Plot the progress of the Pro Evolution Soccer series onto a graph and its trajectory wouldn't look drastically different to that of Liverpool FC. From humbler beginnings, both PES and Liverpool have experienced once-unimaginable highs that eventually nose-dived into unthinkable lows.
Where Liverpool were once the untouchable champions of Europe and England, Manchester United stepped up to take their place. PES, whose releases throughout the PS2 era saw it revolutionize the game of digital soccer, dropped the ball with the onset of the PS3 and Xbox 360 and allowed EA Sports' FIFA run away with title after title.
Thanks to Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool, however, and the masterful outing that was last year's PES 2016, the outlook for these two former champions is looking brighter than it has in a decade.
Both club and game are seeking to build on recent gains in confidence by focusing on the style of soccer on the pitch, rather than the elements surrounding it. In the case of PES 2017, its dev team is setting out to offer its players a more realistic form of soccer, rather than focusing on new game modes or official player and team licences.
Presumably in an effort to galvanize itself an ever stronger and more committed niche within the sports gaming space, PES 2017 is wholeheartedly dedicating itself to realism. Virtually every change between last season and the upcoming one is explicitly focused on creating a closer resemblance with what you see on TV, even if that means the learning curve and volume of options is, for some, going to be difficult to comprehend.
While FIFA appears more interested in providing a flash, fantastical interpretation of the game (with its abundance of skill moves and predilection for attacking players), PES 2017 is more grounded in replicating the fundamental building blocks of team play.
For instance, a new advanced tactics system allows you to define how you want your team to act, with options for both when in possession and when chasing it. Prior to kick-off, you can assign defensive and attacking systems to the D-pad that can be cycled through whenever you see cause to do so.
If you want your fullbacks to be responsible for creating all of the width in your team, then you can employ the "attacking full backs" approach, triggering your forward players to drop inside in order to be ready to receive the ball from wide. Alternatively, the "false fullbacks" option brings your wide players to the middle and help dominate the battle through the central areas.
In defense it could be that you want to fill your own penalty area with as many players as possible to prevent goals being conceded from crosses, or play a high line to catch that aggressive striker offside. There are many options to choose from, and it's wise to practice with all of them in order to both be ready to face opponents of all dispositions and to give yourself as many routes as possible to recover from a losing position.
PES 2017's revamped AI, I'm told, actively learns player patterns, which compounds the need to educate yourself on how tactical approaches can ideally operate in different situations. If you consistently seek to load up in the middle of the park then you can expect your digital counterpart to either bring in more midfielders or seek to play the ball out wide as quickly as possible to make use of the space you've vacated. With only about ten games under my belt, it's difficult to tell how intelligent PES 2017's AI is at this point. However, the focus on implementing adaptive AI highlights just how seriously Konami wants you to think about the "why" of your actions as opposed to simply the "how".
Such details carry over into even the simplest of actions, such as controlling the ball. Players are noticeably better at using their first touch to direct where the ball will end up after receiving a pass. Think fast and you can immediately tap the ball in a direction that will embarrass the opposing defender as he skids past you, giving you time to consider your options. A skillful striker can swivel and take the ball on his chest in one motion, potentially leading to a shooting opportunity that wouldn't otherwise have arisen. On the other side of the coin, a keeper who is good with his feet, such as Manuel Neuer, can overcome a poor back pass from a defender by neatly using the outside of his foot to trick a rushing attacker into guessing the wrong angle to attempt a tackle.
Indeed, goalkeepers seem to have undergone several key improvements. They react much more quickly to shots, positioning themselves more intelligently before the ball is fired towards them, and get up off of the floor with more urgency if the ball is still in play after their initial save. Keeper quality, or lack thereof, was one of the major disappointments with PES 2016, so it's nice to see the problem being addressed.
It is important to state here, though, that we've only played with the world class goalkeepers that guard the sticks for Arsenal, Atletico Madrid, Germany, and France. To continue with the Liverpool analogy, it's difficult to believe Simon Mignolet (or is it Karius now?) is going to be quite so impressive.
Should Mignolet somehow surprise us all next season and become the player that he hinted he might be in his younger years, then that upgrade should be represented through weekly updates. PES 2016 suffered for not providing regular tweaks to player ability, and failing to keep the game up to date with the latest transfers, but the plan is to fix that.
A patch will be rolled out on launch day that updates rosters to take into account the latest transfer activity, and that is to be followed up with weekly player stat alterations that reflect recent performances. Whoever turns out to be next season's surprise hit, in the vein of Marcus Rashford or N'Golo Kante this past season, can be expected to enjoy a significant stat boost.
As welcomed as such boosts are, the most important progression here concerns the series itself. PES 2016 provided ample evidence of Konami's ability to continue to create a soccer game that can compete with FIFA on the pitch, and it's vital that that momentum isn't lost next season.