Photo Credit: Konami
For a football game that has long needed to improve its defensive credentials, it's baffling that only one of seven advertised gameplay changes to PES 2020 — now inelegantly retitled eFootball PES 2020, to reflect Konami's growing focus on e-sports — focuses on that aspect. Even then, said defensive improvements have more to do with player animations than Konami's philosophy and approach to the art of winning back possession. In PES 2020, defenders still charge like homing missiles, aren't interested in tracking forward runs, and tend to get caught on the ball themselves. It's almost as if the developers are content with the current state of affairs. That said, there are attempts elsewhere — though the results are decidedly mixed.
To dissuade defenders from pestering attackers, Konami has seemingly toned down the amount of aggressive shoulder pushing and shoving that's allowed in PES 2020. With a limited threshold for defensive pressure, the percentage of attempted tackles that result in fouls is naturally much higher than in earlier years, with a corresponding increase in the number of soft cautions. In short, it's much easier to earn yellow cards. (More so for those transitioning from EA Sports' FIFA, which is happy to let players engage in physical battles.) From our time with PES 2020, we came away wondering if Konami doesn't think football ought to be a contact sport.
The other thing that makes defending easier than it should be on PES is that there's not enough space to play on the pitch. PES 2020 grants players two new tools to deal with that menace, but they're both strangely limited to high-rated footballers due to their very nature. (It's a possible by-product of how most only play with the biggest teams, causing Konami to build features that would cater to the largest section of its audience.) A new skill called “Tight Possession” offers greater ball control in tight spaces, while the new finesse dribble mechanic — executed with the help of the controller's right-stick — allows you to sneak past defenders. But the second is even more limited in that it's not easy to master, since you're liable to run into a player while trying to get past him.
Still, these are encouraging signs that show Konami recognises its defensive pitfalls, even as it's unwilling or unable to mount an overhaul of the existing approach. Moreover, the aforementioned changes in PES 2020 also help dilute the weird mix of realism and arcade-y fun that PES 2019 had become. (The introduction of dynamic weather is one such factor that forces you to adapt, though there's still no visual accumulation of snow.) But though PES 2020 is certainly more tilted towards the former than before, it still allows for seamless one-touch football at times on the other hand, with goals involving first-touch crosses and shots that make it feel as if the ball is zipping through the air weightlessly.
For what it's worth, Konami is helping matters with a much-delayed introduction of “context-sensitive kick accuracy” in PES 2020, which means body posture, position on the pitch, and defensive pressure have noticeable effects. If you aren't facing your receiver, expect the speed and accuracy of your pass to be heavily impacted. This also has an impact in front of goal, where even unmarked players are liable to miss the target if the balance or momentum is off. PES 2020 is more finicky and punishing than FIFA when it comes to one-on-ones, with differences in how much you can push the left-stick for shot direction, and the shot power versus placement equation.
Speaking of a focus on realism, Konami has fixed the hilarious transfer fiascos that affected Master League — manager mode, in other words — in PES 2019. Don't expect to poach your rival club's biggest club players or sell your bench players nearing retiring age at a premium. In fact, clubs on PES 2020 now factor in age when making their bids, which means they will (usually) offer less than market value, even if the player is among the best in his position (rated 85+). Not only is it tougher to sell, it's tougher to buy too. Konami has gotten rid of the “chances of signing” feature that made it easier to navigate tricky transfers, allowing you to play around and figure out the least payment you could get away with.
But there's still one Master League aspect that hasn't been fixed — and has likely worsened: release clauses. At the start of the first season, the market value of nearly every player in our roster had virtually outgrown their respective release clause. Even the new players we signed would insist on a release clause lower than what we were paying for them, which makes absolutely zero sense. That would never fly in the real world. And should you wish to raise the value, PES 2020 screams the same thing every single time, with your sports director claiming you “might have rubbed him up the wrong way”. Thankfully, it's mostly lying.
Of the nearly 30 players we negotiated with about higher release clauses, only three youngsters straight up declined and an additional six asked for an appearance bonus. Eventually, we were to able get most of them to sign on the dotted line, with exceptions for young players looking for more game time elsewhere. Our experience suggests that you can increase release clause values at a financial cost, and that it's nowhere near as impossible as the overly dramatic sports director makes it sound. Unfortunately, our (natural) concern that clubs would snatch our players was unfounded, as PES 2020 still mollycoddles players by not triggering release clauses unless you're playing on the tougher “Challenge Mode”.
