What is it? Tiny men on your screen playing pretend football. Again.
Expect to pay: $60/£45
Reviewed on: i5 6500, RTX 2080 TI, 16GB RAM
Multiplayer? Online competitive
Link: Official site
Danilo D'Ambrosio heads off an opposition pass with an outstretched foot, finds some space on the right and surges forward into it. He looks up and notices Radja Nainggolan's made a clever run clear of his Bologna marker and deftly outside-foots it to intercept his trajectory, whereupon Nainggolan consumes the ball and the yards in front of him ravenously. It’s a few seconds of lithe, deeply human football that cuts out half the opposition squad, and with the final third theirs for the taking, my Inter attackers descend on the box, smelling blood.
Perisic is the spearhead of that advancing line, and Naingollan picks him out with a perfectly measured through ball. All he has to do is dink it up past the keeper’s flailing arm. He gives up on the run and watches the ball roll harmlessly past him.
Such is the freeform, mercurial, usually convincing and yet often frustrating football that PES has played for several years now. Only it’s not called football this time, it’s eFootball, the added character presumably some sort of enthusiastic nod towards esports.
Don’t be eFooled though, the modes are just as they always were: Become a Legend zooms the microscope in on a single player and lets you live out a career—though nothing as choreographed as FIFA’s The Journey—while Master League’s there for longform pursuit of team glory in offline form, and MyClub provides the real showpiece: a full-fat, menu-laden odyssey of online competition, team-building, and stat-padding. Online multiplayer offers a new Matchday mode akin to limited-time raids in MMOs along with divisions, quick play and co-op. These things we know, of course: they’ve been that way since the formation of Pangea.
What has changed, marginally but perceptibly, is what happens on the pitch. There’s an influx of new animations in all aspects of the game, and the end result is indeed a more realistic game of football. That’s not to say it’s always a prettier one—for every new bit of bicycle kick mocap, an improvised finish, or a pass that would have been right at home in the Joga Bonito adverts, there are a legion of new ways to show players tussling with each other, miskicking the ball, stumbling, or crowding each other out.
That has an odd effect. Part of me's nodding along in appreciation of the purity and realism, while the other part (and this part becomes dominant as soon as I go a goal down) just wants my players to go whirring around like cartoon characters as they did fifteen years ago. It’s a definite improvement. It doesn’t always make for a more spectacular game of football, that’s all.
With your players now empowered to make all manner of new cock-ups along with all the ones they proved themselves eminently capable of making in previous games, an added pinch of concentration’s required. It’s crucially important to use player’s bodies to face the direction they’re passing and keep an eye on trajectory and momentum, because if their stats don’t let them pull off backheels they’ll try—and fail—to turn on a dime and gallumph the ball out of bounds when you ask too much of them.
That’s especially true of crossing. This is the area that feels the most evolved from PES 2019 and its nigh-identical predecessor PES 2018, because it rewards proper body positioning and timing with some fantastic, varied deliveries, and also punishes artless taps of the cross button with demeaning scuffs.
When it comes to problems, though, the song remains the same. Even aside from eFootball PES 2020’s scant licenses (which its community is already beavering away at remedying via option files), its presentation still feels forty or fifty years behind FIFA's. There’s nothing here to contend with Alex Hunter's cheesy but luxurious cinematics, and the big new feature in Master League is the inclusion of wordless, faintly creepy cutscenes between your chosen manager avatar and other club staff. It’s endearing, in its own way, but it’s a world away from EA Sports' patented polish.
The failings aren’t just surface-level, though. Ivan Perisic isn’t the only player to pass up an easy goal or watch a perfectly good pass roll inches away from his boots. There's an odd dullness to AI players which isn’t entirely new but manifests itself in new ways thanks to the increased emphasis on tussles and loose balls pinging out of challenges. They seem simply incapable of pouncing on the ball themselves, and there isn’t always time to select them and move them manually before the moment escapes.
And yet—how many times have you read this statement over the years?—PES still plays more convincing football than its rival. Players don’t seem to snap between canned animations anything like as much as in FIFA, and for eFooty purists that’s all that matters. Those with a soft spot for decadent presentation and narratives, though, will be frustrated by eFootball PES 2020’s unwillingness to compete on those terms.