The football is as sublime as ever, but PES's lack of progress elsewhere pulls it back.
I love the football in PES 2019. Not the game of football, the actual football. There's an impressive realism to the way it moves, the way it bobbles along the grass after a pass, the way it spits out of a tackle in some random direction, the way a low driven through ball skims across the pitch like the Tokyo to Kyoto Bullet Train kisses the track, the way it spins like a planet in fast forward after a wallop from the outside of your striker's boot, the way it pulverises the back of the net - which, by the way, is much improved this year - rolls out of the goal, is scooped up by your striker and hurriedly carried to the centre circle, the comeback now on.
PES 2019's football demands respect. Unlike FIFA's football, which often feels like the asinine, laser-guided result of some complex equation scrawled onto a sphere on the end of a string or, you know, a pinball in a pinball machine, PES 2019's football has soul. If Konami's development wizards have mastered anything over the course of the 20-odd years they've spent making football video games, it is how to give a virtual football a weight and a presence not just felt on-screen, but in your hands. Kicking the thing takes more than a button press - it takes a force of will.
I love the animations in PES 2019. I love the way goalkeepers explode into a dive, flapping at a shot that looks like it's already passed them only for a hand to turn the ball around the post at the last millisecond. The chip shots - oh, PES 2019's chip shots! - are a joy, a soupçon of Lionel Messi and a smidgen of Davor Šuker. Outside of the boot flicks, for shots, for crosses and for no-look passes, are as effortless in PES 2019 as Romário made them look at the 1994 World Cup.
The early shot, a stab in the dark, a stub into the bottom corner that takes the keeper by surprise, the kind of shot you see in the Premier League but not the Championship because everything about the Premier League is faster and more accurate, is in PES 2019 and I love it. There's something immensely satisfying about taking a shot early. It's that feeling you get when well-placed confidence pays off. Not only am I good, you whisper to yourself as the ball nestles into the bottom corner, but I know I'm good. PES 2019 at its best makes you feel like you're in-form, at the top of your game, and - hey! Look at this goal! Did you see this goal?!
Forget the reliable long-shots of FIFA, long-shots that go in so often I am now desensitised to their impact. PES 2019 wants you to build up slow, craft an opening and then finish from just inside the box, a Harry Kane arrow, a Ronaldo - old man Ronaldo - one-on-one, a Pippo Inzaghi poach, the result of confusion in the box, a mistake from an under-pressure centre back, a crunching tackle on a dallying DMF that leads to a run and shot on goal.
And I love the unpredictability of PES 2019. The somewhat random nature of the ball, of tackles, of shots and even passes, which can and do go awry, will be a turnoff for some, but amid accusations of scripting and a lack of control that bubble up every now and again in the world of football video games, this sense that you're both in control and out of control at the same time appeals to me. And, let's be honest, randomness is a part of real football. I mean, just look at Paulo Wanchope, a player who was as likely to smash the ball out of the stadium as he was to backheel it into the goal.
I love the officially-licensed stadiums, which drip with atmosphere. Camp Nou, the home of Barcelona and, all of a sudden, home base for Konami's last-stand licensing effort, is thick with detail and verging on the photo-real. Its walkout cutscene is hard to skip - I can think of no higher praise for a football video game, a genre in which the skip button is relentlessly mashed into oblivion.
The Veltins-Arena, home of the officially-licensed Shalke 04, is equally atmospheric, its steel ceiling casting realistic shadows onto the pitch. Anfield, too, is one of the best stadiums to play in, the camera close enough to make the AI gegenpressing feel as in your face as it is in your players'.
I love the officially-licensed player faces, which, I realise as I type this, is a slightly odd thing to love. I'm impressed by them, I should perhaps say. Pretty much all the Barcelona players look photo-realistic, as do the Liverpool players, tattoos and all. Things start to look a little messy when the camera gets close (football video games, like most video games, still have trouble with eyes), but from a distance these fully-paid up likenesses are an accurate reflection of their real world counterparts - and I do wonder how much better they can get on the current hardware.
But then the list of things I love about PES 2019 comes to an end, and I realise that so much of this underdog football video game just isn't good enough.
