Last year we saw Pro Evolution Soccer take a bow on the current generation of consoles after missing out during the first year of their respective life cycles; it was definitely a positive debut appearance. There were a few flaws here and there, and it's certainly true that Konami was left with plenty of areas where they might add improvements, but the foundations laid down in PES 2015 were rock solid. More so, you could argue, than they were in FIFA 15.
While EA's game lost focus when it came to certain gameplay elements (and this is precisely what EA Sports is trying to turn around in FIFA 16), PES 2015 had a clearly defined path to follow. PES 2016, as far as the demo allowed us to see, continues following down this course. The game is fluid and the controls provide an excellent representation of football. One of the points that Konami has highlighted while promoting their new game is the enhanced artificial intelligence of the players on the pitch, and that becomes immediately apparent as soon as you get into it. The player's team more frequently and effectively looks for space on the field and in behind the defence, which in turn facilitates the search for passing lanes - even if the opposite is also true.
It's during the defensive manoeuvres that the AI reveals the biggest improvements. Teams are now better at closing gaps and marking their opponents, forcing the player to move the ball further and more incisively, especially against a solid defence (on the counterattack it is naturally easier to find space and play a more direct game). Comparing it to FIFA 15, where the defensive mechanics have some serious limitations, it was a delight to find a football game that allows one to put effective pressure on the ball carrier. Using clever support for the second player, the positioning of the first player when intercepting passes, and the improvements to the defensive AI, you can put effective pressure on any opponent. Obviously, if that pressure is not applied adequately, you will be vulnerable elsewhere on the pitch, something that can be exploited by an intelligent adversary. And you should also be weary of the players' stamina if you intend to aggressively pressurise your opponent, because tired players track back less effectively.
It should also be noted that the AI can handle pressure a lot better than is the case with FIFA 15, there the AI kicks the ball forward, or even off pitch, way too often (maybe you can tell, we played a lot of last year's offering from EA Sports). That said, there are also aspects where PES 2016 can improve. AI-controlled defenders seem particularly soft while operating within their own penalty box, leaving the door open to attackers more than would be desirable. With short passes to the forwards, we managed to shoot and score quite a bit, in situations the defender could have and should have done a lot more to block the shot.
Control-wise, Pro Evolution Soccer 2016 plays like a charm, even if the absence of the First Touch option is hard to cope with for a player more used to FIFA controls. In this area there's no massive injection of new features (compared to last year), but Konami has made a big effort to improve the physical interactions between players. While battles for the ball are more intense, there appear to be several new contextual animations that represent player interactions. In an interview with Gamereactor, Adam Bhatti confessed the studio's fear of technical problems related to the new engine that manages these physical confrontations, but during the games we've played we found no major problems. Incidentally, the physics system seems to be much stronger than we have seen recently in FIFA (Youtube is well-stocked with thousands of videos that show odd reactions from players during physical contact).
When it comes to PES we didn't see any of these issues (which doesn't mean they aren't possible, it just means we haven't seen them yet), and the system that adds increased physicality to the game seems well implemented. There are plenty of animations that depict various situations all over the field of play, with different types of control and ball protection. A delicious element of PES 2016 is the aerial ball control. There are many touches - with foot, head and knee - that allow the game to flow even if it's being played at mid-height. There are moments when a player controls the ball, and within the right context, it can be a feast for the eyes. As for the goalkeeper, we haven't encountered any major problems in their behaviour, and they always seemed to act realistically, even when conceding goals.
Having said all that, not everything was positive. Graphically, PES 2016 fails to impress. Although player faces are decent and the animations are really nice, the overall visual quality is lesser than its main rival, or even what might be expected in any current-gen sports game. As it stands it still seems too much like an improved version of the old-gen game, and not a true next generation PES. In this regard there is still much room for improvement.
Another element that doesn't impress is the celebrations, which now seem a mix between the old PES and what FIFA has done in recent years. You can now control the celebrations and choose the animations for the cutscene, but they still lack quality and organic flow. It's a step in the right direction but it is far from what we've seen elsewhere in other sports titles. The same can be said about the interface and menus, which remain archaic and in need of overhaul. Besides lacking elegance, the design is also quite confusing. For example, while PES 2016 may have many tactical options open to the player, browsing this menu can be needlessly tricky.
The playable demo for Pro Evolution Soccer 2016 left us with a good feeling. There's great promise here, and we're looking forward to seeing what Konami's offering can achieve come September 17. It's an extremely solid football game that allows for quality matches, and it's complemented by exemplary controls. While there are still many areas where it could improve, it's easy to see why Konami is confident ahead of next month's release (as Adam Bhatti admitted in the interview below). The demo for PES 2016 has given us a glimpse of what it can do, showing us some silky skills that will no doubt once again threaten FIFA's reign at the top of the table. Now the ball is firmly in EA's court as we wait to see what they can deliver with FIFA 16.