Releasing nearly a month ahead of its competitor, Konami has taken an aggressive approach in hopes of once again dominating the soccer market with PES 2019. Sticking true to its mantra, Konami seems intent on focusing its efforts on gameplay. Knowing that the major European licenses are locked into agreements with EA, Konami took a bold approach, parting ways with the UEFA Champions and Europa League licenses, and instead used that money towards acquiring the licenses to leagues such as the Russian Premier League and Scottish Premiership, among others.
Now that I’ve walked down the tunnel, it’s time to see how PES 2019 stacks up on the pitch.
Often dubbed “The Beautiful Game,” soccer is primarily anything but to me. For every momentary flash of brilliance, there’s tactical fouling, sloppy challenges and other little interruptions that help to break up the action. It’s in re-creating these actions where Konami has gotten into trouble recently. Striking the balance between realism and fun is a tough task for any developer, but fouls and proper midfield play are key components in this balance, and PES 2019 gets this more right than wrong. Proper representation of fouls in video games requires aggressive defenders willing to put in a challenge mixed with officials capable of whistling the fouls. PES 2019 does a great job at balancing the two, even inside the box where it was next to impossible to draw a penalty in PES 2018. Midfield play has been improved as well, although there’s still some room for improvement to be had when it comes to numbers and compactness. Perhaps tweaking formations and tactics will help in this area, but the fundamentals should never be sacrificed for the sake of fun.
One area where PES 2019 exceeds all expectations is on the ball. Whether it’s the dribbling or the animations, PES 2019 gives the most satisfying experience to date as you attempt to maneuver through defenses. Adding to this is the Player ID variety that really stands out this year. The difference between attackers and defenders is more pronounced compared to years prior where you could literally dribble the entire pitch with lumbering center backs. Skill moves are still a little difficult to pull off, but after some time in training mode I’ve been able to pull off the basics (step overs, feints, etc.). Using defender’s momentum and body position against him is also a great way to dribble past him without having to rely on tricks.
Animations are also greatly improved with sliding and clipping greatly reduced. Contextual animations such as shielding are still in the game, and while I wish they could be triggered on command, they generally play out well and don’t suck you into unnecessary actions. In the past when two players interacted physically, the result was usually ugly, but I can finally claim that the collision engine is the best it’s been with the aforementioned fouls capable of being triggered by nearly any body part. I have seen stray elbows to the face called as fouls, as well as small bites around attackers’ ankles be similarly called. Keepers also display new animations, although some need to be tweaked or maybe even removed — I’m looking at you superman diving catch out of mid-air. Apart from those moments, kick saves, parries, and deflections are improved even if the keepers still stay on their lines a little too long. While PES might not have as many animations as FIFA, they tend to play out in a more realistic manner (GIF).
Passing has also been tweaked for the better in PES 2019. Long gone are those 30-yard passes that rolled along the pitch like it was made of ice. Instead, passes have different trajectories and speed, depending upon body position, how close a defender is to you, and what foot you’re on (weak versus strong foot). Right now, my biggest issue is more so with pass recognition where sometimes the game will decide you’re passing to a player you have no intention of actually passing to at that moment. This alone is the reason I have scrapped zero-assistance passing. CPU passing has also been realistically tuned. The 1-2 passes, synonymous with prior PES games, have been reduced creating a more organic gameplay experience. Also tuned for the CPU is pass accuracy. Gone are the days of the CPU completing 90+ percent of their passes, especially chipped passes over the top and ground through balls, a PES 2017 staple. With AI defenders cutting off passing lanes, the challenge to find a good passing angle and weighing your risky passes for less risky options really impacts your strategy. Crossing remains largely unchanged and is still the CPU’s preferred mode of attack, in particular, the low-cross.
Shooting is another area where Konami obviously spent some time. Where PES 2018 suffered from insane shot speed and far too accurate shots, PES 2019 dials it back some with less accurate shots and more attention to body position and physics. Off-balance shots or those taken with your weaker foot can sail wide or over, meaning you’ll no longer see stat sheets with over 80 percent of your shots on target unless you’re super selective. Headers are also more realistic in terms or power and placement. Get a good running start while meeting your incoming cross at its apex, and you will see a more powerful header.
