As PES 2020 was installing on the Xbox, I kept wondering whether the ‘eFootball’ was a result of some new sponsorship that Konami may have struck with Pro Evolution Soccer. When I finally fathomed that it really signified Konami’s rather literal switch to the eSports arena, it felt like a very subtle nudge at Electronic Arts’ colossal FIFA franchise — a sneaky nudge at an opponent’s shins, if you will. Was this Konami’s subtle hint that multiplayer football tournaments may no longer be a certain monopoly of FIFA’s?
About a week into playing it, I’m pretty certain that it most likely is. While such things really depend on your own perception, this actually says a lot about the Pro Evolution Soccer franchise. In many ways, Konami has acknowledged through PES 2020 that no review or discussion about it would not involve talks about EA Sports’ FIFA. Not in a submissive way, though — in more cases than one, eFootball PES 2020 is a bigger, broader-shouldered, shinier and more mature title than ever before, and it maintains the fine balance of eating into FIFA’s own territory, while capitalising on its core strengths.
From the moment you start playing PES 2020, you realise that the gameplay has… changed, and there’s no simple answer to whether it’s for better or worse. The new changes made the first few minutes into my PES game time a bit awkward -- shots that would otherwise streak goalward like an arrow kept flying haywire, tackles led to more fouls than I’ve ever committed, and on overall terms, the matches felt more like physical scruffles, rather than a fluid, sweeping game of football.
However, a few hours in, and I started getting the hang of all the changes that Konami has introduced with PES 2020. The gameplay changes attempt, and largely succeed, to give you a far more realistic version of football than before. That’s not all -- with PES 2020, your players are more closely bound to their ratings, abilities, reputations and flair. As a result, you cannot quite get away with low-rated players scoring hat-tricks every match, or saving a well-struck free kick -- unless, of course, you’re playing at the Beginner and Amateur levels.
Konami is tapping into its newly struck partnerships here, and with that, players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala, Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba feel significantly more able than others such as Cenk Tosun of Everton, Troy Deeney of Watford, or the mystifying Romelu Lukaku, now of Internazionale. Players with faster pace can now actually show it on the pitch, and not have young, low-rated defenders miraculously catch up with them. The likes of Lionel Messi and Philippe Coutinho are champions of the new tricks mechanism, caressing the ball with deft touches through the feet of hapless defenders.
Even in the midfield, robust players such as Paul Pogba prove to be strong playmakers, while creative players such as Christian Eriksen and Kevin de Bruyne are more likely to find a defence-splitting through ball with higher accuracy and frequency, than any random player. It’s a strongly positive move by PES, one which adds a much stronger meaning to putting more effort in crafting your transfer strategy. For the most part, they work really well.
However, PES 2020 has also ingrained the idea of mis-kicks and mis-timed tackles into its gameplay, and while there’s no denying the realism of the game as a result, it can quickly get frustrating. For instance, if you happen to be losing a match and have only 10 minutes left, with most of your star players either worn out or subbed off, bringing on any random substitute into the match never guarantees that you’ll be able to score in quick succession. It’s not impossible, we’ve pulled it off multiple times, but with the new gameplay mechanics, it no longer remains a mean feat.
This also means that you now pay more attention to the weightage of your passes and through balls. Crossing is another aspect that is strong in this game, and is one of the few elements that we found to be relatively easier to execute. However, the pace of your winger now needs to be controlled more effectively, so that the AI-based positioning of a central striker can match up with you, in order to convert crosses into goals. The new system also means that you’re now far more susceptible to the offside trap, with Jesse Lingard in my Manchester United team being irritatingly frequent in mistiming his run -- somewhat similar to his real-world self.
Tackling now requires you to time even the standing blocks with increased urgency, and it is no longer a straightforward game of button-mashing, where you would somehow see your defenders eke out miraculous clearances. Playing the ball out from the back, while seeming somewhat tricky, is one aspect that has surprisingly not evolved as much as we expected it to, and with Manchester United’s counter-attacking football style at play, it definitely felt like the most convenient option.
The compromise here is the overall flow of the game, which at times can feel unnecessarily hindered by untimely challenges. After all, there are times when you want to let go of the realism, and just have fun -- this is, after all, a video game. With PES 2020, you now hit far too many mis-timed tackles unless you pay attention, and a large chunk of long shots would not lead to goals, sometimes even from the best players.
Konami wants you to really know about football and how it is played, and pay it your undivided attention -- something that can lead to mixed impressions. However, I was surprised to find myself enjoying eFootball PES 2020 as much as I did, even though I’ve now conceded more last moment goals than I ever did in FIFA. It is the challenge of the new gameplay that every single person who loves the beautiful game will definitely like, and there are times when you really think about how far Konami has brought Pro Evolution Soccer along, especially in the recent years. PES 2020 is like the unexpected acquaintance that you make, and a very pleasant one at that, at least when it comes to the gameplay.
