PES 2020 – to use its horrible full name – is one of Konami’s finest football games in years. Certainly of the console generation, but there’s an argument to say this is the best in what used to be known as the Pro Evolution Soccer series since PES’ PS2 pomp… even if the menus haven’t improved much since then.If you put a lot of stock in an alluring user experience, you’ll probably have a few gripes with PES 2020 (which I refuse to stop calling it, Konami). Even after a facelift, the menus are pretty bad; a forlorn love letter to an era of awful PS2 menu music and cluttered formation screens. Yes, the songs that play in the background are now a little less ear-offending than before, yet place PES next to FIFA 20’s predictably slick, Sky Sports-aping presentation and this really is a ‘Champions League vs Johnstone Paint Trophy’ scenario.
It doesn’t help that the menus bring quirks that don’t just hinder, but hurt the user experience. For some reason, every time you try and sign a player through an agent menu in MyClub mode, it forces you to look at the potential transfers you could sign before bumping you back a screen, whereby you have to push the deal through again. It’s as frustrating as watching Ashley Young dive about like he was auditioning for a role in The Swan Princess.
Sorry, I just had to get that off my chest. The thing is, skipping through ugly formation screens is an easy-to-forgive, fleeting annoyance when you finally get a ball at your feet and see what a (mostly) brilliant performer PES 2020 is on the pitch. Slower and more deliberate than FIFA 20, considered, measured passing combines with crunching interceptions, creating believable ebbs and flows in play.
The build-up to goals is as satisfying as any football game I can remember in recent memory. Owing in large part to PES 2020’s effortlessly believable ball physics, passing your way through the field to a goalscoring opportunity is a joy. Konami’s ball has always led the field when it comes to seamless animation and this year is no different. Even after close to a hundred matches the bespoke twitches and constantly evolving movement of players can still surprise. The utter joy of PES is simple and has never been more pronounced than this season’s entry: even after 40-odd hours with the game, you can still see completely unique passes and assists. And, after all that build-up play, comes the shot at goal itself.
Yes, shooting in PES 2020 is glorious. Compare it to FIFA’s somewhat anaemic and predictable daisy-cutters and… well, there’s just no comparison to be made. Whether playing a controlled shot, a lob, a scything half volley, or even a simple 10-yard tap in, a combination of lovely, bespoke animations and enjoyable rumble feedback make every shot feel like a hair-raising event. The sheer variety of goals is also ahead of its EA rival, with patient midfield tiki-taka antics as likely to result in a bulging of the net as direct wing play. Taken as a whole, the on-the-pitch experience is a step up from PES 2019, and a cut above FIFA 20 – and that’s surely the most important element for a football game.
There are a couple of issues alongside the base level brilliance, however. Crossing is one area in which PES 2020 is extremely consistent… but not in a good way. While the animations that power whipping the ball into the box always look great, there seems to be a weird physics quirk at play this year. Over the course of all my time with the game, I’ve pinged hundreds of crosses into the box, yet more often than not, these flighted balls not only bypass attackers, they also fly past the defenders. About 60% of the time, crosses miss every player on the field entirely, often trickling out of play in slightly disappointing style.
Though defending in PES 2020 is generally granite-strong and responsive, there are a few minor off-the-ball issues. While sharp interceptions feel sturdy and satisfying, centre backs occasionally down tools in annoying fashion. On several occasions I’ve had centre-halves completely doze off, time seemingly standing still for them as they let an opportunistic striker beat them to a chipped through ball. Thankfully, these defensive brain freezes are rare enough that I can overlook a CB going AWOL every now and then.
32 PES 2020 Screenshots
Defenders can also be outfoxed by a couple of new skills inspired by the legendary Barcelona schemer, Andrés Iniesta. It’s a tad frustrating that these showy flair moves are difficult to pull off against the AI on all but the lowest difficulty settings, though they’re much easier to use online against fellow players. The Finesse Dribble lets you perform tight turns and shimmies by twirling the right stick, but while the animations look fantastic, I often found a double tap of sprint or a shot feint was more effective for beating a man than stick flicks. The Dummy Kick is more of a success story. Pressing triangle/Y just as you play a ball results in your player hitting a no-look pass; a technique that can drag the opposition out of position if you nail the timing. Pulling off this move makes me feel like a nonchalant badass.
