The title says it all, really.
Earlier this year, Konami made a pretty shocking announcement: eFootball Pro Evolution Soccer 2020 would not get a full-blown sequel this year. Instead, the developers are focusing on creating a football game for the next generation using the Unreal Engine, finally dumping the aging Fox Engine.
“But Tim,” you might say, “there is a PES game this year. I’m reading your review of it right now!” Well, you’re right. Konami is busy taking the PES franchise into the next-generation, but they’ve also decided to release a game this year without all the bells and whistles a sequel might have. This is eFootball PES 2021 Season Update, and it’s exactly what it sounds like: PES 2020, with just a couple touch ups so the series stays relevant in 2020.
But is it actually worth playing?
I had immediate deja vu upon opening this game up for the first time. The menus look exactly the same. The game modes haven’t changed. Every mode I tried, and every game I played through - I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d done it all before. ‘Season Update’ is absolutely right, because PES 2021 plays like it’s nothing more than just another patch to last year’s game. Yes, there are a few differences here and there - large enough to be felt when you’re on the pitch, but small enough that I’m glad the game comes at a discount.
PES 2020 came with an all-new ball feel, big Master League changes and Juventus, stolen away from the FIFA franchise. It came with changes and gameplay updates large enough to justify a new entry, but that’s exactly what this game lacks. From a visual standpoint alone, there’s nothing that differentiates PES 2021 from PES 2020 apart from a change in aesthetic colour. Simply look at the screenshots in this review and see for yourself. I was appalled that last year’s awful Master League cutscenes were the exact same in this game, with no changes whatsoever.
But then again, it’s easy to see why. So much of this game needs to be overhauled, at least visually, if the franchise wants to keep up with its football sim contemporaries. Developers at Konami are likely hard at work to make the next-gen entry the best game it can be, and pushed this out at a price no one could complain about. Still, it’s important that you go into this purchase knowing exactly what you’re getting - or you’re going to be sorely disappointed.
Pro Evolution Soccer’s gameplay remains largely the same with this year’s entry, and I’m actually thankful for that. This has always been the more realistic-feeling football game when compared to FIFA, which gives it an edge gameplay-wise. Matches are slower and superb ball physics make it important to really get the hang of controlling your shots and passes. Character animations are smooth - I didn’t get any of that buggy jerkiness that tends to pollute sports games like these.
A couple of interesting changes can be clearly felt on the pitch, however. First touches feel much heavier, which is something I had to discover the hard way. Once you get the hang of that, you realise some other small differences - teammates feel smarter and more responsive, for example. Generally speaking, the AI has been given an upgrade, making offline matches that much more enjoyable.
Gameplay-wise, you’re essentially just playing PES 2020 again with a patch or two on top. It’ll take the most hardcore fans of the series to actually notice any of these differences, so if you’re hopping back in after half a year - it’s going to feel like you’re playing the same thing again. The absolutely horrific game commentary deserves a shoutout of its own though. Why is this still a thing? These artificial commentators have been annoyingly repetitive in each and every match I’ve played. They cycle through two or three phrases with each action you take, and utterly fail at bringing hype to a game. Words cannot express how sick I am of hearing, “IT’S CRISTIANO RONALDO!” screamed at me every time I take control of the guy.
Outside of moment-to-moment gameplay, PES 2021 has a bunch of game modes to offer. To get to them, you’ll have to click through some really awful menus. Speaking of, it really feels like PES 2022 has to be much more than a visual overhaul on the field now. Why does a game in 2020 have menus this bland? Why are Master League menus such a nightmare to navigate? So much of PES is still stuck in the past and considering no new innovations are present in PES 2021, that especially hurts this year.
For those who prefer playing with humans rather than AI, PES 2021 has a couple of casual and competitive game modes. Just bear in mind that the core gameplay loop - which can be a little slow - will not change just because you’re online, and that can be a bit of an adjustment if you’re used to FIFA’s more speedy gameplay. Hopefully, the playerbase sticks around this time. PES 2020 had me turn back to AI matches due to weak connections and long matchmaking times - but so far, this game’s going strong. The low price probably helps.
There are two other big game modes: Master League and MyClub. MyClub will feel familiar to anyone who’s played FIFA’s Ultimate Team. The mode lets you open packs (lootboxes), which let you slot in new players into your team and take on others. Master League puts you in the shoes of a team manager, allowing you to choose from a couple real-world figures and build a football team up from nothing. There is a little bit of RPG goodness in Master League, letting you position your players, lay out strategies, manage player contracts and decide who to bench. Essentially, you get to unleash your inner Ted Lasso.
There’s no getting around it - this is the same game you played last year, and that is the inevitable outcome of any franchise that insists on churning out new entries annually. Fortunately, it’s being offered at a lower price - but that still doesn’t excuse all the aspects of this game that now feel extremely dated. Gameplay-wise however, PES 2021 remains the superior option for fans of realistic football sims. On the field, it handles beautifully. Outside of that, this game just feels like a pit stop on the way to the real thing.