Another aspect that drew my attention is the rather sharply realistic representation of player transfers in transfer windows, in Master League -- PES’ equivalent of the FIFA Manager Mode. Here, during your first transfer window, the kind of players willing to join your club will depend on your club’s actual, real life form. As a result, if you’re playing with Manchester United, the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala and Sergio Aguero did not agree personal terms, even though my massive transfer budget of over £2 billion meant I could literally afford any exorbitant sum that I wished.
You’ll still find some players join you if the amount of money you dole out is a stand-out. For instance, I managed to pry Kylian Mbappe away from Paris Saint-Germain for a very humble £277.8 million. The transfer guides, offered by your club’s sporting director, helps in this note to indicate the kind of players that can be realistic transfer targets. The ‘Team Role Effect’ tab is also quite neat, giving you an idea of how might someone of your interest affect the entire team, and in turn, give a brief idea about whether purchasing the player would make any sense at all.
The next big thing about the game are its animations, added to two key parts of the game -- defensive tackles, and the Master League. In defensive tackles, player animations will have you animatedly spring up from the ground to protest against the referee awarding your opponents a foul. While the overall player reactions are more believable, they are simply too repetitive -- imagine Ashley Young react in the exact same way every time he’s given a yellow card for, well, being brought down.
Also repetitive, and a bit disjointed, are the goal celebrations. Despite improvements, the oddball celebrations where only two or three players actually join the goal celebrations still remain, and it just feels odd in a game where most of the improvements are about making football games more realistic than ever before. It’s not all bad, since there are some improvements to how players huddle up at the end of the celebration.
The most curious of all animations can be found in the Master League. Throughout this mode, you come across cutscenes such as being unveiled at the club, pre-tournament dressing room talk, post-match press conference, and more. Some of the scenes are interactive, although I’m yet to understand how big an impact can it have on the overall game, or the players in the team that you manage. By all means, even if there is any impact, the end result is not likely to vary much, if FIFA’s Journey mode with Alex Hunter gave us any clues regarding football game cutscenes.
While I do like the touch, and it does feel interesting at the start, the entire exercise feels a bit quixotic as you progress further. This is largely due to all of these scenes being mute, and there is no lip synchronisation whatsoever between the on-screen character and the subtitles that you see. Over time, you will be sent questions regarding a player or the team in general, and your responses to these are linked to the Team Spirit. I personally feel that this could have given PES 2020 great scope of customisation in the Master League. However, the game passes on it bleakly, and unless you deliberately keep on picking the worst possible responses, the general impact on your team’s cohesiveness can barely be felt, particularly if you’re managing one of the top tier teams.
One more thing that I really liked about PES 2020 is its default in-game camera, Stadium. Adding to the ‘Broadcast’ field of view that has been around in this game for some time, Stadium offers much dynamism in terms of how the visuals are presented. As a result, there are times when you actually feel like these games are television broadcasts. It also took very little time to adjust to this new angle, which is important since PES’ playability is entirely based on a set hand-eye coordination formula.
Where PES 2020 somewhat feels stagnant is in its menus, overall modes, and the general sense (or lack) of snazzy neons or suave finesse. Become a Legend, the single player career journey where you can choose to be yourself or your favourite footballer, does not quite feel intuitive. Instead, trying to be a professional footballer via the PES interface feels like a mundane chore -- as far away from a footballer’s life as possible.
Cutscenes could have done really well here, I believe. If not, Konami could have at least thrown in even a semi-active interaction style between the manager and the player (which, in this case, is you), which would have drastically improved the overall mode. Instead, while the gameplay element works very well, what feels drab is how this mode is planned out. As a result, unless you’re truly devoted towards the Be a Pro-style playing, Become a Legend can very rapidly become a drab affair.
The MyClub online playing mode has remained pretty much unchanged from last year, which means that while you’ll have a whole lot of fun to play MyClub if you have friends on the PES network too, it’s not one that you’ll find yourself playing on an everyday basis. While the availability of legends like Ronaldinho felt quite neat, and I could even sign Lionel Messi and Paulo Dybala upfront thanks to PES’ rollout glitches, the interface again lets the mode down. Features feel unnecessarily cluttered and complicated, and I’m personally not a big fan of the blind scouting system. It also requires you to be rather exhaustively interested in building an online team of stars, so most casual gamers wouldn’t quite be up for such tedious tasks.
My tryst with eFootball Pro Evolution Soccer 2020 has been a rather precarious one. I started out by disliking the new gameplay, which I grew to really love and get hooked on to within about a week. The animations seemed quite engaging initially, but now that the novelty has worn off, I’d rather be left without them. The overall interface, while not being bad, can do with a more interesting layout. The list goes on.
Despite its shortcomings, eFootball PES 2020 is a very good football video game. Konami has further made its intent more emphatic by signing Italian champions Juventus as exclusive to its title, which is perhaps the biggest sucker punch that FIFA has been hit with, in recent times. This, after featuring Cristiano Ronaldo in a Juventus jersey on the FIFA 19 cover. This is Konami’s best performance in taking the battle straight to EA, and to sum up, eFootball PES 2020 is a sound overhaul that makes it fun, realistic and a good overall game to have in your console.