Pro Evolution Soccer 2019 on PlayStation 4
Pro Evolution Soccer (PES) has always defined itself through comparison. Its major competitor, FIFA, now dominates the football market, pulling in audiences PES could only dream of having. The gap in the competition was a lot closer back in the early 2000s, with PES having the better gameplay of the two, but losing out on pricey licenses and marketing. The gap in financial backing still exists, despite the franchise’s best efforts to attract some big names and clubs to its roster. The last truly great PES title to release came back in 2006, leaving fans of the series’s simulation-heavy design itching for something substantial. On paper, FIFA and PES seem overtly similar, but PES’s cutting edge can be defined by an old UK-gamer adage: PES is for football fans, FIFA is for kids.
To say that PES 2019 is a return to form would be hyperbole, but the title shows encouraging signs for a series that was almost lost earlier this decade. The past few titles in the series have shown encouraging changes, with this iteration improving the series’ upward curve. The introduction of new licenses, clubs, and stadiums has polished the series up nicely. PES has a calmer, more realistic sense of play. Compared to its competitors, PES nails the essence of football. The series, especially PES 2019, offers unparalleled levels of player involvement on the pitch; never once did I really feel like I was out of control of the action.
That is not to say that PES lacks the odd bit of AI randomness. Sure, sometimes the ball bobbles in an odd way or a pass moves in the wrong direction – this is to be expected in the sports genre. The game shines when attacking, with the title opening up more avenues of scoring than its minted-out rival. PES forces you to play as a real footballer would, opening up scoring opportunities and incentivizing tactical nuance. Instead of focusing on a few methods of effective play, the game rewards thinking outside the box. In roughly 20 hours with the game, new ways of scoring and defeating unconventional defenses presented themselves. Whether it was a scrappy tap-in or a long-range screamer, each goal felt earned.
PES 2019 is the best game to pass a football in, ever. The work put into the passing system is a marvel, with players having a multitude of choices aside from the usual options of direct-pass or through-ball. The range of passing given to players is unparalleled, with each holding onto their own playing style. In one match, an AI-controlled team can quickly change from a tiki-taka style of passing to a high-press, all to hoofing the ball upfield without any sense of artificial warning. PES keeps players on their toes but also rewards them with its diversity of attacks.
Defending, however, is perhaps PES’s weakest on-field issue. This may be down to a lack of playing experience – football games tend to reward long-term commitment – but defending appeared as a direct contrast to attacking. When playing AI-controlled opponents, particularly on higher difficulties, the organization of the defense seemed too convoluted. Minor defense errors were punished far too easily, with one misplaced tackle or movement out of position often ending in a certain goal. This is expected if the game wants to stay realistic, but the degree to which minor mistakes were punished seemed a little out of whack. On more than one occasion, a 3-0 halftime lead resulted in a 4 or 5-3 defeat after a litany of small errors. When the AI is down, it seems to respond by becoming overly clinical.
Despite its defensive frailties, the defending is not much worse than other sports games. Whether its NBA or NHL, the genre struggles with balancing its defensive issues, with each new iteration over-tuning some aspect of its defensive algorithm. Football games, especially, just can’t seem to get the art of defending right, overly rewarding defensive tactics. A player should not have to dread the defensive portion of the game.
The worst part of defending is the lack of reward in counter-attacking. Good defensive play, particularly of the riskier variety, should reward players with an opportunity to score, or at least thread a decent counter-attack together. Instead, AI-controlled opponents seem to sprint back into position at a superhuman speed. Counter-attacks can happen, but the odds appear to have been drastically slashed in this year’s title. This becomes especially frustrating when playing online, which Konami has tried to spruce up a bit for 2019.
As with the past few PES titles, the major online mode is myClub. Sadly, despite changes to the mode’s trading changes and featured players, it still remains disappointing. It’s an obvious attempt to parrot FIFA’s wildly successful Ultimate Team, minus the reliance on having a fat wallet to win. The way PES lags behind on online services is a symptom of its major flaw. A non-football game fan would read this review and question why FIFA dominates so convincingly, especially considering PES’s superior gameplay. It all boils down to PES’s lack of power in licensing, which may seem small, but is, at its worst, a hugely effective method of immersion-breaking.
Imagine, for example, a player who is a West Brom fan. They load up the game, only to find that their beloved Club is named “West Midlands Stripes.” To say that a player would be disheartened would be an understatement. This is worsened by the fact that PES lost its most valuable license, the Champions League, last year, along with a litany of other teams. Realism, at least in terms of transferring teams, leagues, and trophies accurately, is the bedrock of sport-sim games. To not only miss out on substantial licenses for another year, but also lose a major asset, does not bode well for PES’s future in that department.
Again, this initially seems small, but it’s a major force in breaking the game’s appeal as an overall package. With all the evolution on the pitch for PES, the series is threatening to sabotage itself for not innovating off it. PES just feels so janky in comparison to FIFA’s smooth menus, licenses, and online play. Instead of moving into the higher-echelons of accessibility, PES is content with being some odd memento to the past.
When PES has licenses to play with, it does superbly well. Anfield, the Home stadium of English giants Liverpool, is simply beautiful to look at. Stroking the ball around these legendary stadiums – Nou Camp, Old Trafford, etc. – feels sublime; previous iterations feels like husks in comparison. Crowds are more alive than ever, which is refreshing given the genre’s incapability of rendering non-nightmare-inducing fans.
Players and teams maintain a profound sense of identity, with big names holding onto even the smallest of idiosyncracies in-game. It’s a mystery as to how Konami managed to translate the minor details of players in-game so realistically. PES not only feels like a sim in the way it plays but also in the way it presents itself on the pitch. In some ways, it is frustrating to see PES’s respect for these licenses as you can only imagine what the developer would be able to achieve if given a greater licensing reach.
Frustrations only increase with the subpar state of referees. The effects of these frustrations would be blunted if the refereeing was consistent, but the AI appears to fluctuate between overtly-lenient to Puritan levels of punishing. Given the dire state of referees in the real football world, perhaps this is some meditation on the sport’s officiating missteps from Konami, but probably not. Either way, much like referees in real life, PES’s virtual versions are just as temper-tantrum inducing.
When thinking about the refereeing in the game, a realization hit: this has been an issue in PES for a significant time. Recalling to the last PES game I played, back around 2014, the refereeing there was also an issue. Even in the series’s golden years, the consistency of refereeing decisions was suspect. The issue is symptomatic of the series’s Achilles Heel: its refusal to address its most fundamental problems. Other weaknesses such as commentary have been laughably bad since PES’s inception, raising an important question: why does Konami ignore the negative parts of one of its most commercially successful franchises?
These niggly problems all add up. On their own, they could perhaps be forgiven, but when tacked together, they form an anchor for PES’s potential. It’s a shame, really, as the game’s on-field developments should push the series further. By ignoring the smaller details, PES hinders its own success as a sporting sim. PES is lacking behind massively in single-player, for example. After all these years, PES’s manager modes are eclipsed by its competitors, which have since moved onto entire single-player stories.
Whether PES 2019 is a good proposition will depend entirely on the gamer. For me, I can forgive its jankiness. The football, especially going forward, is just so good. Despite this, my admiration of the series will always be stained with a bit of disappointment, wondering what it could be with just a little more evolution.
Score: 3.5/5 – Fair