PES 2021 is the riskiest football effort Konami has released this generation. Announced as an update of last year’s edition, PES 2021: Season Update boasts the same base gameplay and modes from PES 2020 while adding the new football season’s kits, squads and transfers. Threadbare as that may sound, there's good news. While everything about PES 2021 invokes déjà vu as you load up familiar menus and identical modes, on the pitch it's significantly different to its predecessor.
Release date: 15 September 2020
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, PC
Yes, there are still areas that need to be improved, and the lack of a new mode might hurt the longevity of this year's edition. But new on-pitch refinements and added myClub content make PES 2021 a worthy entry in the long-running football game franchise and an excellent entry point for new fans – especially at the special ‘anniversary price’ of £25.
The same, but different
It’s challenging to review a game that feels overly familiar. Similar to a remaster of a classic title, sometimes it’s difficult to highlight non-visual changes or big mode expansions. PES 2020 introduced some bold tweaks such as a new camera angle, unique dribbling mechanics and an overhauled interactive Master League experience. All of these changes freshened up the look of the game dramatically and it was easy to spot the advancements from PES 2019 to PES 2020. In PES 2021, the menus, player screens, team introductions, presentation and modes are all identical to PES 2020 apart from a slight colour change and the addition of a new soundtrack.
But when you step on the pitch, PES 2021 becomes much more than a reskinned PES 2020. The pace is slower. Players handle more responsively. Everything feels more natural. The AI is vastly improved when playing offline. Sharper and more aware, offline gamers will really enjoy the variety of matches this year. PES has always prided itself on its iconic Player ID; an area that long-time rival FIFA 21 has always struggled to match. PES 2021 sees superstar players mixing unique skills and tricks and exploring different ways to attack you.
Some matches can become frustratingly unrealistic – such as when a lower ranked team suddenly turns into Bayern Munich and passes around you with ease. Thankfully, this flaw is much less prevalent than in PES 2020 because players now make plenty of mistakes. From a mistimed snap shot or an overpowered cross, or an ill-judged slide tackle or header, the action feels more alive and varied.
While FIFA continues to flirt with arcade-style dribbling and modes such as Volta to broaden the appeal of the game, Konami is still chasing that illusive simulation/arcade hybrid. And apart from a few hiccups, PES 2021 has the ability to get you out of your seat with a last second winner or a last-ditch tackle. It’s a lot easier to become engrossed this year.
PES 2021’s handful-or-so small changes add up a more complete experience. There’s a wider variety of shots and saves, and wing play makes a return with a buff to dribbling. In fact, even though dribbling has just been slightly tweaked, it makes for a marked difference. Skilful players can cause havoc on the wings and in tight areas. Direct, quick passing counter attacks are still rewarded, but the option for long ball football is also more prominent.
Defenders of the turf
Defending is more risk/reward, with space easily exploited and you can easily leak goals if you don’t concentrate against a skilled opponent. Similarly, a patient player can shut down lesser skilled opponents so park-the-bus Mourinho enthusiasts are catered for too.
With last year’s name change to eFootball PES, Konami embraced online like never before – so having a stable net-based experience is paramount to the series’ success going forward. As with all games that blend offline/online modes, there is a difference between the modes in PES 2021. Konami has added extra filters to matchmaking (such as requiring a stable connection when searching for an opponent) but the base online experience does feel improved. Player collisions (one of the most frustrating aspects of PES 2020) are better too.
Players still knock into each other, and clipping still exists, but the engine adapts better this time around. Every ref in the game could do with a trip to Specsavers though, as some scathing challenges can go largely unpunished. With football games, you always get a little bit of sweet with the sour. It’s a tough balance to strike as offline players want to see more fouls given and engage in slower paced matches while online gamers just want fast end-to-end action. This delicate balance of frustration/enjoyment is even more prominent when you hit the online pitch.
Online divisions and co-op remain the same, with one exception. MyClub is Konami’s answer to rival FIFA’s juggernaut mode Ultimate Team, in which you acquire players, open packs and take on opponents from all over the world. One key difference between myClub and FUT is the point of entry. In PES, It’s easy to get a stacked team from the get-go and playing with legends such as Del Piero, Maradona and Beckham is always going to be fun especially if you are used to never packing similar icons in Ultimate Team. PES 2021 even offers five special Club Editions, which offer instant access to an iconic moments player such as a young version of Messi or prime Dennis Bergkamp.
This does have the knock-on effect of you coming up against strong sides early on in the life cycle. In FIFA, the grinding aspect of building a squad with challenges, objectives and in-game content adds plenty of legs for the year whereas myClub relies on the building/playing combination. Here is where PES 2021 will be judged over the next few months, rather than in the now. Hopefully some cool campaigns get added throughout the year to keep things exciting for regular players.
The licensing question
Aesthetically, the game looks great with licensed teams and partner clubs benefitting from face scans and accurate builds. Neymar looks and plays like Neymar. Players like Van Dijk, Hazard & Messi have unique animations and play-styles which are perfectly recreated. Legends are also amazingly detailed. Presentation wise, it’s still not hitting the lofty heights of its rival and commentary needs a big revamp but the exclusivity of Juventus and Roma is a smart move from Konami, especially with the inclusion of a deep edit mode.
While modes may be lacking, the gameplay refinements add fresh playability to a familiar experience. Konami should be applauded for its transparency, too. By breaking the yearly development cycle to jumpstart development on next-gen’s PES 2022, it’s given itself a huge chance to start the PS5/Xbox Series X era with a bang, at the same time as improving frustrating areas of last year’s PES 2020. And for a football experience this strong, you can’t argue with a price point of twenty-five quid.