Platforms: Xbox One (Reviewed), PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, PC

There is no better metaphor for Konami’s place in the football video game rat race than the one the company unwittingly supplied on the physical cover of Pro Evolution Soccer 2018, which features a few of the faces of FC Barcelona. There’s living legend Lionel Messi shoulder to shoulder with Luis Suarez, one of the most lethal strikers in the world today, who is flanked on his other side by Neymar who… left the club to join Paris Saint-Germain over the summer after a long “will he or won’t he?” ordeal in the press.

It’s a reminder of Konami’s trajectory over the past few years as it has run neck and neck with Electronic Arts and its FIFA franchise, the company’s only competition in the digital football world. Konami once ruled the land with Winning Eleven/Pro Evolution Soccer. EA flexed its PR muscle and slowly accrued numerous licenses over the years which endeared the series to more gamers in what exceedingly became a one-horse race. Konami has slowly closed the gap between it and its competitor, especially in recent years, but not without risk, as the fiasco with Neymar still in his Barcelona jersey shows.

In the company’s quest to upstage its competitor, mistakes are bound to happen. This year, it’s the Neymar problem. Two years ago, PES16 hit shelves without a Day One update to for the team rosters. That update took nearly a month to arrive. EA’s title was on shelves by then with up-to-date rosters and tons more licensed properties.

Sadly, it’s the same old story as the past few years with PES. It’s a strong gameplay product held back by the same familiar limitations.

Solid gameplay once again

In terms of gameplay, PES18 doesn’t reinvent the franchise in any meaningful way but, rather, tweaks it in a number of places. The controls are great, building on an established foundation with a few added refinements. There are plenty of technical phrases and jargon to describe it all (Real+ Touch, Full Body Touch, Base Layer Revolution, etc.). What it adds up to is a very realistic experience, especially when using licensed teams whose players all behave accordingly.

Playing as Lionel Messi can feel like playing as a human cheat code. Defensive man Rod Fanni exploits offensive spaces every time he gets the chance. Watching Steve Mandanda between the sticks is a different experience than watching backup keeper Pele, who has a nasty habit of popping up every ball that flies his way. It’s incredible to play as Borussia Dortmund just to play as Aubameyang and pop the ball into any corner of the net.

Defending can be a bit rough at times. There’s a massive gap in reaction time that occurs after losing possession that is as frustrating as it is infuriating. It can feel as if the game’s AI forces your player to stand and gawk for a second after a missed tackle. Not to mention that one can chase down a defender with the press of a button or two but it leaves that defender susceptible to a simple juke nearly 90% of the time, and sends the defender flying into the stands. Well, maybe it's not quite that bad, but when even the most novice winger can make a talented fullback look like a total n00b...Houston, we have a problem!

Long story short, defending can feel a bit off and unforgiving at times, and it’s an aspect that Konami still needs to address.

Modes and presentation 

The title includes the same modes as usual: Exhibition, Online Matches/Tournaments (including online co-op), PES League, individual tournaments for the Champions League, Europa League, and AFC Champions League, League, Cup, myClub, Master League, and Become A Legend. All are accessible from a new menu screen that is cleaner and more pleasing to the eye.

What isn’t pleasing to the eye, as always, is the number of fake teams included due to lack of licensing. There are three official English teams (Arsenal, Liverpool, and Fulham) spread across two English divisions. Ditto for the two Spanish divisions featuring Barcelona, Atletico De Madrid, and Valencia. As such, there are no super clásicos for PES players unless they can pretend MD White is a suitable enough replacement. The hardcore PES community have most likely already created custom files to replace the fake clubs with their real-life counterparts by this point in time for PC and PS4 gamers to take advantage of.

The title does include the French first and second divisions as well as the top leagues in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, along with a handful of specially licensed teams.

Gamers who like to play myClub will have access to dozens of footballing legends to add to their custom squads. David Beckham, Diego Maradona (who at one point threatened to sue Konami), Ian Rush, Robbie Fowler, Steven Gerrard, Romario, Socrates, Lars Ricken, Javier Zanetti, and many others are available.

I didn’t get to test much of the online portions of the game, as it was still early days when I wrote this review and there weren’t enough other people online  (especially for a 3v3 co-op match). I anticipate that this specific mode will be an enormous fan/crowd pleaser in countries like Peru and Argentina where PES remains the favored footie title among fanatics. Oddly enough, neither the Copa Libertadores nor the Copa Sudamericana returned this year, just as last year.

PES League will keep competitive players coming back for more. The e-sports side of the franchise continues to grow in popularity each year, and it’ll be fun and interesting to watch the competition unfold.