Release Date: Sept. 10, 2019
Platform: PS4 (reviewed), XBO, PC
Developer: PES Productions
Genre: Sports sim
If you really tried, you could probably separate famous soccer players into two distinct camps: there are the workmanlike players who get the job done in an unfussy way, and then there are the showboaty players that pull unexpected tricks out of the bag. If we had to categorize soccer-inspired video games in the same way, eFootball: Pro Evolution Soccer 2020 would definitely fall into the former camp – it’s a solid simulation of the beautiful game, with a strong array of team licenses by Pro Evo standards, but as an overall experience, it’s not going to blow your socks off.
Gameplay-wise, as anyone who played the demo could tell you, playing against your mates in PES 2020 is a really enjoyable way to spend some time. Compared to a lot of games in recent years, it feels like a more faithful adaptation of actual footy matches. There’s a miss-kick mechanic that means lesser-rated players aren’t able to make amazing first-time passes on the turn, for instance, which stops the artificial overabundance of tiki-taka from creeping into proceedings. And there’s also a sense that switching up your tactics during the match – which you can do using shoulder buttons and the D-pad – can have an actual impact on how well your team plays and how well the opposition will be able to stop your attacks.
Also, pulling off skill moves takes a fair bit of practice, which forces you to rely on putting intelligent moves together and looking for openings instead. Free kicks aren’t easy, either, and neither is shooting from a distance. Tackling feels like it has real weight behind it, which puts extra importance on marking your man, jostling for the ball, and waiting for the right opportunity to pounce (rather than sliding in recklessly). All of these different nuances combine to make PES 2020 matches feel scrappy, tactical, and thoughtful. The graphics are also great: just when you thought you couldn’t see a more HD facsimile of Messi or Ronaldo or a crowd or a stadium, Konami manages to increase the fidelity to impressive new levels.
Unfortunately for PES 2020, players that have been buying soccer sims for years will expect a certain amount of off-the-pitch sheen and a decent collection of new features from each new purchase. This is where Konami’s latest offering falls down. Almost everything that isn’t a match looks cheap, from the boringly static menus to the eye-hurting in-game graphic that accompanies the never-ending barrage of replays. The commentary is also repetitive and unremarkable, which will make you want to reach for the mute button and put some music on instead. And on top of all that, none of the ways of playing feel fresh or new, which doesn’t look great when you consider that EA is on the verge of unveiling FIFA 20 with its big new Volta street football mode.
In PES 2020, you can play matches locally or online in all the usual ways, with plenty of “eFootball” tournaments available for play right now. You can also partake in a single-player Master League, managing a team of players (either real or made up – your choice) through season after season of fixtures. Or you can try Become A Legend, which has all the same menus as Master League but focuses on the career of a single player (you can either choose a real player or design one yourself). These modes feel much the same as the ones you could’ve played on PES ten years ago, with the modern-day graphics, players, and licenses being the only discernible differences.
Much has been made of the addition of real managers like Diego Maradona to Master League, but there is no voice acting from any of these stars and the game is the same whichever manager you chose. If you were hoping for a bit of a story to go with such a surprising appointment as Maradona taking over Spurs, or perhaps some spoken dialogue from the man himself, you won’t find it here. (Again, after three years of fully-voiced storytelling in FIFA‘s The Journey, it feels like PES has missed a trick here.)
Or you could try your hand at MyClub, the PES equivalent of FIFA‘s Ultimate Team, which sees you assembling a squad of iconic players and taking part in matches (either against the PC or online with real people) to earn points and buy more players. You can also spend real money in this mode through microtransactions, which is sadly par for the course these days. MyClub is arguably the most enjoyable mode in PES 2020, allowing you to blend legends like Ronaldinho and Pavel Nedved into teams with current players. Also, the “player signing” animations in this mode are the only off-the-pitch moments that look visually impressive. Even though it is a fun way to spend some time, this mode doesn’t really offer anything that players can’t get elsewhere.
PES 2020 is really more of the same, then. It’s devoid of bells and whistles, and it doesn’t pull any tricks out of the bag that you weren’t expecting, but it gets the job done and allows you to play some virtual soccer that feels pretty close to the real thing. We can’t see it knocking FIFA off its pedestal, though.