PES 2020 is a patch or three away from being a very good game. As it stands, it's a weird mix of brilliant and broken.
PES 2020 is a weird game. At times I couldn't help but think, is this the best PES ever? Gameplay wise, I mean. The ball... PES 2020's ball is a thing of beauty, the best video game football I've ever virtually kicked. It feels weighty, it bounces realistically and travels through the air in delicious arcs David Beckham birthed in his pomp.
The animations... PES 2020's player animations are a joy to behold. Outside of the boot flicked through balls to overlapping full-backs, no-look crosses, deft chips, and, when players collide, realistic scraps for possession. The fluidity of motion in this game is something else. It's rare that you'll see a player do that jarring sports video game thing of sliding into place to force an animation to meet the ball, or jerk unnaturally as he realises his atoms should be in one position over another.
But then, there's a lot that's not great about the on-pitch action in this year's PES. I'd even go as far as to call some aspects of the gameplay broken.
Let's start with the AI defending. On occasion - and I should stress, this doesn't happen all the time, but it happens often enough for it to be a significant problem - one of your defenders will ignore the ball. I'm not joking. He'll just let it pass him by, leaving an opposition player to collect it, knock it on or, worst of all, get a shot on goal.
I've conceded goals because of this, both online against human opponents in myClub and offline against the AI. The issue is so stark, I initially thought it a launch bug that would be patched by a day one update. Well, I'm all up to date, and it still happens. It's pretty criminal.
Elsewhere, the much trumpeted Andres Iniesta-inspired new dribbling system doesn't seem to work properly. It's nigh-on impossible to beat a player in PES 2020, which, I think, is the result of a number of factors, including the grounded feel of the game. There's a lack of responsiveness across the board here that sabotages refined dribbling. Andres Iniesta, one of the greatest midfielders of all time, was able to turn on a sixpence. He'd finish 90 minutes without a spot of dirt on his shirt because his markers couldn't get near him. How a football game on which Iniesta consulted ended up featuring players who play like they're hungover is anyone's guess.
I'm not going to call PES 2020's referee what those in the real-life stands would, but he certainly deserves some stick. This game's ref is a disaster. He's picky one minute, uninterested the other. He'll blow a foul for nothing, then let a rugby tackle pass. He really, really doesn't want to get his card out, and believe me, I've encouraged him. I don't know what's going on inside that pretend head of his, but I really don't think the ref is thinking about football.
The niggles continue. Like in PES 2019, PES 2020 serves you up a replay for pretty much every stop in play, and there's a new annoying logo swirl to mash the Options button through. This skip delay is infuriating. I'd hoped Konami would have sorted it out for this game, but it hasn't. Sigh.
As is PES tradition, the commentary is terrible - and it seems to be getting worse. PES 2020 does this thing PES has done for ages where Peter Drury will scream the name of the player who took a shot seconds ago - and keep screaming their name. But then there's repeated lines in the same match, words put into a sentence that clearly weren't recorded together, and, hilariously, bizarre lines of dialogue. In one match, Jim Beglin remarked on a save my keeper made a minute ago, saying: "I can't stop thinking about it." All right mate. It wasn't that good.
So, yeah, on the pitch, PES 2020 is a weird experience. There's greatness here. Gorgeous goals are possible, and they get you off your seat. In one match I played a volleyed through ball from Ronaldinho and it shot through the air, between two players and onto the sprinting Antoine Griezmann, who slotted the ball into the bottom right-hand corner of the goal. I leapt out of my chair and cheered. This is PES at its best - the beautiful game as a video game. Oh, and headed goals are back, thankfully.
And then your defender does his best Phil Jones impression and you concede a goal that makes you want to chuck your controller into your telly. PES 2020 is brilliant and broken, satisfying and stupid - all on the same pitch at the same time.
