Pro Evolution Soccer keeps handing its haters fuel. If the series doesn't have big-name licenses, the FIFA crowd says, it's not worth playing. PES has destroyed this notion with an excellent return to form over the last few years, but for the first time in a while, this year's game throws up more questions than answers.
First things first: PES 2019 plays a brilliant game of football. It's more challenging than ever, is beautifully detailed in 4K HDR and will be celebrated by those already invested in the series. Konami have sought to give players more control and opportunities to play their personal brand of football. As such, PES 2019 takes no prisoners in its search for realism on the pitch.
Last year's game tasked players with learning a more intricate style, one that favoured intelligent shifts of momentum over holding sprint and relying on breakneck speed. PES 2018 capitalised on the solid base built across years of reworking the series after a dire run on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. To the naked eye, you'd think PES 2019 was the same game sporting graphical enhancements and new skill moves, but subtle tweaks have a major impact.
The most immediately noticeable upgrade is the physical feel of the ball. There's a weighty response to each pass that just makes sense if you've ever played football. You'll know straight away when you've made a dud lay-off or overhit a simple pass because the ball reacts properly. Possession doesn't easily snap together, and you're forced to work harder to maintain control.
Mistakes are far more common because of this. The AI squeezes space out of the pitch more aggressively, actively trying to win the ball back just as you build rhythm. Even on mid-range difficulties, the opposition is drilled to remain disciplined if a result is within reach, only breaking free of their shackles once chasing a late goal.
PES 2019 calls on players to demonstrate their full range of passing to consistently win matches. There are genuine lulls in play as teams cancel each other out, with cross-field balls and neat flicks becoming vital to manoeuvring through a tight midfield. Subtle feints and shifts of body weight remain key to escaping trouble and need to be considered before receiving the ball. One-touch play is make or break, as it either tears the opposition apart or leaves you massively exposed on the break.
A lack of responsiveness can interrupt the flow of matches. It's not uncommon to run into teammates who step into the way while you're dribbling, and there are moments where you'll wonder if your button press has registered at all. Defenders are slow to turn and compete when a pass is played behind them, even if you read the situation by switching players ahead of time. If you can nip ahead of the centre-back when a cross comes in, you're going to often score.
Aerial challenges from goal kicks also feel weighted in favour of the forward by virtue of their being closest to the ball, particularly on tougher difficulties or against a friend. These aren't game-breaking issues, but when the physical battle is so fierce and unpredictable in midfield, it's disappointing that patterns emerge in other situations.
This is also true of the controlled shot, which continues to be an overpowered route to goal from anywhere inside the final third. Goalkeepers are slightly more reactive to deflections and face up well to rising strikes, but they still can't cover the goal to consistently stop curlers.
PES 2019 eases this burden somewhat by having the best net physics ever seen in a football game. Just like the feel of the ball is correct, Konami have nailed a key component of the sport that is easily overlooked. The lifelike ripples and bulges add to the thrill of scoring and are evidence that the little details are taken seriously.
Adding to that, referees are far stricter and now give a decent number of fouls in each match. This has long been a complaint of the community, so it's good to see bookings dished out realistically for both teams, as the computer now uses plenty of sliding tackles. Flying into a challenge or using too much force is a risky tactic of breaking up play. This kind of attention to detail is the series' greatest shield against the volley of abuse that will inevitably be hurled from FIFA lovers.
The elephant in the room, then, is the end of Konami's UEFA Champions League agreement. It's a headline-grabbing addition for FIFA 19, taking centre stage in the game's promotion. The PES choir won't really care—fake kits and competitions have been a factor for years—but there's no denying this is a significant notch on EA Sports' belt. PES 2019 includes new licenses such as the International Champions Cup and the Turkish Super Lig, but these only underline the slim pickings available.
A far greater barrier for entry is the frustrating lack of fluidity through menus and just about anything that isn't on the pitch. Team management is classic PES—overcomplicated and off-putting to anyone who hasn't grown up with it—and there have been no upgrades to the way the game is presented. Last year's menu, minus the Champions League overlay, says a lot about where the series is.
Such uneasiness echoes through PES 2019. There's nothing better than the Master League mode for those who already love it, but for others it'll be a slow, bloated experience that doesn't match the slickness of a FIFA career. Again, this isn't a new conundrum, but you have to think Konami are actively driving new players away by keeping a bogged-down system for years on end.
This is all part of PES' image problem within the gaming community. While there's plenty of content on offer—including the brilliant Random Selection Match—there are minimal surprises if you've spent time with the series in recent years. With no online component available for review, there's also no way of telling if myClub has made any significant strides towards competing with FIFA Ultimate Team.
PES is in something of a curious situation, then. Tougher, more realistic gameplay will delight many. It's a rewarding experience that replicates real football in a way that's never been achieved before.
Although the developer continues to poke and prod to find the sweet spot between realism and playability, it's difficult to say this is a better game than PES 2018. It certainly doesn't feel as fresh, even if the action's increased faithfulness to the sport may prove to be a key experiment in years to come.
It's getting harder to defend PES from the non-believers. The developer's attention has been so focused on gameplay that they've lost sight of other areas that need improving. In doing so, the series is backed closer to the wall than it's ever been on this generation of consoles. Scrutiny is being welcomed because PES is giving new users fewer reasons to play each year.
The painful truth is, things may never change. FIFA's grip on the market is undeniable, and the fact is that many players won't give PES a chance until it features a substantial catalogue of licenses. For those who have PES DNA, this year's game is another daring step towards realism that deliberately distances itself from FIFA's fast-paced, flashy gameplay.
There's something special about playing a pass or hitting a shot and knowing straight away if you're going to be successful. PES needs to bottle and continue building from this unique formula. Year-on-year the critics will be loud—and there's no denying PES 2019 has problems—but it still plays the best football on the market.
Offline Game Summary: Gameplay: 9/10, Graphics: 8.5/10, Modes: 7/10, Overall: 8/10.
Editor's note: No online functionality, including myClub mode, was available at the time of writing. PES 2019 is available from Aug. 28 in the United States, followed by a worldwide release on Aug. 30.