It was the best of times, it was the soccer-est of times. If you are reading this sentence, that means my editor let me keep my joke in the review and I win.
There are few things nowadays we can count on: Turning on The Office for the millionth time in place of watching something new, daylight savings time f**king up our sleep schedule, and annualized sports games. With each passing year, we can always rely on the various sport franchises to begin their staggered release windows right around now to usher us into fall. It’s a nice, athletic security blanket that rarely lets us down and consistently gets better over time.
Well, I am happy to report that Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer 2019 continues that trend. Save for a few game modes that can be confusing for new players and the lack of licensed clubs that makes the game feel hollow, PES 19 is a fun, competent soccer title.
After booting up the game, the first thing I noticed was the sheer volume of game modes begging for my attention. It was a bit jarring, but after I got my bearings, I quickly booted up a league season so I could take my West Ham United boys into victory. Yes, I am a West Ham fan. I know — I know. They are not the best team, evidenced by their 0-3 start this season, but your team is your team, and hell if I wasn’t going to achieve a semblance of fan pride by making my virtual West Ham the best in the league.
Unfortunately, Konami doesn’t have the license for West Ham, so they are called East London. In fact, as mentioned above, most of the Premier League teams are not licensed, except for the big clubs like Liverpool and Arsenal. I understand that EA shells out an unfathomable amount of cash to be the biggest license holders, making it difficult for other soccer franchises to exist, but it was still a bummer to play as my favorite team and not see the traditional kit colors, team name, or even player likeness. There is a degree of authenticity that is expected from these games. We watch our favorite players and teams all year, and we play as them because we are proud to be their fans. When I score as Marko Arnautovic, the commentator screams a team name that doesn’t belong, and it takes me out of the experience, which is the opposite of what I want from a sports game.
As I dug into the meat of the game, though, most of my misgivings flew out the window. Every mechanic is snappy and responsive. Passing is crisp and easy, while a lobbed cross to goal feels well earned rather than lucky. Tackling can sometimes feel inconsistent and I wish the skill stick was more precise, but that never bothered me enough to become frustrated. Everything works exactly as it should.
Whatever trick or defensive play I couldn’t pull off, the AI filled the gap. I was shocked by how accurately the characters moved and responded to situations. When you jump to the head the ball, the character extends and bends their neck as they try to get extra height on their defender. Every time I moved out of position, which was often (never said I was an expert), the AI reacted appropriately and corrected my mistake. It’s nice to play as a team instead of a one man army. Not to mention, it goes a long way when you’re invested in the team. There were many times when I audibly shouted “Yes!” after I kicked a through-ball and my teammate capitalized with a goal. Good AI is highly coveted in the gaming industry, so it’s nice to have it in a game where precision and teamwork matters.
The Master League and Become A Legend modes are similarly realistic, but not in a good way. In Master League, you create a club manager, and in Become A Legend you, well, become a legend. After I created my manager, I was shoved through an onslaught of tutorial screens and poorly streamlined menu options. It took me five minutes just to figure out how to play my first game. These modes are known for their density, much to the pleasure of the players. It’s the reason why games like Football Manager exist — people like the granularity they provide. PES 19‘s Master and Legend modes have the robust systems players clamor for without the ease of use or proper tutorials.
The financials and management side of soccer, like every sport, is confusing for those who don’t pay close attention, so when words like “trade window” and “budget/salary negotiation” get thrown around within the same sentence, it can be dizzying. Some options don’t have confusing instructions because they don’t have instructions at all. In Legend mode, there are apparently skill points you can acquire and assign to various skills you want to focus on, which I have neither gained nor has the game taken the time to explain to me how they work. Even the options menu doesn’t make it readily obvious how to raise or lower the difficulty. Things like this are avoidable and are distractions from otherwise great game modes.
Legend mode in particular is terrific. Like other, similar game modes, Legend allows you to create your own player or take an existing player through the ranks. Naturally, I graced the soccer world with an Ethan Willard. After you create a player and pick the position you want them to play (I went with attacking midfielder), they are drafted to a club in a league of your choice. In between games, you can manage your player’s skills (allegedly), pick a new player number, view news related to your player and team, and, if the window is open, request a transfer to a different team.
The real action, however, are the matches. Games in Legend mode throw away the zoomed-out, field camera perspective and opt for a more intimate, almost third-person view. Additionally, you can’t switch between players, you can only play as your character. These two changes are perhaps the most notable of the whole game. Since you can only play as your character, and the camera is closer to the action, you are forced to pay attention to the plays, position nuances, and mistakes you make. After a few games, I realized that I was actually learning. I watch soccer avidly, but I never take the time to understand team formations or position objectives. With Legend mode, I started noticing when I was too far up field, or in a lane where I could make a play. Having the opportunity to learn more about the game I love is valuable, and something I hope every game in the genre continues to do.
This past Saturday, I wasn’t near a TV, so I checked my phone to see the status of the West Ham game. When I saw the score, I let out a sigh. West Ham, who was tied with Arsenal 1-1 earlier in the day, was now trailing 3-1. Not only is that another loss on the board, but West Ham is now the only team in the league that has lost every game. Pro Evolution Soccer 2019 gives me the chance to live out my dreams and see West Ham, a club that seems so determined to play without an ounce of heart, finally succeed. Even though licensing issues prevent you from enjoying your favorite team to its fullest and obtuse game modes take away from the fun, PES 19 is a great entry in the franchise.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided to us by Konami.
Pro Evolution Soccer 2019 is a great entry in the franchise, even if it's held back by a few organization and licensing issues.