The first thing I notice with PES is that I really, really suck.
My evolution as a soccer gamer goes something like this: When I was about 5 or 6 years old, I got a FIFA game for my Nintendo 64. I used France a ton because they had this guy named “Zinedine Zidane” and he was extremely good. From that point on, I played a whole lot of FIFA. That’s, uh, the end of the story.
As you can tell from that abrupt tale that also spans about 23 years of existence, playing PES was never really in the cards. It was, to be clear, a brand loyalty thing: Like someone who wants a Google Pixel but has always had iPhones, I just never really felt the urge to try and learn a new soccer game when I’ve known the intricacies of another for such a long time. As such, I had literally never played PES, save for one demo of PES 2019 for about two minutes before I realized how bad I was and decided to go, I dunno, read a book or something.
It’s part of why I wanted to review eFootball PES 2021 Season Update. There are only so many opportunities in the world of sports games when you can go into something completely new and unaware of everything — every NBA 2K release is pretty similar to the last, every Madden features little tweaks here and there, every edition of MLB The Show follows the formula that has made it a juggernaut. Playing PES offered a chance to try something completely new, and for a person in my shoes, it’s something new at a discounted price.
This year’s edition is a season update as opposed to a standalone, gigantic release, and Konami responded to this by putting together a full game for $29.99. There is a conversation to be had about whether this should be the model for all sports sims — it is so hard for companies to come up with new, innovative games every year, they can oftentimes grow really stale because of this, and perhaps it might be wise to adopt a monster season update every other year so a new game can legitimately be new. That’s a conversation for a different time, though. As for this game, I figured it would the perfect entry point into the series, and I was excited to try out the various bells and whistles with fresh eyes.
For all of these reasons, I fired up the game, used my beloved Manchester City against small Belgian side Cercle Brugge and oh dear god I lost 1-0.
The act of playing PES is, even for the worst first-timer, fun. It isn’t the most dynamic and video game-y soccer playing experience, but it managed to be a slow, controlled game that doesn’t feel like it’s stuck in the mud, a really hard balance to strike but one it finds very well. The presentation is also very, very good, although we’ll get to some of the quibbles I have in a little.
The big thing, though, was I had zero idea how to actually play PES. Fortunately, the game does a great job in looking to get you up to speed. Its training menu is quite vast, and seeks to familiarize you with dribbling and passing mechanics of all sorts. It takes quite a long time to get through everything if your goal is a complete understanding of the controls, but PES creates the exact kind of hyper-immersive experience that really helps new players figure out what they need to do when they’re playing.
Still, spending this time is invaluable, and getting into a game when you know what’s going on is, shockingly, a much better experience. The weight of the ball is the biggest thing that comes through as you play — again, the game doesn’t feel nearly as quick and loose as its virtual footy counterpart has in previous editions, but there’s legitimate weight to every pass, the dribbling feels incredibly controlled, and you get to mix in skill moves and feints that look and feel authentic. That authenticity in gameplay is something that PES really seems to hang its hat on, and it’s a joy.
The game’s presentation is also outstanding, when it’s able to be. There is a pretty obvious issue that the game has when it comes to licensing for most clubs — the Premier League is the English League, with teams like Chelsea B, Liverpool R, and Manchester B in it — but the players all look pretty good. And when you play for or against a team with whom PES has an official license, like Barcelona, Juventus, or Manchester United, the presentation is absolutely stunning. Using the Catalan giants, for example, leads to a breathtaking pregame experience, while the in-game version of the Nou Camp looks lifelike. The stadiums, in particular, my word. They look remarkable if you are using one with which the game has a licensing agreement — Celtic Park in Glasgow and Stade Louis II in Monaco look just as good as, say, Wembley Stadium or Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena. In the places where Konami was able to leave no stone unturned, they made sure they did not.
The feel for the game does take a minute, though. If you are like me and PES is not your soccer game of choice, getting the buttons down is particularly tricky. But on the whole, the act of actually playing soccer in the game is a blast, which was the one thing I anticipated coming in — other PES players I know have said that while FIFA is the bigger game, PES is the better football-playing experience, and it’s very easy to see how you can come to that conclusion the more you play. It manages to feel lifelike in so many of the right ways, although if I had to file a complaint with anything outside of the licensing stuff, it’s that I really, really wish defending in the game felt a little more even.
One thing that I love about FIFA is how easy defending feels, both 1-on-1 and with the AI, and PES just isn’t quite there. Speaking of the AI, I feel like it’s not quite intelligent and reactive enough to what you’re trying to do on the pitch, which can be a gigantic pain in the neck. This is a really hard balance to strike, because, well, you can’t know what’s going on in a person’s head and how they imagine a player off the ball is moving, but there is room for improvement here.
The menus as you’re assembling your team can use a little work as well. They just look clunky, with players’ heads sitting on top of their positions/ratings and names, although I do like how you can quickly adjust positioning and have that play to a player’s strength and see what happens to a player’s rating if they are put in an unfamiliar position. The list of formations isn’t particularly gigantic, but PES is really good about giving you the flexibility to move players around and position them as you like. And when it comes to putting together attacking and defensive instructions, along with giving yourself the ability to use a collection of advanced instructions that you can bust out during matches — telling your striker to play as a False 9, making it so your fullbacks fly up and down the flanks, having your defensive line sit back deep — the options are both plentiful and fun to explore.
I still need to do a lot of digging into the other various modes, such as myClub, which is Konami’s take on EA’s various Ultimate Team modes — I generally avoid these due to my aversion to things that are built on microtransactions. Master League is a career mode in which you take over a team and try to lead them to glory (fun twist: you can make your manager a number of footballing legends, like Diego Maradona). Become a Legend is basically exactly what you’d expect a thing called “Become a Legend” to be, where you either make a player or take over an existing one and play through their careers.
But overall, I wanted to use my first however many hours of PES to learn about the game, learn how to play it, and get a sense for a virtual footballing experience I’ve never had before. It’s not a perfect game, because there are scant few of those, but for individuals who want to get into it, picking up a copy at a relatively cheap price is not a bad idea in the slightest. It’s like an audition before next year’s game, which Konami promises is going to look far different due to the implementation of a new game engine. By then, hopefully I’ll be able to give a review that is a bit more informed based on prior experience, and can answer decisively whether it’ll be worth that price. Until then, a full, fun game for $29.99 is quite a steal, even if you are like me and you really, really suck at soccer in the PES universe.