Not that dribbling past or generally outfoxing players in PES 2020 is easy. Unless you’re playing on Amateur difficulty you’ll find the AI will win most 50/50 encounters (which technically makes them 49/51 encounters at best). Even when controlling Juventus’ hulking superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, the Old Lady’s tree-necked colossus is as prone to being tackled as any jobbing lower-league player. Mercifully, it’s markedly easier to skip past fellow human players in online duels; whether playing simple Kick Off matches or ranked head-to-heads in MyClub, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been left for dirt by a pacy winger under another player’s control. A special mention for Kylian Mbappé: the PSG phenomenon has single-handedly destroyed me in a half-dozen matches.
As for modes, PES 2020 plays things a little safe. The returning Master League can still be fiendishly addictive, yet this manager mode is pretty much the same as it’s ever been, albeit with snazzier presentation. Regular training ground cutscenes now bookend chapters revolving around, say, an upcoming derby or the scripted loss of a star player before an important cup game. These cinematics either involve a custom-made coach or a host of legendary figures you can appoint as your manager, like a strangely svelte Deigo Maradona, Zico, or Bebeto. They’re fairly well done, though the inclusion of a Mass Effect-style choice wheel, which lets you praise or criticise players, has no real bearing on how seasons play out.
Aside from more in-depth transfers that involve more accurate player valuations and trickier negotiations, Master League essentially offers the same experience it’s been serving up for close to two decades. It can still easily swallow whole days of your life, and it can prove horribly moreish when it gets its teeth into you, but a little more invention would have been welcome.
MyClub also returns in much the same format. Putting together a custom team by using scouts to sign players and by paying agents to buy stars remains addictive, even if the mode hasn’t really evolved. While you can spend real-world money on MyClub coins (see the boxout below for more on that), it’s still simple enough to build a winning side by churning through objectives to earn free GP – say, by renewing player contracts or winning a match from a losing position. Building a ragtag team composed of bygone-era legends, big-name superstars and promising youngsters still gives my inner footy nut a weirdly paternal pleasure. With the focus on levelling up existing squad players rather than constantly forcing them out for new signings, it’s easy to build up a real bond with your mishmashed group of comrades. MyClub has really struck a chord with me this season.
The online action can be patchy every now and then, though. I’ve experienced lag in both MyClub and the new eSports mode, where the latter’s online divisions and weekly competitions aren’t yet fully functional at time of writing. Most of the matches I play are buttery smooth, yet the odd game plagued with harsh server hitches never feels that far away. In PES’ defence, tweakable matchmaking options, like a parameter that prioritises stable connections, at least gives more patient players the chance to find smoother games at the expense of having to wait a little longer in online lobbies.
Thanks to EA’s colossal financial advantage over Konami, licencing in PES 2020 obviously remains an issue. Euro 2020 sides and teams from Serie A and France’s Ligue 1 all get their proper kits and badges, and there’s even a noteworthy coup: this year, Juventus is an official partner of PES – an exclusive deal which sees the Italian giants appear as ‘Piemonte Calcio’ in FIFA 20. Still, there are glaring holes when it comes to certain leagues.
Unless you’re a massive fan of the Danish Superliga or Thai League 1, the fact the English Premier League is still unlicensed is hard to stomach. Granted, at least the fake names make more sense now. Instead of say, West London, Frank Lampard’s Blues now appear as Chelsea B. As a general rule of thumb, unlicensed teams now get their real name with the addition of a letter signalling their kit’s colour, so Liverpool R rather than Merseyside Red. It’s a small improvement, but a welcome one.
Though the series’ licensing issues aren’t likely to be solved anytime soon, at least PES 2020 boasts the best player faces in the biz. Some of football’s top stars look downright gobsmacking this season. Whether it’s Messi and his gloriously unkempt ginger beard or Arsenal’s David Luiz appearing as every bit the glowering Sideshow Bob cosplayer he is in real life (complete with trademark wristbands), Konami’s facial-scanning tech continues to astound. If you gave me the choice of playing with PES 2020’s ludicrously life-like, ultra expressive stars and their occasionally fake kits or their slightly dead-eyed FIFA counterparts, I’d probably choose Konami’s unlicensed kickabout champs every time.