers and shirt-pullers of the game that have been bolstered, however. Offensive players are still a delight to control, with tricky, quick-witted types now possessing a wider variety of tricks, flicks, and body balance positions to shield the ball before playing it. Passing itself is much the same, but now both crosses and clipped, Barca-style through balls are often much flatter, flying and arriving at the same height as the old near post double-tapped cross. It changes the deliveries of both centres and killer passes, and while the over-the-top through ball can still be relied upon, forwards still have trouble taking them down if they're caught under them. Bug, or kind-of fix? Probably a little of both.
Speaking of fixes, critics of PES 2016's goalkeepers will be happy to know that the shot-stoppers' ability to deal with long-range efforts appears to have improved greatly, to the degree that you wonder if they're a little too good (this could, it should be said, also be related to the fact that the demo teams were Germany, France, Arsenal, and Atletico). Trying out some of the old scoring techniques saw them rarely put a foot wrong: curled shots from the corner of the box were dealt with; long, low shots pushed wide. Their animations, too, have been better blended, meaning double saves look more natural. When I did get past them, I rarely felt I'd cheated the game: new, 'heavier' feeling shooting and (particularly) heading mechanics ensured that the series' signature goal feel was still best in class.
Also best in class is player individuality, and not just with regards to the new (and much improved) character models. The Player ID system has been worked on again this year, and it makes PES's players feel much more like their real-life counterparts than in FIFA. Martial has a contextual burst of pace (you may know the one) to go around players, Theo Walcott is lightning but not quite the the crosser he should be, and Giroud could head a ball in from Mars but isn't quite so hot on the first touch. Neuer is now much quicker to sweep up through balls, and Thomas Muller (the self-proclaimed 'Raumdeuter', or space investigator, as wonderfully pointed out by Barney Ronay here) once ghosted in not just in front of his defender but also in front of his own player to score a goal. Poor Ozil, he actually looked surprised.
It feels authentic, even if the game isn't absolutely realistic, and the Player ID stuff is complemented by on-the-fly tactical tinkering: instructing players to flood the box, hug the touchline, or go more attacking or defensive by holding L2 and pressing the appropriate d-pad or shoulder button. It's nothing new, but changing strategy mid-move enables those like Martial to drift out and expose opponents who only know how to counter players, not ways of playing. It's simple and smart, and a good 'in' to the more tactical world of PES.
Unlike last year, though, PES 2017 isn't a great leap forward, more an assured and clever reworking. It's less about features, and more about gamefeel, the hundreds of tiny changes that are instantly apparent when playing, but much less so when watching. Once you've played it, though, you'll instantly 'get' the new changes: more competent defenders, and nice changes to passing, heading, and goalkeeping, and how they all work together. Or, in short, the crossing is better.