Off the pitch, there's a disappointing degree of improvement. I slammed PES 2019's menus for being from a bygone era, and while they have been slightly improved for PES 2020, they're still awful compared to those of other sports video games. There are too many menu screens to soldier through, particularly in Master League, and some of them contain nonsensical, grammatically incoherent English. The user interface is counterintuitive. Sometimes you press X to confirm, other times the Options button. Red is good and green is bad in some screens, the reverse in others. The only redeeming feature of the menus this year is the songs slap. They're proper bangers.
Digging into the modes and unfortunately there's little significant improvement. And, there's some more weirdness. myClub, PES' take on FIFA Ultimate Team, is present and correct, but there's little new to sink your teeth into. And we have this quite remarkable situation now, during launch week, where myClub teams are already packed with amazing players. I've opened a handful of packs, spending myClub coins earned through completing easy objectives as well as the bonus 500 points Konami gave to everyone because the game didn't launch with the correct team lineups on special agents that give you a higher chance of nabbing a black quality player, and I've got Antoine Griezmann up front, David Beckham and Ronaldinho in midfield, and Sergio Ramos and Virgil van Dijk in central defense. I'm not far off the ultimate team here. If this were FUT, we'd be talking about a near endgame first 11.
The focus with myClub is on levelling up players you've got, rather than opening packs. And while myClub does the whole morally bankrupt pay-to-win loot box thing, just as FUT does, Konami's system is nowhere near as cynical. It lets you look at a list of all the players you have a chance of packing as well as gives you probabilities for the rarities. I haven't spent a penny and look at my team. I mean, I don't want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but when everyone's running around with beasts in their team before the game's seen a weekend, perhaps there's something wrong here.
Master League is much the same, except the menus look a bit more FIFA, transfers make more sense and you can have Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff, among others, as your manager. There are new interactive dialogue cutscenes, which are novel at first but annoying soon after. Overall, Master League is Master League.
If you've noticed I've avoided calling PES 2020 eFootball PES 2020, which is the actual name of this video game, then you should know it's deliberate. I can't bring myself to add the eFootball bit, which is part of a sort of rebrand towards esports. There's a whole eFootball section of the game now where you can play in competitions, but I have yet to be tempted by it. I suspect the whole eFootball thing will pass most PES players by. This is a game you can play competitively against others, as you've always been able to. Not much has changed here.
Credit where it's due, though, Konami has improved the official licenses situation for PES 2020, with a bonafide exclusive for Juventus. London FC are now Chelsea B, a more realistic fake team name that takes the name of the place in which the club is based (not the name of the club) and slaps the first initial of its predominant colour on the end to dodge the Sauron-like glare of EA Sports lawyers. But the eternal, inescapable truth is the lack of an official licence for the Premier League is a problem for many, especially in the UK. Sure, you could download an option file, which many do, but you can't if you're on Xbox One.
And credit to the graphics, which are stunning. I've already waxed lyrical about the animations, but the realism of the players is tremendous. Ronaldo is as close to photoreal as a video game can get, I think. Some of the running animations for players are great, too. Ronaldo has that stiff, arm stabby run of his. Ronaldinho looks like an odd, bendy sloth in motion, just as he did in real life. David Beckham's crossing animation is spot on - he leans low to the ground, arms out wide, foot shaping the ball like a sculptor moulds clay.
But I keep coming back to how weird PES 2020 is. eFootball is a weird word and perhaps Konami was trying to tell us something about the game all along. PES 2020 is more eh, football? Than eFootball. It's a game that for periods of time is one of the best football video games I've ever played, but it's punctuated by bouts of infuriating nonsense. Long-standing issues remain, and established modes are starting to feel stale. I can see myself spending a lot of time with PES 2020, but I can't bring myself to adore it. With a new generation looming over the horizon, the famous football franchise is at a crossroads. Sort out the glaring gameplay issues and all the off the pitch problems and you've got one of the best football video games of this generation of consoles. As it stands, PES 2020 is frustratingly uneven, and a patch or three away from full fitness.