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

20 years ago, a wee football/soccer game by the name of Goal Storm hit store shelves in time for Christmas in North America. Today, that game is known as Pro Evolution Soccer and, staying true to its namesake, has evolved over the years in order to deliver a fun, intense, and realistic football gaming experience. Konami’s 20th anniversary title, Pro Evolution Soccer 2016, delivers in every way, making it one of the best football sims available on the market as well as one of the best games in the series’ history.

Features

PES 2016 contains various modes that longtime fans of the franchise and casual sports gamers have come to expect. There’s an exhibition mode for quick, no-nonsense gaming as well as deeper modes such as the Master League, where players coach their team of choice, and Become A Legend, where players lead a footballer from a young buck to retirement, as well as various online competitions.

As a coach, the Master League presents the player with numerous off-the-pitch challenges such as keeping a team financially sound, keeping the players paid on time, training players, and more. There’s also a different version of Master League known as myClub, which is more of a fantasy football-style mode mixed with elements of Master League.

The game also includes, as it has in the past, the official tournament licenses for the Champions League, Europa League, Copa Libertadores, Copa Sudamericana, and Asian Champions League. Once again, gamers can relive the spectacle of these tournaments with any participating team of their choice.

Unfortunately, the game’s licensing continues to lack in this department. Real-life teams and leagues are few and popular leagues such as the Premier League are represented with stand-ins. It leads to some very odd situations. I couldn’t help but let out a little laugh as I controlled the members of Marseille to victory over Merseyside Red and their squad packed with talented players such as Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard. The digital versions of Gerrard and Sturridge were accurate down to the bone structure, yet the lack of licensing meant they couldn’t don their familiar red kits of Liverpool FC. All this in an official Champions League match!

This isn’t a problem for anyone playing PES on Windows. There are plenty of unofficial patches and mods for the game that will edit all the unlicensed teams to their real-life counterparts for anyone who so wishes. PS4 owners will also be able to take advantage of Option Files to edit teams.

Gameplay

There was once upon a time when PES wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, especially when compared to other football sims available on the market. In recent years, Konami and PES Productions have closed that gap.

In my preview story for PES 2016 vs. FIFA16, I explained how PES’ controls are so intuitive that it sometimes feels as if the game is reading your mind. Nothing has changed from demo to final product. The controls remain tight and responsive to the same degree. PES is designed to assist players by default (computer-assisted anything can be edited) and controlling top-ranked players such as Leo Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo will yield jaw-dropping results that will send any fan into fits of happy hysterics. Did you really just juke two defenders, jump over a slide tackle, and blast the ball into the opposite corner of the net? Yes, in fact, you just did, and there’s a great replay of it too!

The pace of the game remains fluid no matter what style of football a player decides to play. Do you favor tiki-taka antics of possession and control? Are you the type to sit back and counter at the right opportunity? Do you like to wreck your opponents with hard tackles? PES supports every style imaginable and the pacing of the game never suffers throughout.

This year’s edition feels like PES 2015 but with just the right edits, touches, and additions all around for an improved experience. It’s the right balance between a hardcore simulation and a no-frills arcade game.

Graphics

This is one pretty game. The character models are top-notch and the likenesses of many famous players are represented in-game. The series’ trademark “sheen” remains to give the game its own distinct shine and look. Player reactions are realistic and there are plenty of small details littered throughout for that extra “umph” of realism, such as the beads of sweat that run down a player’s forehead or their reactions to what should have been a clear shot on goal.

There were very few instances of clunky collision detection though. One of my players swept his leg through both defender’s leg in one instance. Other than that, the collision engine is spot-on and player reactions to tackles are realistic.

There is one very ENORMOUS drag in the graphics side of the game. The game suffers from horrible lag and slowdown, something I’ve witnessed in roughly 90% of the matches I’ve played offline. The game freezes and the action stops entirely before stuttering back to life at a rate of 5 frames a second or something that ridiculously slow. It’s a jolting experience every time it happens, and it happens far too often.