There are other improvements in Master League on PES 2020 as well, but they are all on the visual side of things. (The game itself has gotten a visual upgrade, though we have nothing more to add than what we said after the demo.) The big one is the introduction of dynamic cutscenes at crucial junctures during the season — the start, derbies, transfers, and the like — wherein you'll sometimes have the option to interact by choosing from three dialogue responses. This essentially helps set your personality and in turn, how you're perceived by the fans and the media. And thankfully, it does this without telling you how your response will be perceived and its effect on your overall personality, unlike EA Sports with FIFA's The Journey story mode.
But the cutscenes are limited in variety and tend to push a charged narrative even when there's nothing to hype. For instance, we were nine points clear with just nine games remaining in the race for the league title by the time the return fixture rolled around, but PES 2020 felt obliged to claim that the title rested on the result of the derby match even when it clearly didn't. Additionally, there's even less variety with cutscenes that involve new transfers, and you will find yourself skipping them from the second instance. For what it's worth, PES 2020 doesn't over-indulge with cutscene opportunities, though.
There's a new user interface in place for Master League as well, though Konami doesn't make it any easier to navigate it. It's still made up of drop-down menus that you can't cycle through with the controller's trigger buttons — RB on Xbox One / R1 on PS4 — and are hence entirely dependent on your left stick or the D-pad. We feel it would be much better to spin off each section — from “Team Management” to “Manager's Office” — into different screens, à la how EA Sports does with FIFA's Career Mode. That said, the new menu is still a welcome change. Though Konami's focus is clearly more visual than in the details, given typos that claim clubs looking to buy your players are open to “letting him go”, and the deadline day nonsense that doesn't allow you to multi-task, with every action — from salary negotiation to the actual transfer — taking its own individual time.
Such smaller issues — from the mundane to more important — are present across the board on PES 2020. AI keepers almost never charge, even when doing so could potentially help. And if you let the AI handle tactics on its own in PES 2020, it can lead to hilarious results. Once during a game, for our “Counter Target” strategy, which is meant to keep forwards up front rather than helping out in defence, PES 2020 picked one of our defenders. Wait, what? Others are more annoying than detrimental to gameplay, be it commentators treating a two-legged season opener as a knockout fixture, or Master League not automatically asking you to pick sides if there's more than one controller attached.
Away in the online realm, the big new thing is called “Matchday”, akin to the erstwhile “Match Day Live” in FIFA. In Matchday — available for a select few hours each day — you get to support either the “Home” or “Away” side, post which you can pick a team depending on the real-world fixtures slotted for that week. Since PES 2020 launched during an international break, European national teams make up week one. (PES 2020 has the UEFA Euro 2020 license, so that's nice.) With your team, you compete in group stage matches to earn points for your side, earning myClub rewards along the way. At the end of a given Matchday, the best performer is picked as the representative in a “grand final”, where they might start with a goal advantage if your side managed more points during the group stage.
Konami hasn't talked about the money-hungry myClub this time around, though it does have one welcome tweak that should mean less of a grind in theory. (In practice, it's going to take more than a few hours to find out.) In PES 2020, the player baseline has been reset from Level 30 to Level 1, with players now performing at their rated level from the start. You can still level them up, which will improve their stats. Other than that, myClub is still the same annoying game mode as FIFA's Ultimate Team, with players emerging with brilliant squads on day one (likely) by throwing bucketloads of money on in-app purchases, starting at Rs. 76 for 100 myClub coins and going up to Rs. 7,400 for 12,000 coins. Belgium put an end to this nonsense — at least in FIFA — by classifying it as gambling, and it's high time other countries followed suit.
If you're wondering why we've gone so long without talking about licenses, that's because we think it's essentially a lost cause at this point. Sure, Konami has new partnerships with the likes of Juventus, Manchester United, and Bayern Munich on PES 2020, with the first of those being exclusive to PES this year. (As a result, Juventus' name, logo, and kit won't be in FIFA 20.) But this is a one step forward, one step backward battle. Liverpool is back with EA, for one. Thankfully, Konami has had the bright idea of giving all unlicensed clubs much more identifiable names: Chelsea B rather than London FC, for example. And as always, enterprising players can rely on the PES community for unofficial updates.
While football fans place a huge value on licenses, EA Sports' financial dominance means it's nigh impossible for Konami to compete at this point. PES — and its fans — are better served by the developers focusing on what they can control. PES 2020 looks much better than its earlier counterparts both on and off the pitch, and though the gameplay is still a mix of arcade and simulation, it's more playable and enjoyable than in previous years. (A new default camera offers a wider perspective of the pitch, but we found ourselves going back to the old default.) Unfortunately, fixing PES' inherent defensive flaws will take a lot more than the half-hearted attempts on display here. PES 2020 is the best PES game since the start of the decade, but that's not good enough to challenge for the crown.
Rating (out of 10): 8