PES 2020 – sorry, eFootball PES 2020 – is rebranding, in case you hadn’t noticed. Konami wants this game to be known as the go-to football esport, built on its reputation as the go-to football sim: the serious one for serious football fans, as any Mundial-reading, Italia ’90 shirt-wearing, Borussia Mnchengladbach scarf-waving hipster would tell you.
Only, until now I honestly thought that was a load of rubbish, because I am not a PES – dammit, eFootball PES 2020 – man, and no it’s not just because of the licenses, either. The eFootball game formerly known as PES, for me, has always felt a bit lightweight, a bit too slip ‘n’ slide. Dare I say it, but to me it’s always felt a bit arcadey. I’ve always felt the ball would ping about a bit too erratically, like one of those flat-surfaced plastic petrol station jobs you used to toe-punt at your little brother – but also still fire into your teammates’ feet with unnerving reliability. I don’t love how you could get sent off after thirty seconds because every slide tackle lasts at least as long as that Sol Campbell one against Croatia in 2007, where he started in the 18 yard box and is still sliding to this day. I’m not a fan of how you’ve always had to wait about six seconds, every time the ball went out of play – goal kick, corner, throw in, someone sent off for slide tackling forty yards into a player off-screen, etc. – because the PES logo has to do that annoying swishing thing every chance it gets. Most importantly and more seriously, I’ve always felt it was too fluid, too open to be a sim. It was arcady – and arcadey is fun, absolutely, but a wild, ludicrous kind of fun. PES hasn’t been a sim in years, by my watch, and no amount of you cereal caf flat white sippers could convince me otherwise – but eFootball PES 2020? eFootball PES 2020, I think, is a sim.
I only had a couple of games to judge it on at E3 this year, mind. I played as poster boys Barcelona, obviously, against a decent AI that didn’t fall into any of the usual traps of ball-hogging or fun-sapping. One of the headline additions is a kind of close-control dribbling, where you’re able to hold a trigger to tease defenders by rolling the ball sideways in front of them before releasing it and sprinting for a sudden burst of pace. The change of pace only really works if you’re using a fast enough player, which makes sense, and it’s fairly obvious it’s been modelled around Lionel Messi, the alien boy face of Barcelona, eFootball PES 2020 and just being good at dribbling in general. Using Messi in particular to test this out feels great, at least in the brief chance I got, and looks remarkably true-to-life, all low-centre-of-gravity wriggling and jittering through lanky defenders, but without that sort of impenetrable reality distortion field that certain football games add to their highest-class dribblers.
In fact Barcelona in general feel as close to the real thing as any club I’ve played, maybe in any football game to date. Again, I have to keep qualifying this with the fact it’s based on a very limited amount of time, but everything from the passing style to the offensive movement looked and felt spot on. Players tiki and taka intricately in midfield, always there in short passing distance around the ball. First touches casual, body language open, eyes up – it genuinely makes you feel like you’re in control of the game, the way Barca ought to be, and the tempo naturally leads to a sense of probing attack, testing the other team’s concentration and positioning as you look for a pocket of space.
As you move into attack, forwards’ off the ball movement is great. Cut in from the right with Messi – maybe you’ve done a little close control-into-sprint thingy just like the ads told you – and forwards like Suarez or Coutinho will cross over in front of you, dragging defenders away and giving you just a brief window of time to slip a pass or shot through the gap. The sense is that the pace of the game is a bit slower than last year’s version, a bit more considered maybe, but without bringing things to a crawl. It’s a sort of “active” slowness where the ability is still there for you to turn it on, you just need to work for it, just like you ought to in the real thing.
It all means you’re thinking about space and players and tempo and movement, all the things you imagine a coach shouting at you in the dugout, instead of about exploiting systems in the game itself. It’s about working space for a shot, instead of working space for a certain mechanic you know to be overpowered. Obviously it’s early, early days – some mechanic might rise to the surface as overpowered once the wider public gets playing anyway – but from the brief time I had with eFootball PES 2020 it feels intuitive, as attacking with the best players should. More important than that, it feels like you’re playing football, instead of a game about it.