If there’s one thing that brings animations, shooting, passing and player movement together it’s the new first-touch system. Passing and controlling the ball are the two most basic fundamentals of footy and finally they’re properly respected. Pass the ball with too much power, and you’ll have a harder time controlling it. Trying to control a ball while the turbo button is depressed means a heavy touch. It’s a little nuance, one that often goes unnoticed during the course of a match, but it makes a huge difference in helping to “muck” the game up. While there might not be a first-touch rating or slider, better players seem to bring the ball in much better than say a Ligue 2 defender.
Defensively, standing tackles are much more difficult to pull off as the aforementioned foul system, dribbling and physicality make the risk/reward more important. Timing your challenges as well as knowing who to barge in with could mean the difference between winning the ball and seeing yellow. While standing challenges are very well done, slide tackles are still heat-seeking missiles with defenders able to cover an insane amount of ground. Despite this, they can still be relied upon in panic-driven situations and last-ditch efforts. Marking across the pitch has been drastically improved. Unless you have the “Deep Defensive Line” selected under “Advanced Tactics” (more on tactics later), your center backs will mark attackers much tighter around the box. No longer are you able to control a pass, face the goal and get off a shot. Chances are now that you’ll be forced to either shield the ball, take a touch away from goal, or perform another action that doesn’t result in an easy turn-and-shoot situation. All of this attention to defense makes the AI a proper challenge when it decides to bog down and park the bus.
If there’s one gameplay area that could use some attention it’s AI behavior. At times, the AI plays almost human-like in its ability to break down a compact defense while also adding a much needed element of error. Misplaced passes, mistimed tackles, scuffed shots and the occasional defender brain fart are incorporated well, yet there are still some head-scratching moments, especially when the CPU is in attack. The CPU will have a clear path on goal but will occassionally deviate and bungle its chance at a 1-on-1 with the keeper. Additionally, the CPU seems very reluctant to shoot from distance, leaving you to feel an all-so predictable mode of attack chosen by the AI. Occurrences like this might be acceptable on lower difficulty levels, but on Top Player and Superstar it’s inexcusable as the uptick in difficulty should mean the CPU/AI play smarter, not above and beyond their ratings.
Players are generally quicker to react to 50/50 balls, although the game will still often determine the player and lock you onto rails when trying to win them. This segues into an issue that plagued PES 2018, your AI teammates’ propensity to immediately sprint back into their defensive shape after conceding possession. While this type of strategy might appease older, more rigid managers, a philosophical change in real life to pressing high up the pitch, gegenpress, or just pressing in general seems to be all the rage. These tactics play out fairly well with your attackers, but there are still too many times where the player closest to the ball, whether it be a fullback or midfielder, should be closing down the opposition only to see them run away from the ball. Perhaps some tactics fidgeting might reduce this issue, but it’s really up to Konami to apply some common-sense logic to those situations.
Lastly on AI and piggybacking off the lack of awareness, there seems to be times where you’re on a counter and one of your teammates will inexplicably stop his run, turning a potentially advantageous situation into one where you’re on your own. Could you imagine seeing this play out in Belgium’s last-second victory over Japan in this summer’s World Cup? Imagine seeing Lukaku stop his run while the Red Devils broke forward, wasting a glorious opportunity. But it’s not all bad when it comes to the AI, as it will give you a proper challenge and use the attacking/defending levels very well throughout the match. I’ve seen teams drop 10 players behind the ball trying to defend a lead, making them extremely hard to breakdown. Conversely, they will throw numbers forward in attack when trailing and use their advanced instructions to change their gameplay mid-match.
For what seems like the 10th year in a row, Master League is largely unchanged. The mode that used to be a hallmark of the series has a few new wrinkles, but it ultimately suffers from some of the same issues that plagued PES 2018. New for 2019 is the introduction of the “International Champions Cup,” a tournament that takes place in the States as well as Asia and Europe. While it sounds nice and you can earn some extra transfer revenue, it’s generally a letdown as you only play three group matches and are automatically entered into it, no matter who you select.
