The kick-off of the Premier League season means not just the return of top-tier English football, but the renewal of sports gaming’s greatest rivalry. The Pro Evolution franchise has endured some trying times in the last decade, but with the transfer of the Champions League licence to their rivals, will we see the comeback of the season? PES has long been the purist’s choice of virtual kick-about based on it’s more realistic ball physics and passing, and that’s still intact here.
In fact, PES 2019 plays more like an actual football match than any prior game in the franchise – game plans set before or during a match are crucial here. If you’re looking to stifle the attacking team, pressing the opposition players can lead to the ball squirming out and your forwards will make smart runs off the shoulders of the last man. Similarly, attempting to maintain possession while waiting for that killer pass is enhanced by smart indications from forward players, pointing to where they want the ball to be played.
In fact, player intelligence is consistently impressive throughout – midfielders move into the channels to create space, or the defensive line will creep up to offer more options. Defensively, players track each other carefully, attempting to plug gaps if a player is caught out of position. For those that remember PES 2018’s kamikaze keepers, they are now a lot more intelligent too. Oh, and if you’re not happy with how the match is going, Pro Evo has added quick-subs.
Konami’s “magic moments” may sound like press-speak, but players now feel infinitely more unique. Players such as cover-star Phillipe Coutinho will bring crosses down with ease, while Ronaldo’s unique running style is modeled perfectly. While this may sound like small animation flourishes, those with a knowledge of the game will be able to use these details to their advantage – when Liverpool’s defense only half-cleared a corner, Arsenal’s much-maligned midfielder Granit Xhaka was able to hit a dipping thirty-yard strike past the goalkeeper, one of his stronger attributes in real life.
These players are not only convincingly portrayed in gameplay, but they look visually stunning too – at least those that have been scanned. Aubameyang’s hair, Henderson’s jawline – it all looks great in Konami’s Fox Engine, if a little shiny. Unfortunately, the presentation this year has taken a sizable hit with the loss of the Champions League and Europa League Licences. Of the twenty Premier League clubs, only Arsenal and Liverpool are officially licensed.
This means you’ll be playing Manchester Derbies as Man Red or Man Blue, with unofficial kits and stadia. This extends to commentary too, as both Peter Drury and Jim Beglin tiptoe around team names and into banal cliches about regional rivalries without mentioning specifics. It’s often tough to listen to. PES 2019’s first impressions are also less than positive, particularly in MyClub – the game’s front end is a mess of dense menus and overwhelming data.
Master League remains for the most part unchanged (although more input into transfers is a welcome change), while Become a Legend is entirely the same as last year’s experience – while in FIFA this is much the same, being able to progress from young starlet at a League Two club to a world beater at Manchester City feels infinitely more exciting when a) there are lower league clubs to choose from and b) you can recognize the team names.
MyClub is the worst offender here – with fewer players to choose from than Ultimate Team, it seems surprising that it is still harder to find what you’re looking for. Variants known as “Featured Players” are a nice addition, if derivative of FUT’s own variants. If you can navigate MyClub’s cluttered menu, you’ll now find online tournaments for your custom teams. You’ll also find an impressively training section to level up players to open up new skills, and positions. When combined with “Magic Moments”, you’ll feel these changes in matches.
In summary then, Pro Evolution Soccer is just that – an evolution. While the loss of the Champions League Licence and legacy issues associated with that keep it from the top of the table, its exemplary on-the-pitch action definitely keep it within reach of its rival. If you love PES, this won’t change your opinion, but it also likely won’t convert you if you do not.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.