In the annual football sim faceoff, fans of Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer have always hung their scarves on the idea that PES is far superior on the pitch than monied rival FIFA. It is the purists’ choice; more concerned with the minutiae of the beautiful game than pixel-perfect stadiums or a sprawling selection of time-gobbling modes.
It has been a justifiable position for football artisans; at its best, nothing can touch PES on the pitch. And, for the most part, this is true of PES 2020. But there are some startling areas where Konami seem to have dropped the ball.
More on which in a moment. But it feels churlish to go in with two feet on PES 2020’s flaws when it is also game capable of creating such unbridled joy. In full flow it remains the king. Matches are fizzling and unpredictable things, taking on a life of their own as teams with differing approaches clash both physically and tactically.
PES has always had a knack for spontaneity, balls bobbling with realistic unpredictability as players snap into tackles, scuffed passes causing havoc in your own backline, gorgeous through balls curled around the full-back with the outside of a boot. More so than its polished rival, PES’s matches writhe and momentum shifts without the suspicion of scripted actions making it so.
This is no more evident than when it comes to tactical nous. Matches can be won or lost on your managerial ingenuity as much as your skill on the ball or players at your disposal. As a football video game, many opponents online’s instinct is to pick a phenomenally talented team and crash through the backline with Ronaldo or Messi pulling the strings.
But you can also pick up wins against more gifted sides by setting your team up to soak up pressure. Place your defenders deep and nick the ball from an oncoming winger’s feet as they wait for space that never comes. It is endlessly customisable and makes noticeable differences on the pitch. It is, perhaps more than anything else, what makes PES 2020’s moment-to-moment match-ups so fascinating.
But such sharpness highlights the glaring, uncharacteristic errors elsewhere. Player switching is particularly egregious, often swapping to the wrong player at the wrong time or, in some occasions, failing to swap at all. Your Mourinho-esque gameplan is worth squat if your carefully placed defensive trio is left standing still because the game is convinced you want to stay as the isolated forward on the right-wing.
The AI, in general, is a noticeably patchy issue for PES 2020. In attack, the marauding overlap from wingers and full-backs will often not emerge, no matter how you have your team set-up, killing counter-attacks stone dead. While in midfield and defence, players will often simply ignore balls that are millimetres from their feet. Not in an ‘ooh, just missed it’ way, but a noticeable failure of the AI to register what’s going on.
One particularly egregious example had a winger storming down the left touchline, only to fluff the cross and the ball pea-rolling towards the penalty spot. No fewer than four of my own players let it drift harmlessly past them with nary a glance before a striker, scarcely believing his luck, tapped it into the net.
Admittedly I was playing as Watford and, if you have seen their defensive performances this season, maybe it was indeed art imitating life. But there seems something undeniably broken in certain aspects of PES 2020 that are enormous frustrations in the light of how superb it can be.
The problem for Konami is that if its peerless on-pitch action comes under question, the rest of its game’s more traditional flaws become less easy to forgive. It has become almost pointless to complain about PES’s idiosyncrasies; commentary so dreadful I’m more convinced each year that it's a deliberate gag, unattractive and unintuitive menus, the unavoidable lack of licensing.
(On the latter point, PES 2020 has done away with the weird pseudonyms for teams and seemingly just added on letters to avoid the wrath of EA’s lawyers. So it’s goodbye London FC and hello Chelsea B. Konami also continue to make it increasingly easy to import fan-made kits on PS4 and PC)
Much of this can be down to not having the budget of moneybags FIFA, but this means inventive solutions elsewhere in its modes. Unfortunately, PES 2020 hasn’t shown much improvement at its marquee modes. The single-player Master League is good fun but entirely familiar aside from some strange cutscenes with interactive dialogue.
MyClub, Konami’s spin on FIFA’s Ultimate Team, is perhaps not as cynically cash-and-time grabbing as EA’s game. But it also simply isn’t as good. It is remarkably generous in its opening stages, throwing top-level players at you with abandon. Which is a pleasing way to kick-off, but thereafter the mode remains muddled and uninviting.
Showing more promise is the new online ‘Matchday’ mode, which allows you to contribute to a certain team in weekly rival showdowns. It’s difficult to judge that mode’s longevity so early on in PES 2020’s lifespan, but it is an idea with a degree of playfulness that PES’s other modes rather lack.
All of which points to a brilliant but often frustrating game of football with problems to address. On the pitch, you can see Konami patching some of the more egregious issues sooner rather than later. The wider, long-standing issues may be trickier to tackle, but at least it will be able to re-stake its claim as the best-playing football sim on the market.
But to paraphrase the old footballing cliche: you can only review what is in front of you. And currently, PES 2020 seems out of form.
- eFootball PES 2020 is out now for PS4, Xbox One and PC