Pro Evolution Soccer 2019 Review

September 20, 2018
Xbox One
Also on: PC, PS4

When it comes to playing the beautiful game virtually, only two names enter the ring. In one corner we have EA’s Goliath, FIFA, with David coming in the form of Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer (PES). And, just like football fans, supporters of both franchises are rather tribal. To most you’re either in one camp or the other. Some do flip-flop between the two depending on which offered up the best representation of football, but in recent years FIFA has reigned supreme thanks, in part, to its Ultimate Team mode. However, can David topple Goliath once again? Can PES offer up enough of an alternative to turn the tide against flagging physical sales?

The short answer is: it depends. This may sound like a bit of a cop-out but it really does depend on what you’re looking for. Having played plenty of FIFA 18 I always found the gameplay fast and fluid but with a ball and physics that seem to tinge a bit too much on the arcade side. It was fun, sure, but it always seemed like you were encouraged to go for the outrageous rather than the clinical and precise. In PES 2019 you get the feeling there’s been a focus on the physics and specifically the weight of the football itself. Passing and moving the ball around the pitch requires focus and forethought.

If you want to do well, especially against the better teams and tougher AI, you’ll need to get to grips with this approach. Thinking two or three passes ahead is key if you want to dominate your opponent and score goals. Whereas if you’re more of the Sam Allardyce school of thought, playing the long-ball upfield will, more often than not, end up with it coming straight back in the form of another attack.

Realistic but also... kinda creepy.

Don’t panic though, as there’s a decent training mode which you can use to get a feel for not only the controls (unless you prefer the FIFA layout) and the physics of PES 2019. So if you’re looking for something a touch more cerebral then PES 2019 is looking good then, right? Well, not quite. The problem is that the AI you are facing seem to do the same thing over and over with little variation. Teams we faced almost exclusively tried to cross low from wide and we also rarely saw a shot from distance, with every goal scored against us being from inside the box. It’s almost like the AI wants to impersonate Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal team and pass the ball into the net. Whilst it doesn’t make defending easy, it does allow you to predict with some accuracy where the next ball is going.

The AI isn’t broken but it certainly isn’t thinking for itself, seemingly married to one style of football no matter who the opposition is. The answer, then, might be to go online and take on fellow humans in the myClub mode; PES 2019’s version of Ultimate Team. Just like its competitor, you’re tasked with assembling a team of players from around the world filled with greats of the past as well as the present. Here you can make a team that includes David Beckham alongside Lionel Messi under a club name of your choosing.

Those who are familiar with FIFA’s offering will feel at home though there are some subtle differences and they’re mostly just name changes — the core concepts are exactly the same. Players are signed rather than unlocked through packs but there’s still an element of luck as to who you get. There’s also myClub points which you can purchase with real world money but thankfully GP, an in-game currency, can be used to buy most things.

Building up the play, Guardiola would be proud

The problem comes when you actually find a game to play. Wait times seem to be quite long at the moment and we watched the matchmaking roulette flip us between being home and away and against opponents rated from 0-9999 for what seemed like an age. Finally, a game was found but it felt like we were playing via dial-up against a broadband opponent.

Whilst internet speeds in Australia are, in many cases, laughable the lag we felt when trying to switch players or play a first time pass was excruciating. We could barely string three passes together before our opponent swarmed us and made off with the ball. Trying to get the ball back proved equally frustrating as commands to switch players were a fraction too slow every time, it was maddening. The whole match was just pure frustration and while lag happens, it made playing PES online rather unpleasant.

Lag issues aside there have been a few tweaks to myClub. For example you can now have duplicate players, allowing you to trade them away for some easy money or, if you have three of the same player, you can trade them in for a player of the same rarity. There are also featured players who, if they’re in your squad, will be useful as their overall rating will likely see a boost during this time.

In addition to taking on fellow players you can also challenge computer-controlled teams as well as simulate games. It’s a great way to earn GP so that, over time, you can build up a squad worthy of taking on the world. Hopefully by that point, the netcode will have been improved enough to make lag less of an issue.

C'mon Hibernian

Offline, there are plenty of game modes to get stuck into with PES staples such as the Master League and Legend mode offering the biggest challenges. Whilst neither have seen any significant changes in recent years they’re still the massive timesinks that they’ve always been. With the improved animations and authentic matchday experiences at the many licensed stadiums on the field PES 2019 is a joy to play. It requires patience (lots and lots of patience) but the reward comes in watching what, to all intents and purposes, looks and feels like football should.

PES does still trail in regards to official licenses and losing Borussia Dortmund shortly before its release was a blow. However, there are twelve leagues that are fully licensed in the game, these include the French Ligue 1 & Ligue 2, the Dutch Eredivisie, the Russian Premier League and the Scottish Premiership. The Russian Premier League deal is exclusive to PES 2019. You can, if you wanted, edit players and teams but this is a fully manual process on the Xbox. This isn’t any fault of Konami but the amount of time needed to do this means that many will keep the fake names such as Manchester Red.

However, when you do play a match at one of these officially licensed locations the atmosphere surrounding the on-field goings on is quite something. Crowds will roar as you take on players and, if you score a late winner, they go positively ballistic. If you’re the away team boos will often ring out, especially if they think you’ve mistimed a tackle or two. The commentary is still less than perfect with Peter Drury and Jim Beglin returning, but in all honesty, the matchday atmosphere will likely drown them out.

Pretty much how most people feel about the commentary

PES 2019 is a bit of a mixed bag and that’s pretty much been the way for as long as this reviewer can remember. What really mattered was what happened on the pitch. FIFA has always outgunned Konomi in respect to licenses and official leagues. It’s a shame PES lost the Europa and Champions League licenses but, if we’re honest, that was always likely to happen once the contract was up.

Sure, the commentary is still a bit lacklustre and, if you’re playing on Xbox, the only way to correct the team names is an entirely manual process. The AI needs tweaking to be a bit more original but you will always be challenged. You will always have to work for your goals and you will always take pleasure in every hard-earned win. Is it enough to topple FIFA? Probably not, but it does offer up one of the best on-pitch representations of football in recent memory and for some that will be enough. Others, however, will likely be put off by the lack of official leagues and the fact that myClub isn’t Ultimate Team.

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PES 2019 excels when it's left to do what matters most in a football title — simulating the beautiful game. Outside of that, its rough edges are starting to show, but for many that simply doesn't matter.
Pete Taylor

A long time gamer since the days of the mighty ZX Spectrum +2. The bug really bit when I got a Sega Mega Drive 2 and it hasn’t let up since. Huge racing fan but I also enjoy losing myself in a well-told RPG and management sims. It doesn’t have to be good-looking to win my heart, it’s what’s deep down inside that matters.