It is the World Cup Quarter Final between Scotland and The Netherlands. After ninety minutes of pulsating action the score is 3-3. Scotland manage to grab another goal in extra time but the Dutch pull one back just before the end to force a penalty shoot out. After initial successful kicks from both teams Scotland’s James McFadden misses only to see Ruud van Nistelrooy score for The Netherlands who end up progressing. The Scots, who had been the surprise package of the tournament up until now by coming through a group that included Italy and Nigeria, are heartbroken.
This is, of course, pure fantasy and actually took place during a play through of Pro Evolution Soccer 5 on the Playstation 2. It lives long in the memory however because it was one of the occasions that PES stopped being a football game and instead became something much more like actual football in emotions with highs and lows. I had taken my plucky Scotland team all the way through the qualifying rounds (that away trip to Ukraine was a bit of a banana skin) and into the tournament proper before getting out of a difficult group. We even won our first knockout round match to be drawn against the Dutch in the last eight. For a short while I was a bit gutted at losing out. I could have just restarted and tried again but the thought of going through the whole ringer again was too much. I’d learnt this fact the hard way during all my years of playing Championship Manager. The defeat had happened, there was no changing that now.
During the PS2 era I worked in a small games shop and, upon each new PES release, one customer would go home with his copy and edit in all the proper kits, sponsors and player names before returning a few days later so we could copy his file over to our shop memory card. One year we even had a 16 team knockout tournament in store. There was a cup draw beforehand which involved drawing balls out of a machine whilst a crowd of onlookers huddled around the counter. When the tournament got going proper we played matches on a big TV in store and people who had no interest in gaming actually walked in off the street because they thought we were watching real football. Many of them stuck around and watched it as real football even when they were told otherwise.
It was always said at the time that the perfect football game would be PES matched with the licensing power of FIFA. Little did we know that from FIFA 09 onwards it would be EA that would march into the lead as Konami struggled to get PES up and running on the PS3 and 360. For the next few years I switched over to FIFA, leaving only happy memories of PES. FIFA had the kits, it had the stadiums, it had the top flight players scanned in. The reputation EA had gathered for having an engine based more on pinball than football had been eradicated. PES suddenly seemed like it was constantly lower division.
I was all set to repeat my annual process of picking up FIFA this year until I played the PES 2016 demo on my PS4. Something had changed with the old series, something for the better. PES had always fell down in recent years as feeling a bit rigid and inflexible. In this demo however there was flowing football and, much more than that, it feels like football. When you’re a goal up going into the last ten minutes the AI will make efforts to get that goal back. Unlike some other games it won’t just throw players forward, instead making smart decisions. Even during the demo the feeling existed that you were playing a game of tactics and using players to their strengths.
FIFA 16’s demo suddenly felt old in comparison. The usual FIFA official glitz was there but the core gameplay was based on charging towards goal regardless of what team you were going as. Tactics also seemed fairly generic and without any detail. If losing lump everybody forwards, if winning stick everybody back. There was a flow to PES this year that FIFA lacked. For the first time in around seven years I found myself back with Konami.
It’s a decision I do not regret. Fair enough, the lack of licenses in some aspects is grating to begin with but downloading PS4 option files from sites such as PES World more than makes up for it. It might be slightly more effort but it works a charm once you’ve put the time in to get it just right. The core gameplay of Pro Evolution Soccer 2016 also seems much more fun because there’s more to it than running and gunning. Whilst FIFA seems intent on making me play Ultimate Team every year (a mode I don’t have any great passion for) PES seems to have finally worked out a plan of just being fun to play out of the box.
It hit home in a big way the other night whilst I continued my career game of managing Lazio. I was fourth in Serie A going into November but faced a tough away game against AC Milan at the San Siro. Not wanting to ruin a good run of results by trying to blast through one of the biggest names in Italian football on their own turf I played a cagey game. There were few clear cut chances in a 0-0 draw but I was happy to take a point back with me. The game was also still enjoyable even though the game wasn’t an end to end thriller but then again, nor is real life football on occasion. The engine behind PES 2016 is comfortable in doing both the all out attack play and the grind out stuff without making it feel like the game is somehow trying to force you into one or the other.
It’s moments like these that take the series back to the glory days of the Playstation 2 era. The multiplayer also gives rise to fantastic times as a tense battle between Scotland and England when a friend came round gave a fine example of. It seems Pro Evolution is on the comeback trail and I’m happy to welcome it back.