I was very happy with Pro Evolution Soccer 2017’s gameplay because of the way it felt and the things it allowed me to do in the game, so I was surprised when developer Konami announced that it was changing things up for 2018. I braced for disappointment, but instead I’m beyond relieved. The developer didn’t just tinker with the game for the sake of slapping the word “new” on the box. They improved a vital component of the franchise without changing what was already great.

The gameplay speed is slower than 2017, allowing users to better see, feel, and control players’ touches with the ball. The game is slower, but it’s by no means clunky. While there are still some moments of predetermined possession, if you think you can stretch out that foot for a last-ditch volley on goal or get your foot on the ball to control it and start dribbling on the run, you can do it thanks to the still fluid movement. This sensation is even more remarkable given that the game adds a layer of physicality to the gameplay as players shield the ball and jostle for position. The result of this combination is sophistication, not ugliness. In general, PES’ animations are beautiful but rarely feel contrived or cumbersome.

As highly as I rate PES 2018’s gameplay, legacy issues persist. Even on higher difficulty levels, rapid one-touch passes, give-and-go passes, and through balls can break the lines perhaps too easily, and leave defenses vulnerable. Playing against the A.I., their buildups and attacks can feel the same. However, I liked having to be selective in my defensive movements, because having to recover from a step in the wrong direction or a hesitation often makes an important difference between success and failure.

The Master League career mode also has its additions, although the mode feels less fresh than the gameplay. Small touches like release clauses, a preseason tour, and a new challenge difficulty for the mode (including transfer refusals from some players) are nice, but it still needs an overhaul. Transfer windows lack drama, with the news buried in menus and a lack of Galácticos and large transfer amounts separating the elite from the rest of the pack. I also feel the mode needs more injuries, more variety in the sim engine, and in-depth scouting and youth departments. Konami added more club and league licenses while others like Manchester United and Bayern Munich fall away, and you’ll still have to deal with import files if you want many of your teams, leagues, and competitions to look like they do in real life.

The MyClub fantasy roster mode remains largely the same, but adds 3-on-3 co-op to the play options (co-op is also available for offline play), and trying to level up and receive categorical accolades and MyClub rewards is addicting. Exhibition Random Selection matches similarly offer a different way to experience the game – even if they’re one-off matches – but how this all adds up when you step back and look at the game’s big picture is hard to assess.

I absolutely enjoy playing PES 2018; its gameplay elevates an aspect that was already strong. This is remarkable in and of itself, but also highlights the work still to be done in important areas such as the Master League. The franchise contains a great foundation, and will have to continue to build on it to remain at the top of the table.