I hate the menus. Yes, I know, menus, but really, they're an embarrassment, and you spend quite a lot of time in football video game menus so there's quite a lot to be embarrassed about. PES' menus have barely changed since the series' glory days on PlayStation 2 - and they were bad then, too. Basic, boring and counterintuitive, PES 2019's menus and, well, the entire user interface reeks of a bargain basement budget.
The text font is an abomination. I know, what a thing to hate in a video game, but truly, in PES 2019, the font is that bad. Upon starting my Master League, I discovered there were not enough character spaces for me to enter my full-name. Instead I had to cut it short, lobbing the e off the end. Thankfully there was enough space for the l.
The text work is amateurish. Here's a quote from A. REDMOND, one of my Master League subs who came on to score in one league match for my beloved South Norwood: "I knew A. HERVEY was going to get the ball to me." I think I'll start referring to my friends like this when I talk out loud. "I knew T. PHILLIPS was going to catch that Pokemon." And so on.
PES 2019 borders on the hilarious. At one point during my Master League I got a budget report after a cup win. It said, and I quote: "We received a win bonus of England Cup." Later, my assistant coach told me fans were expecting B. GOIOS to score in every game, and so had given him a nickname: "The fans are calling him 'The Terrible' now." Bet old B. GOIOS loved that.
Graphically, PES 2019 is frustratingly inconsistent. Yes, officially-licensed matches look the business, but outside of these, the stadiums, pitches and players look flat, as if you're playing Subbuteo. The charm of playing as an unlicensed team deserted PES years ago. Now, PES just looks Sunday league. Yes, I know you can download user-created files that edit the game to look officially-licensed, but most players won't bother with this - or even know this is an option - while it's blocked for Xbox One players. The upshot is playing London FC versus South Norwood or Man Red versus East Midlands feels like you're watching one of those football betting adverts where a couple of players wearing nondescript kits jump up to head a ball. I half expect Ray Winstone to trot onto the pitch at halftime to give me live odds for the match I'm playing.
PES 2019 sounds terrible. The commentary is laughable and an immediate turn-off. The crowd sounds are so bad, if you were to close your eyes you'd think you were at an England friendly. The menu music washed over me. The sounds of menu interactions are from a bygone era. The only thing about PES 2019 that sounds halfway decent is the music that blasts out of the PA system during the Camp Nou walkout cutscene - and that's prerecorded.
Master League, a mode I pumped hundreds of hours into back on PS2, is essentially the same 20 years later save low impact additions such as new cutscenes (which are abysmal), player development options and slightly more control over transfers. And Konami's missed the chance to tug at nostalgia for PES' glory days by returning the default Master League team of old to the game. Minanda, Valeny, Castolo and co remain consigned to the history books, black and white pictures of their exploits nailed next to dusty trophy cabinets. Now I'm playing with Giorza, Arcas and Castledine, and while I can't help but form a bond with these players as they improve over time, they will always be upstarts in my mind.
Standard kick-off mode remains untouched, and while the random selection mode, with its odd but fun MOBA-style bait and switch player ban system remains a quirky way to play PES, offline is in desperate need of some TLC.
Online and myClub is clearly the focus here, which doesn't come as a surprise given that's where all the recurring revenue comes from. myClub changes for PES 2019 look good on paper, but in practice it's pretty much the same experience this time around as it was last year. myClub now has featured players, who are players who have performed well during real world weekend matches, and there are weekly PES League rankings to fight for. But in truth, myClub is a poor man's FIFA Ultimate Team, and I say that knowing well the problematic pay-to-win nature of EA Sports' mode. myClub's most interesting new feature is the ability to sign duplicate players and, if you have three duplicates of the same player, trade them in for a single player that's more powerful. Konami, seemingly without the budget to compete with EA Sports' astronomical promotional power and production value for FUT, is still playing catch-up - and it's losing ground.
PES fans dismiss concerns such as these, saying it's all about what happens on the pitch, not off it. I don't subscribe to that way of thinking. Having an authentic-looking experience is - even if it operates on a subconscious level - a huge part of the appeal of football video games, particularly those positioned as simulations of the beautiful game. As a football fan who lives and breathes the Premier League, not having the league's official branding matters. It just does.
