PES 2019 has an unenviable task ahead of it. Having lost out on the UEFA Champions League (and Europa League) rights to long-term rivals FIFA, Konami’s flagship football sim is in danger of falling by the wayside. Compared to FIFA 19’s laundry list of features and new additions things appear bleak; fortunately, football isn’t won on paper, but grass. Konami is confident enough to let the game do its talking on the pitch. PES 2019 is a subtle refinement that may not entice newcomers, but still amounts to one of the best and most beautiful football games around.
For the first time in years, you’re immediately taken aback by just how pretty it all looks. It’s clear that the money presumably saved on the UEFA license isn’t merely burning a hole in Konami’s bank account. In fact, new ‘Global Illumination’ lighting technology has been brought aboard to ensure everything looks and feels just right. Shadows drape over the pitch depending on the time of day; the brisk autumn air carries with it a bitter, frosty chill; even the manner in which light reacts to players’ movement is unparalleled now. Visually, this is the closest a football game has ever come to replicating its real-life counterpart, and certain top (and licensed teams) had me doing double-takes on more than one occasion. Yes, it’s that good.
Small changes elsewhere are guaranteed to please fans. Quick subs have finally been introduced, and are an improvement on FIFA’s as they allow a rapid-fire changeover of any position at any time in the game, not just when certain players are low on stamina. The fundamentals of actually playing football have been tweaked this year, too. It takes a while to get used to the heavier first-touch system, but the upside is it allows for the game’s flow to change in a heartbeat. Gone are the pinball-esque passathons of the past and, in its place, you find yourself pressing smarter and controlling the space more intelligently than ever before. It’s no exaggeration to say that PES 2019 will make you gain a greater understanding of the beautiful game in ways FIFA never could, even if matches tend to be a little slower. Even then, it is a trade-off you’ll be willing to take once you’re a half-a-dozen or so games in.
What good is it having a fantastic football game when there’s very little to get excited about in the way of modes and other features? That’s where PES 2019 stumbles somewhat. Master League is, inevitably, back – yet you’re going to have to go through the iconic mode with a fine-toothed comb to notice any real changes, despite it the rags-to-riches path being as compelling as ever. A challenge difficulty has been introduced to Master League, which brings the game more in line with FIFA’s Career Mode and real-life goings-on in terms of realistic transfers and the ever-looming spectre of the sack hanging over you. It’s a welcome arrival, and adds some much-needed pressure to proceedings. The seven new licensed leagues (Turkey, Scotland and even an exclusive Russian League all make their bow) also can’t be sniffed at, but the fact remains that if you didn’t like Master League in years previous then you’re not going to find much for you here, as it’s been practically untouched.
That’s not to say there’s been no movement elsewhere. Far from it. It just fails to really grab your attention. MyClub has received the biggest overhaul but even that’s lagging behind FIFA. Featured Players – essentially in-form players picked by Konami – and Legends (we can bend it like Beckham for the first time in ages) are in, but there’s very little else to shout about on that front. It still feels like a sterile, shoehorned-in feature that just makes you pine for the far superior, far more addictive Ultimate Team. That’s not a good look.
Other than that, there are minor niggles that can occasionally put a few wrinkles in the gentle throbbing hum of each game. Goalkeepers blow hot and cold yet again, with surreal goal-length catches and messy Karius-esque spills both able to be pulled off by the same ‘keeper in the same game. The AI, too, heavily favours a low cross from the byline, which hopefully will be patched out sooner rather than later, such is its frequency and overpowered, often game-changing outcome. Commentary, as can be expected, ranges from banal, to irritating, and even plain wrong. A shiny gold coin to whichever sports game manages to nail the commentary next year.
Still, for the majority of people, the main course – the actual moment-to-moment football – is going to keep them coming back again and again, despite the game’s wider flaws. When the game hits its stride, as it so often does, PES 2019 is unmatched in the genre. Everything you’d expect a football game to include is here, from the sublime, slaloming runs right down the warts and all stodginess of a game where your passing isn’t quite clicking and the opposition are proving tough to break down. The worries about the threadbare foundations upon which PES 2019 has been built suddenly melt away.
Crunching tackles fly in, shots pleasingly smack off the woodwork, and a quick shimmy leaves a defender for dead. You’re instantly transported back to the days of old-school Pro Evo where substance always mattered over style and FIFA was just for fancy-dans who didn’t quite *get it*. This year is further than ever from FIFA’s all-action approach and is far more realistic and gratifying in its execution, and it’s all the better for it.
PES 2019 is still very much a hard sell to all but the most ardent who will religiously buy Konami’s newest entry and the quantifiable new features are very much lacking this year. Hardcore FIFA fans, too, will find little here to tempt them outside of the handful of exclusive leagues and features; Master League is very much mired in the mid-‘00s with its bland menus and odd quirks, and MyClub but a pale imitation of Ultimate Team.
Regardless, of all that, PES 2019 is a game you’ll like, and very much enjoy in extended spells. The nagging feeling, despite the superb football, remains: more could have been done to set it apart from its contemporaries, and even past Pro Evo entries – but you’ll be having too much fun to care otherwise.