Konami has started a Pro Evolution Soccer 2018 online beta for the game's 3-on-3 online co-op play (anyone can join via the PSN and Xbox stores), and after having played a bit of it, I'm impressed with this feature's chances in the fall game.

Online hasn't been the series' forte, but with the success of MyClub, building out PES' online suite of modes is important as it's an area the franchise has trailed competitor FIFA in.

As it stands in the beta, I have questions of how deep the feature is (more on that later), but the experience on the pitch is a lot of fun. Apart from how much I enjoy the gameplay itself (Konami says the online beta uses an older game build, so there's only so many conclusions you can draw from it) one of the mode's core aspects – how it handles player switching among three teammates – is done well.

Each human player on the pitch (you can also play locally with friends by your side and against the computer) is given their own color. Pay attention to which one you are (everyone's name and color are also shown at the bottom of the screen) and you'll be just fine. I played enough games in the beta with enough strangers that even when everyone's constantly switching, it wasn't like I was confused or out of place. Granted, when all hell breaks loose down in front of the net, things get hairy, but again – pay attention to your color and you'll be fine. I say this even though the game auto-switches you at times. In my experience, this happened when a crucial clearance or attempt on goal needed to be made.

One of the tools the game gives you to help with the player switching is that there is a clear icon (versus the colored one for your player) above a crucial non-human player. Pay attention to these, as this is the A.I. player you will control once you switch players.

Apart from the visual cues, perhaps one of the biggest things that makes co-op easy to play in PES 2018 in the beta is the behavior of your A.I. teammates. They are in good positions to support the ball, defend, and to initiate attacks, so it's easy to take control of a player and find yourself ready to help out the team. This isn't a small factor considering that there are only ever three humans on your team that can keep things ticking. And I'll be honest – there were definitely games where the A.I. was doing a much better job keeping my team's shape and discipline than my human teammates were!

Of course, some of the best pieces of advice I can give about having a good co-op experience are fundamental anyway: know your position's responsibility, pass the damn ball, use the radar, and have some patience.

As much fun as I had in the online beta, my one big question is an important one: How deep is the mode? Throughout the game you're given feedback whenever you do well or otherwise, such as when you make a good pass or attempt on goal, or if on the other hand, you make a mistake that leads to a goal. This is all added up and tabulated for an end-of-the-game screen (above, top shot) listing your overall performance and how it stacks up against everyone else. After that there's a screen for the overall profile of your player (above, bottom shot) featuring co-op playing skills and styles.

At the moment I'm not sure where all this leads. Are the skills and styles listed merely showing you what you're good at and what kind of player you are? Or do these skills and styles help you somehow? Are there rewards for your performance? The co-op match screen shows that there are co-op clans, but these weren't available during the beta.

How deep and well-supported the game's co-op options are will go a long way to how successful it is, beyond the fact that it's flat-out fun.

The online beta for PES 2018 runs until July 31 and is free on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

Here's a clip of some 3-on-2 action. The mode scales the player numbers up/down according to who's available. You can also play co-op locally and against the CPU.

Missed some of the previous Sports Desk entries? Take a look at the past installments via our Hub page by clicking on the banner below.

Have a suggestion or comment? Put it in the comments section below, send me an email, or reach me on twitter at @mattkato.

 

INTERVIEW – SABER INTERACTIVE (NBA PLAYGROUNDS) CEO MATTHEW KARCH 

This spring Saber Interactive released NBA Playgrounds, an arcadey title featuring two-on-two gameplay with current and legendary NBA players. The game was the studio's first sports title, and the team is pleased that it has currently sold more than 500,000 units across four platforms (PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and PC), with more than a million units sold expected in the game's first year.

It hasn't all been dunks and celebratory champagne, however. There was a problem rolling out the online portion for the Switch version, which was only recently implemented (fans are getting a free copy of Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn when that game comes). I talked to Saber CEO Matthew Karch about NBA Playgrounds, the difficulties with the Switch, and what's next for NBA and beyond – inside and outside of the realm of sports.

What were the challenges in developing NBA Playgrounds as your studio's first sports game?
The primary challenge was in getting the feel right, and I think we did a solid job of it. We struggled with certain issues that clearly were reflected in the initial launch, such as shot timing, which we addressed in a patch, and rebounding, which is being addressed in the next update [see below for more - ed]. Overall I think we made the game accessible and fun! The challenge for us was to make a game that wasn't as easy as Jam or as realistic as the 2K titles. We tried to hit that balance and judging from the response we did a pretty solid job for our first try. We've learned so much from how the community plays the game; they've helped us refine NBA Playgrounds as fast as possible and guide our direction for future titles.

Will any future updates cut down on the number of player duplicates gamers get in opening packs? Will any future content include new NBA players? 
Yes, one of the fixes we are making is to guarantee new players in packs and we will also include a lot of new players moving forward, including rookies, as well as mascots. We have also gotten a lot of requests for a one-time "pay-to-unlock everybody" feature. While I am not the biggest fan of that mechanic on a personal level – I like earning things in games – it is something we are probably going to do since there have been so many requests for it and it'll always be strictly optional.

Do you expect NBA Playgrounds to be an annualized franchise or more of a perpetual platform that is added onto over time in lieu of a new game? Will microtransactions be added to the game? 
We are considering the best way to do this. We think our best move is likely a new game that takes all the feedback we have received and significantly improves the experience beyond even the updates we're already putting in to NBA Playgrounds. From there we can figure out whether to annualize or to monetize in another fashion, but the game really isn't set up well for microtransactions in its current format, and we've had great success delivering value at a fair price.