Once you progress past that, you’ll notice there’s still no way to turn off the first transfer window, meaning players like Liverpool’s new signing Naby Keita could be moved again in theoretically the same window. Transfer negotiations and club budgets are also out of whack, trending on the extremely low side. With the the explosion of transfer fees over the past two summers, it appears that Konami is still operating in early 2000s as I was able to buy Real Madrid’s Isco for 22-million pounds, when realistically a player of his caliber would easily cost upwards of 75 million. Konami said it worked on negotiations and improved transfer AI, but if the developers did that it was only minor tweaks, such as being able to manually increase salary and transfer fees despite the introduction of a “Challenge Mode.“ You’re still limited to five negotiations at once, but thankfully it only takes two hours to negotiate now.
Player movement in the transfer window is still suspect as the CPU will make a real mess of its roster. In my Master League sim, I saw Man City sell Otamendi, Kyle Walker, America Laporte and Benjamin Mendy in the first window. That’s literally three-fourths of the starting defense from this past weekend with Mendy, Laporte and Walker all joining City last year. Opposing clubs will try to poach your players and it’s far easier than FIFA when it comes to selling/loaning your players. Youth squads are still generic and comprised of players from across the globe, which isn’t very realistic considering the majority of academy players are from the club’s base country. On the management side, “Missions” are new for ’19 and come via season, match and cup objectives. The confidence meter from 2018 is still there and will fluctuate depending on your success in meeting your missions. Manager contracts are still one year, meaning you can move from club to club if you so desire. In order to attract players back to Master League, Konami needs to spend some serious time and resources to make this the marquee career mode experience again.
PES’ answer to Ultimate Team, MyClub, is back and seems to be Konami’s main focus these days. At its core, MyClub focuses on building a club through acquiring players through agents/scouts, and leveling them up through various training options. Capable of being played against the CPU or human opponents, MyClub players earn GP by playing matches or MyClub coins that are able to be purchased with real money. Konami boasted that the MyClub received a complete overhaul, but in reality the changes were not as dramatic. Player packs replace the mysterious spinning bowling balls, meaning that instead of acquiring just one player you’ll receive more. New “High Performance Players” have been added and complement the “Players of the Week” and “Legends” in the game. While this sounds great and playing with the best players is always fun, the ease with which you obtain them creates a cheap experience. Not even a week after release, I have seen stacked clubs with the likes of Neymar, Mbappe and Messi all on the same team already. The concept of “building” your squad falls by the wayside when it’s so easy to acquire superstars so early after release. Player cards are also in and are based on rarity, which helps add some variety, as do the weekly and daily challenge. All in all, while it doesn’t hold up to Ultimate Team, I have found myself enjoying this mode as I wait for a complete option file and/or a gameplay patch.
An area where FIFA has distanced itself over the years is on the online front, which has never been a strong point for Konami despite the masses originally embracing it. Still embracing outdated servers and constant network checks, PES 2019 does offer the best online experience for the franchise to date. Once you traverse the seemingly endless layers required to just set up a quick match lobby, the lag and latency issues that often make the difference in a game based on input are minimal here, which is obviously great. My experiences thus far with “Online Divisions” have been positive as there are minimal exploits online. I’ve even faced a decent variety of teams, which is rare for this franchise as most online gamers gravitate towards Barcelona, PSG or Juventus. Perhaps this attributed to other super clubs not being licensed (Real Madrid, Bayern, Man City, etc.) but so far I’ve enjoyed my time in Division 12. Team Play, Konami’s version of FIFA Clubs, is back but if early indications are true, it will be very difficult to find a match as it seems no one plays this mode. Lastly, co-op makes another appearance in the series, but much like Team Play, it seems like the majority of PES players prefer Online Divisions and/or MyClub.
