PES 2020 is the most realistic and mechanically sound game in the franchise yet.
eFootball PES 2020 is Konami's best chance yet at cementing its long-running soccer series as a legitimate FIFA contender. Impressive new partnerships around UEFA Euro 2020 have made the game feel like a big deal, as is the addition of an exclusivity deal with Juventus that makes PES 2020 the only place fans of that club can play as their favorite team this year. It's a remarkable turnaround for the franchise and one that felt very preventable from its competition, but that's neither here nor there - now it's about whether or not PES 2020 can capitalize on its sudden good fortune.
The answer to that question varies depending on the gameplay element fans are examining, but for the most part, the game succeeds in putting its best foot forward as a legitimate alternative to the erstwhile FIFA. PES 2020 is to FIFA what amateur wrestling is to the WWE - it swaps out a lot of the flashy elements and over-dramatic storytelling for a solid technical base that will wow those who have a keen knowledge of the sport but potentially bore those who are looking for more arcade-style soccer. PES 2020 is the most realistic and mechanically sound game in the franchise yet, however, and that's high praise for a series that has staked a claim to those characteristics throughout its history as its most obvious selling points.
The first thing fans will notice about PES 2020 is the introduction of the Stadium camera angle, an addition that works wonders for the aesthetic and feel that the series has always aimed for. Stadium essentially faithfully recreates a soccer broadcast in-game, trading close-ups of players for a wider view of the pitch and the stadium. The latter element is the key here - PES 2020 has some of the most gorgeous, detailed stadiums in the business, and they're at their best and brightest when viewed in the camera mode named after them. The universal appeal of Manchester United's Old Trafford or, naturally, Juventus' Allianz Stadium are on full display in this mode and, although it seems perhaps superficial to suggest it is a key selling point, it really bears playing to fully understand.
The next big change to PES 2020 - aside from the name change, which emphasizes a focus on esports and clunky titles - is the one that comes to Master League. PES has always lacked in the career mode department, offering very rote interpretations of soccer stardom. While the career mode for players continues to feel like much less than it could be, the Master League mode is a wonderful touch on managerial duty, one that encompasses the whole wide world of soccer in entertaining ways. That mode has been supplemented with cutscenes this year, some of which feature dialogue options. It's not a lot, and it certainly doesn't rival its chief competitor in terms of telling a compelling story, but it's a lovely addition that really adds a human touch to a mode that can too often break down into statistical breakdowns and number crunches for the most efficient lineups.
Master League isn't flawless, however. It recycles a lot of player models as the years progress, leading to weird doppelganger scenarios where it feels like stars from a decade ago are just playing wearing a fake moustache and a name pulled out of a random generator. The mode would benefit from randomizing character models, too, even if it means some of the future generation look like a six-year-old went wild in the character creation settings (which are pretty detailed in PES 2020). Likewise, it would be nice if choice actually mattered much in Master League - over several years of club management, it mostly amounted to whether or not the manager wanted to be cocky or humble.
Fans don't really flock to PES games for the cinematics, though. PES 2020 delivers where it matters most, offering up the most realistic slice of footie this side of joining the roster of a training team. One of the big selling points of this year's offering is its continued attention paid towards complex or nuanced game mechanics that will always give a more studious, talented player the edge. Here, that manifests as a Finesse system that gives players the most one-on-one control in a soccer title ever. There's also a heavier focus on players' getting their angles right on passing and shooting that can lead to frustration, but it's all done in the name of creating the most true-to-form recreation of soccer possible. Player error is, after all, part of the real sport's appeal - the dizzying highs of perfect passing spelled by the crushing lows of an own goal or a terrible mistake. Those are, without a doubt, very present within PES 2020.
PES 2020 also slows down its take on soccer this year after fans complained about the last offering trending too much toward the quick and flashy pace of other franchises. That's a much better fit for PES 2020, which is more enjoyable despite being noticeably slower. There's more room to maneuver and get passes right, which is key thanks to the way angles come into play at basically all times, and it mimics the rising crescendo of a perfect attack beautifully. Those who admire soccer for its ability to pain beautiful pictures featuring pristine passes and player movement will be right at home watching PES 2020 - and playing it, of course - and it's a testament to the realism of the product that it can sometimes feel like a perfect recreation of professional soccer.
If there's a major shortcoming, though, it's in PES 2020's online offering. Matchday brings very little to the table that isn't already done better in FIFA, and the other online modes feel bare bones compared to the more robust offerings of other sports simulators. It's by no means bad - it's just unexciting, especially with the rebrand. eFootball PES 2020 got its ridiculous name because Konami really wanted to lean into the fact it's the best platform in soccer sims for esports competitions, and the online systems don't really feel like that's the case from a presentation standpoint. Here is where, if the single-player campaigns were going to remain devoid of flash and rely on substance, a bit of glitz should have been applied. Some sparkle would've done wonders for online, and it's a missed opportunity.
Overall, PES 2020 still lacks some of the more dynamic elements of other sports franchises, especially a compelling single-player mode that tells a unique story. While that wasn't always an important requirement, it's almost 2020 now - nearly every sports series has something like a career mode/film hybrid, and PES 2020 doesn't. Somehow, though, it feels like that's not going to matter for hardcore soccer fans. When players take to the pitch, no matter what mode they're playing, they're getting the best on-field soccer video game experience in the world at this moment. That'll speak volumes, the kind that no amount of talented actors, writers, and cutscene animators can drown out - the kind that reverberates like a stadium of fans holding their breath, waiting for the next beautiful moment. That's PES 2020, and it's the closest developers have ever come to translating the complicated language of soccer into a video game simulation.
PES 2020 is available now for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. Screen Rant was provided with a digital PS4 code for the purposes of this review.