Could the Switch version of the game have been released with the online components from day one and not needed a post-release patch at all? 
We did everything we could to get NBA Playgrounds out simultaneously on all platforms and that required certain compromises. The game could not have launched day-one with online play functioning at the right level, no. It was an impossibility due to various factors – many outside our immediate control. Sadly, we only realized this very, very late into the release process. I regret that Switch players had to wait so long for the patch. It just absolutely killed us hearing the community's complaints every day when it wasn't something we could totally control and remedy for them.

Nintendo, the whole time, has been a real pleasure to work with and they are supportive and extremely protective of the Switch, which is a huge success, of course. We needed to navigate some issues with them – it's a brand-new system, so that is understandable – and they were very receptive to us and the particular challenges that our game faces. I doubt very many developers will face these same kinds of issues going forward.

Did Nintendo communicate to Saber that the file size would be a problem before the game came out and the patch was submitted? 
In submission and during the publishing process, there are a great many documented guidelines and policies for developers that are clear, but sometimes waivers for certain of these can be granted. This is ultimately what happened in our case. Nintendo has been extremely gracious and great to deal with, but we simply have a game with a lot of content that was designed to be multi-platform – where different guidelines and policies may exist. We spent a ridiculous amount of time making sure the Switch port felt right on the platform – the potential here was so clear! But we started cross-platform development far in advance of having any access to Nintendo's Switch development resources since the console is so new.

What do you think of Nintendo's online strategy for the Switch in general? 
I am very bullish on the Switch and their online strategy. Nintendo has been making very smart moves and you can tell developers are learning to optimize the system quickly.

Here at Saber we have a very substantial shooter in the works – to be announced soon – based on a major license that runs on our own engine (the same one behind Quake Champions, actually). We have plans to bring that game over to Switch and we feel totally confident about it.

How much of a monetary loss do you expect to take by offering Shaq Fu free to Switch players? 
We expect to take a significant loss since we're giving the game away for free to those qualifying Switch players. But it's a loss that is absolutely worth it – a loss that helps prove Saber is in it to make fun games and make fans happy and that we're willing to go the extra mile and do whatever we can (however crazy it might be) to take care of our customers and fans.

Are there other sports you'd like to try your hand at?
Yes. Absolutely. We want the Playgrounds brand to make its way to other sports. More on that soon!

 

Finally, here's a quick look at the upcoming free Hot Update for NBA Playgrounds (sometime later this summer) introducing a 3-point contest, 33 new players, friend invites, and more.

 

GOING MORE IN-DEPTH INTO MADDEN 18'S GAMEPLAY 

Madden developer EA Tiburon has released a quick teaser video of some new gameplay mechanics in Madden 18 and followed up with some more in-depth blogs on a few specific features. I'm very intrigued at the possibilities of the target passing and DB/WR interactions, and want to get some more hands-on time with them.

A few key questions come to mind, however...

Target Passing: As a QB, will you have to throw the ball earlier to give your receiver time to react to the kind of ball you're throwing or where you throwing the ball to? Mostly, I'm excited to be able to target soft-spots in between zones – particularly those instances where you want to lead the receiver up the field. In past games, when I pressed up on the stick for a throw, I was never sure if I was leading the receiver up the field or just throwing a high pass, which is different. Also, I'm curious how players react to balls thrown into space. Will magnet catches apply for both receivers and defensive backs for passes which should otherwise fall harmlessly out of reach?

DB/WR Interaction Mechanics: While supremely important for MUT Squads, these also apply to the gameplay of other modes, which is sweet. While most people don't play as a defensive back because it's too risky, this adds a nice chess game within the chess game. Since the blog specifically states that even the A.I. uses these interactions when you're not controlling a WR or DB directly, I'm very curious how much these are surfaced from play to play. Because if you really see different outcomes for each receiver route when you're a QB, that's going to be huge.

Game Styles: I didn't think much of this feature when it was announced, but the more I read about it the more I'm intrigued. Personally, I'm more of a sim game-style player, but the inclusion of the competitive style brings up a good point – during a game how much do I expect my play to be rewarded versus seeing the game stick to more realistic outcomes based on player ratings and real-life stats? It's not a question that Madden 18 or any game for that matter can really answer, but it's good that players now have a choice to skew it toward their own preference.

 

RELEASE LIST 

Madden NFL 18 (PS4, Xbox One) - August 25
F1 2017 (PS4, Xbox One, PC) - August 25
Everybody's Golf (PS4) - August 29
Pro Evolution Soccer 2018 (PS4, Xbox One, PC, PS3, 360) - September 12
NASCAR Heat 2 (PS4, Xbox One, PC) - September 12
NHL 18 (PS4, Xbox One) - September 15
NBA 2K18 (PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, PS3, 360) - September 19
Project Cars 2 (PS4, Xbox One, PC) - September 22
FIFA 18 (PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, PS3, 360) - September 29

 

THE TICKER
A quick rundown of some of the sports news from the week

NBA 2K18 First Screens  

More Information On NHL 18's Offensive Dekes, Defensive Skills & 3-On-3 EASHL 

F1 2017 Includes McLarens In Its Classic Car Roster 
The classic lineup also includes Renault, Ferrari, and more.

PES 2018 Partners With the International Champions Cup 
Konami's soccer franchise hooks up with the pre-season tour (currently in America, China, and Singapore right now) featuring top club teams like Barcelona, PSG, and A.C. Milan. The deal, however, seems limited to onsite-promotions and MyClub agents for some of the players and teams competing in the ICC. As of the time of this writing, it does not seem to mean the game has the official license to include teams like Manchester City, for example, in PES 2018. I'm not even sure it means the ICC is included in the game (such as a part of the Master League career mode). If I find out otherwise, I'll let you know.

R.B.I. Baseball 17 Going to Switch on September 5 

The 32-Driver Camping World Truck Series Lineup & Eldora Trailer