Even on the pitch - the one area PES fans have been able to rely upon in recent years - PES 2019 has severe issues. The first thing that grates is the replays - the incessant, mind-numbing replays for everything, be it an inconsequential foul to a shot that hits row z. Matters are made worse by a frustrating PES logo swirl that connects the action to the replay and back again (skip is on the Options button on PS4, not a face button, which is annoying). We're talking no more than half a second delay here, but when you're playing a football video game, watching the PES logo swirl for the hundredth time can feel like an eternity. Making matters worse is the AI, which commits more fouls in PES 2019 than it did in PES 2018. This is very much a good thing after PES 2018's friendly feel, but when automatic replays trigger after each foul, it's not long before you're shouting at the make-believe referee to play the advantage.
Sticking with the AI, the goalkeepers have this odd tendency to stay on their line, even when it looks ridiculous to do so. You'll be in a one-on-one situation with the computer-controlled keeper, and they'll just stubbornly stand on their line, refusing to charge forward. You end up shooting a few yards out against keepers who stand there like starfish, their arms flapping in hope more than expectation. It looks and feels silly.
Headed goals just don't seem to happen. What feels like a reaction to the overpowered tactic of crossing and heading in PES 2018, PES 2019's nerfed headed shots mean you rarely win aerial challenges in the opposition box. If you do, you're unlikely to score. Corners feel pointless as a result. Injuries are almost non-existent. I don't think I've had a single one or seen an opposition player suffer an injury in my 30 or so hours with the game. PES 2019 will flash its quick sub offer even at the beginning of the game, when none of the players are tired. And visible fatigue, which Konami made a song and dance about when it was promoting the game, doesn't seem to be particularly visible at all.
Here's the crux of the situation on PES 2019's pitch: the gameplay, the actual feel of the match, is sure to be divisive. After PES 2018's more arcadey feel, Konami has made PES 2019 a more considered affair. It's not that the pace of the game has changed. Rather, players now take ever-so-slightly longer to receive and release the ball. You can still ping-pong passes around, but you have to make sure your players receive the ball in such a way that a pass is a natural next animation because otherwise you'll take too long to move the ball on and pressing opposition - and the opposition press a lot particularly on higher difficulty levels - will steal possession. I should stress that PES 2019's animation work is often fantastic, and when you get into a passing flow the whole thing feels slick and fluid, but it's easy to spend a second controlling a pass in PES 2019, which, again, doesn't sound like a long time, but when you're under pressure it can feel like forever.
The greater importance of controlling the ball, coupled with what can only be described as a slog of a dribble system (when you're not using sprint), lends PES 2019 a more simulation feel than its predecessor. The likes of Lionel Messi should be able to weave in and out of defenders with ease, but he, like all the players in PES 2019, struggles at any pace except sprint. It's this aspect of the game - its most crucial aspect - that you'll love or hate. PES 2019 plays a more patient game of virtual football than PES 2018. This devalues the counter-attack, which after PES 2018 is probably a good thing. I'd say PES 2019 isn't as immediately fun as PES 2018, but this feels by design rather than some cock-up at Konami. It's trickier, but more realistic; less pacey, but more thoughtful.
The harsh, inescapable truth about PES 2019, though, is that quality on the pitch can't make up for the disappointment of the overall package. Even if you were to fall in love with its more sim-like gameplay, PES 2019 as an overall offering falls flat. Off the pitch, PES remains a shambles. Konami's licensing problems are well documented, but the addition of the Scottish, Russian and Turkish leagues, among half a dozen other officially-licensed leagues that appear in the game, does not make up for the loss of the Champions League license, which had been a PES mainstay for a decade. There are no new game modes. No new game modes! Beyond that, there are some basic, fundamental features PES lacks that do not sit well in 2018. Where are the women teams, for example?
Despite it all, I keep thinking about the football. You know, the actual football. It really is a marvel and it matters so, so much. So much good comes from it - gorgeous passes, stunning shots, realistic tackles - but it finds itself stifled by a football video game that's stuck in the dark ages.