When the whistle blows and the play starts, PES is practically unrivalled. FIFA does what it does extremely well, no doubt, but the passing game that Konami has been perfecting over the years is utterly superb. That remains the case in Pro Evolution Soccer 2019, as once again Konami has delivered a gripping interpretation of the beautiful game.
PES is at its best when you're playing forwards, facing the opposition goal with the ball at your digital feet. The passing and movement of the players is intelligent and realistic, and it's easy to initiate attacking moves that flow from player to player. There's a natural elegance to the play that we thoroughly appreciated, an element helped this year with improved contextual animations and refined visuals. If you can forgive the fact that many teams are playing in unofficial kits, you'll find a handsome game packed with fan-servant details.
The contextual animations are brilliant. Never before has digital football looked so natural, with realistic movements strung together with impressive fluidity. You'll see strikers hurdle keepers, one-twos finished off with blistering snapshots, and midfield tussles between players where the ball seems to have a life of its own. You're offered near total control of the action, yet at the same time there's a feeling that you're always trying to tame the ball and bring it under your spell - it's a juxtaposition that stops you feeling comfortable and keeps close matches tense.
So-called "magic moments" add further realism and authenticity to the action. Some of the game's biggest stars now play with a touch more individualism that sets them apart - just a little but just enough - from the other players on the pitch. It makes the best players matter more, adding spice to that moment when they receive the ball in an offensive position. On the other hand, these flashes of brilliance are mitigated by entirely plausible errors of judgement, from both player and the AI. It's imperfect but authentically so, and you'll regularly see scrappy 50/50 challenges and loose balls ping around dangerous areas when attackers overextend or defenders try to swipe the ball and clear the lines.
Referees are once again a little inconsistent, although they certainly added the kind of ironic drama you'd expect from any real-life official. Importantly, they never really influenced anything significant while we were playing and we were more often cursing our own mistakes than anything else. Another inconsistency is the match day atmosphere itself. Ignoring the fact that the commentary is inescapably bad, the atmosphere during some games is noticeably better than it is in others. If you're lucky enough to support a team that partners with Konami then you're in for a treat thanks to accurate chants and vividly recreated stadiums.
When the full-time whistle has blown things get a bit more problematic. While the act of putting your laces through a football is as satisfying as ever, the sometimes unintuitive UI frustrates. There are too many button presses, too many pointless screens to read through, and so many of the menus are a little confusing when they absolutely don't need to be. While there are certain UI elements that feel reassuringly PES, themes and touches that have echoed down the ages, so much of it feels archaic and we're getting to the point where building on top of old foundations just isn't working anymore - perhaps it's time to tear the whole thing down and start from scratch.
We could live with clunky menus, but there are other areas that just don't stack up. The commentary is pretty bad. It always has been, but this year the delivery is as tired as the script. It doesn't help that the often asinine chatter is bereft of deeper context. Perhaps it's unreasonable to expect entirely plausible match day commentary, but even with lowered expectations, this is something that could be much better implemented. Similarly, the text in the menus, the quotes attributed to players, the language used around the transfer system; it feels unconvincing and the entire wrapper ends up being something we have to tolerate so we can get at the good stuff inside.
There isn't much to report in terms of new modes, and the offline matches we've sampled so far offer little in the way of innovation. We'll report back with any issues we encounter with MyClub and the other online modes, although our initial online experience has at least been smooth. The MyClub mode, similar to FUT in so many ways, returns with a few enhanced features, and if you're so inclined you can put together a dream team of players (you can also speed your progress if you're prepared to pay real money). If you prefer to play with actual teams, there are the usual options of playing tournaments and standalone league seasons, although for a deeper and more rewarding long-term experience you can always run a club and manage them over an extended period of time in Master League, or take a single player on an adventure in Become a Legend.
Master League has been updated enhanced with fresh ways to develop your players and team, as well as some new transfer mechanics. Sadly the revisions to the transfer system already feel out of date and some distance from the ever-changing sport they're supposed to replicate. Transfer dealings and deadline day business ends up being a bit of a chore, and the dialogue between clubs and players has been reduced to a numbers game where you nudge incentives around to increase your chances of making a signing - which would be fine if the totals being bandied around were reflective of genuine transfer fees currently being paid by clubs all over the world. They're not, though, so it became yet another barrier to immersion.
On the bright side (for some at least) we get a handful of new licensed leagues, like the Scottish and Russian top divisions, but they're not enough to gloss over the loss of the Champions League and Europa League competitions. The friendly pre-season extravaganza otherwise known as the International Champions Cup makes an appearance, but when so many other leagues are unofficial or even totally MIA, a fancy pre-season tournament isn't much of a consolation prize. The Bundesliga is totally missing save for a couple of partnered clubs, and so many of the top teams from around the world still come with made-up names. Sure you can track down an update to give you a more accurate database, but it doesn't come as standard.
There's merit to the argument that the most important thing in a football sim is the action on the pitch, but in our modern age of 24/7 team specific news coverage, where clubs are fronted by social media teams and training sessions are tweeted, and where you can watch every match - from friendlies to the season's grand finale - football is obviously more than just what happens on the pitch. When considered in its entirety, what with its ageing menus and clunky setup, it's hard to argue that PES is an entirely accurate representation of the sport it's based on. Perhaps it never really was. Perhaps we'd be more forgiving if EA wasn't absolutely nailing it with FIFA these days, but when it comes to reflecting the glitz around the action on the pitch, the business of football and not just the playing of it, this year's game is still lagging behind.
PES has earned itself a deserved legion of dedicated supporters over the years, fans who are prepared to look past the quirks and various oversights because the system is just so damned good. Once again that dedicated community is being served up a fine footballing feast and, if your main focus is the action that takes place on the pitch, Konami has coded a convincing alternative to the heavily licensed offering from EA Sports. Our main concerns all rest on the frame that surrounds the football itself because once again this area is a little lacking. Purists will certainly find satisfaction on the field of play in this year's iteration, but fans of the sport looking for a deeper dive into the behind the scenes machinations of the beautiful game won't really find what's included in Pro Evolution Soccer 2019 all too convincing. That's a crying shame because if Konami could only sharpen up in this one crucial area, this year's PES would be downright unmissable.