Another year, another Pro Evolution Soccer. What do we think? Well, it’s a game of two halves…
The yearly cycle
Sports games are perhaps the most guilty for offering only iterative changes every year, not that there is much that can be done about it. Basketball, football, fake football (sorry American readers), etc… None of them really change significantly, even if rules, players and kits change from time to time.
So when us hopeless suckers for sports games cough up the dough for the latest version, yes, we expect the stuff above, but we often expect a little more. Improvements in gameplay, better graphics, better physics, more features and modes. You know, generally a better game.
What did we get with eFootball PES 2020 aside from a slightly weird mouthful for a new name? It’s a really mixed bag that ranges from the sublime to the absurd.
Off the field changes
The first thing you will notice is the effort Konami put into licencing this year, which is far better than previous incarnations; even getting one over on FIFA with Juventus being licenced on PES only. Although you will still need to faff around with importing option files if you want all the licences. At the basic level though (if you aren’t interested in all that), the game has become very slightly more immersive at the offset.
Otherwise, a few additions have been scattered around the game modes and interfaces of PES 2020. The menus have gone from looking like they came from a PS1 in the 90s to maybe a PS3 game from the mid-2000s, which is progress, I guess. Master league has received a face-lift with some cut-scenes and an interface, which is admittedly a pain to navigate and not clear at all, but continues the theme of moving into the 21st century.
The cut-scenes feel a little odd though. Wooden character models, limited to football legends or random nobodies, lifelessly mouth to subtitles which don’t add much meaning to the game. Coupled with really out of place “chapters” and it makes the experience feel a little too much like someone is forcing us to immerse in a bland narrative, while most of us just want to play football. Other small tweaks to the mode have improved it substantially, not least the transfer system refinement which has actually made Master League playable for more than one season. It seems crazy how so many games can move from awful to good with the tiniest of changes – only developers know why they don’t make them.
Very little else has changed, with other game modes being more or less identical. Match day is a knock off of FIFA’s very similar feature, and it’s about the same level of “erm, skip” as FIFA’s version. But all in all it’s nice to see Konami has made some improvements to the stuff off the pitch.
The beautiful game
On the pitch we can say this for sure: PES 2020 undeniably looks and feels like the most realistic football match you can play in a video game. The movement, the running, the touches, the ball physics, the body shape; if you take away the HUD and turn the camera to broadcast mode you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a real football game.
This translates extremely well to the playing experience (mostly). When charging through the midfield and laying off the ball to a team mate PES 2020 really puts you in the spot of the player, with both the men on the pitch and the ball itself moving in a way which is just so damn pleasing to the eye. The range of animations are great, too. In one scenario our defender (who was facing his own goal) rose highest to header back a clearance in a way that just made sense. And well done to Konami for having such a range of animations that players look so natural all the time, reducing the number of odd glitches we see 5 times a game in FIFA.
Players also manage to have identities in PES 2020. Lucas Torreira wriggles out of challenges and bites into tackles, while Nicholas Pepe dances around the pitch with pace, feeling light and agile, particularly compared to a towering centre half like Sokratis. It gives the tactical elements a whole new factor, with a genuine desire to get balance with the right players on the pitch for your style.
It’s all a stark contrast to FIFA, which for some time has focused more on off the pitch glitz and glamour while leaving the gameplay rigid and hollow. In PES a sweeping pass out to the wing has a weight to it, as the ball skids along the turf. In FIFA it pings like an arrow to the recipient, as if… it’s a video game.
A cold rainy night at Stoke
Unfortunately not all is rosy with the gameplay.
Response times and input delays are perhaps the root cause of many of these issues. For whatever reason, everything takes an age to do. Konami made clear that the game was returning to its “slow, thoughtful” style of play with PES 2020, but that didn’t have to include taking a three-second slow motion wind up to make a 10 yard pass. Nor did it require players with high mobility stats to manoeuvre like an ice berg for seemingly no reason.
These kind of things may be manageable on lower difficulties, but on Top Player, (which is still third from the highest difficulty) it makes some games maddening. Considering that Andres Iniesta, one of the best midfielders of all time, was heavily marketed as advising on the dribbling in this game, it can be bloody awful. Such a shame when the feature came across a little better in the demo.
Due to slow reactions and the enemy AI’s terminator-like defending, dribbling past players is borderline impossible. Either you react too slowly and they step across, or your delayed command makes you move straight into them. Even if you do get goal side, it makes no difference. In one ten-minute game, the enemy AI made eight perfect last-ditch slide tackles that Bobby Moore would have been proud of. Trying to use speedy players to burst past defenders wasn’t any better, and just resulted in muscling off the ball or simply outrunning them.
Although this stuff is frustrating, at least you can assume it’s working as intended. On the other hand, odd little bugs still remain from past iterations of PES, with player switching often being a nonsensical mess, switching to anybody but the player you want. It won’t surprise many PES players that it’s the main reason we conceded goals, frantically smashing LB whilst the cursor skipped around to random players nowhere near the opposition player on the ball. Even if you manage to get the right one, the delay in taking control will often result in your player stopping in their tracks whilst the opposition wanders past.
Other little irritations continue. The refereeing is rubbish, with the same tackle being fine or a red card depending on the day of the week, while infamous bugs like your players just letting the ball roll a yard in front of them with no reaction are just as prevalent as ever. We don’t even need to mention how bad the commentary is, they may even be trolling us by now.
The Highlights Show
At the end of the day, eFootball PES 2020 is actually a very good representation of real life football. We played 10 minute games, and just like a real football match it was either a vibrant, exciting 10 minutes full of action or a game that ended 0-0 with 1 shot a piece.
When it’s good, the beauty and smoothness of the game makes some goals feel incredible. One counter-attacking winner scored in the 89th minute of our career mode summed up everything you want from a football game: the drama, the tension, the tired players launching stretched passes up the field with a neat bit of play in the box, landing at our striker’s feet who lashed it home.
But when its bad, you get a scrappy, slow and stale contest, where a chain of bugs and frustrating moments have you cursing at the screen. Or even worse, just a very boring game with a heavy defending opposition AI and very few chances.
Is it very close to football? Yes. FIFA is an arcade game by comparison, but it may be that always exciting and fun football isn’t the worst thing in the world. The little niggles that lie around every corner happen just a bit too often to make PES 2020 the game we all wanted, and with the FIFA Demo providing some promising gameplay tweaks to FIFA 19, it’s likely to be another year on the bench for Konami’s football sim.