Graphically, PES 2019 is one of the best, if not the best looking footy game to date. Everything from pitch textures, faces, stadiums, and body models have all been enhanced and are incredibly detailed — minus the generic faces. Replays have cut down on motion blur and at times look lifelike. Unfortunately, the same kind of attention wasn’t extended to the presentation elements that are subpar for a game in 2018. As far as commentary, Petr Drury and Jim Beglin are back for the third year running, and apart from the occasional new line, are robotic in their delivery as if they’re reading directly from a script. Without official league licenses, Konami has a hard time replicating FIFA’s presentation elements. While stat overlays are more frequent, the rest of the overlays, including menus, are severely outdated — and cumbersome in relation to the menus. Edit Mode, a staple of PES, is back meaning that option files on the PS4 can help fill the void left by exclusive licenses, but Xbox One users are still left in the dark as Konami and Microsoft cannot seem to see eye to eye in terms of external file usage. Be sure to head over to the PES Option File thread to download the latest files from the folks over at PES Universe, PES World, and others.
PES will probably always lag behind EA when it comes to licensing. Konami simply doesn’t have the budget or fan base to compete with its competitor on a larger scale, meaning that the English Premier League will most likely never be featured in any future PES title. Instead, Konami took a bold move and walked away from a partnership with UEFA, dropping the Champions and Europa Leagues from PES 2019. While it might seem like a big loss at first, after you realize that it was simply match overlays and a few cutscenes, the loss isn’t as bad, especially when you consider that Konami put the money into new licenses. New this year are the Russian, Scottish, Belgian and Chilean leagues, to name a few. Along with these new leagues are new club partnerships. AS Monaco, Celtic, Rangers, and Schalke 04 have all been included this year with their authentic stadiums (some to come post-release via DLC).
As both gaming companies strive for authentic match experiences, tactics become ever-so important. While PES 2019 doesn’t offer any new tactical options, it does boast better implementation as teams will play out their off-the-field instructions better than in the past. Coupled with more defensively aware AI, the challenge on higher difficulties can be quite fun given the CPU chooses the right tactics. Attack/defense levels are back, and the CPU adjusts them accordingly throughout the match. I’ve seen the CPU push numbers forward trying to chase a result or conversely playing with 10 men behind the ball when trying to hold onto a lead.
One of the best experiences I’ve had with PES 2019 was a match where the CPU conceded possession to me and sat back defending tightly with 10 men. Dominating possession, it was up to me to break the defense down and produce a moment of magic. I felt like Pep Guardiola adjusting my game plan to combat these defensive tactics. Unfortunately, the folks over at Konami have not done their due diligence when it comes to assigning tactics with the good majority of clubs having the “Deep Defensive Line” instruction, which causes your defenders to drop extremely deep and give the opposition too much space inside your box. Perhaps option file makers will tweak these, but it’s a shame that a little neglected attention to detail has the ability to make the game play much worse without it. Another odd addition is the tactical overlays that display at the start of the half. It feels cheap knowing what your opponent’s game plan is before the match, especially when the tactics have such an impact on how the players react. Lastly, form arrows are back and sadly still random. Sure, it helps with squad rotation when your starters suddenly are on a downward trend, but it would nice if form mattered. Besides, “form is temporary, class is forever.”
Bottom Line: Should You Buy This Game?
In a nutshell, PES 2019 is better on the pitch than off of it, which is seemingly what you would want as a video game purist. However, in 2018 it’s quite simply not enough. When PES 2019 gets it right, the play on the pitch can look as real as can be. The essence of capturing magical moments has always been a PES staple, and PES 2019 does this extremely well, but the moments where the AI inexplicably behaves oddly coupled with the predictable AI attacks can be extremely frustrating. PES 2019 out of the box is by far the best iteration of this franchise, even despite the shortcomings of Master League. But even with that solid base, it can’t quite be adjusted to make it stand up with former legendary PES titles right now. With a few tweaks there is no doubt that it can offer the most true-to-life footy experience to date, but for those on the fence the recommendation is to wait and see if a patch addresses the AI issues.
What I Like:
- Defensive AI
- Feeling when the ball is at your feet
- Graphics & ball physics
What I Don’t Like:
- Master League
- CPU attacking AI variety
- Passing & 50/50 ball recognition