Ever since Nintendo picked up on the popularity of Luigi as a meme mascot character, they’ve been playing his personality in trailers and games for laughs. This is, after all, the Mario brother famously dubbed the “king of second bananas” in Nintendo’s crossover fighting game Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Runner-up, second-best, also-ran...these are all ways in which Luigi has been referred to over the course of multiple Mario games.
In a way, the relationship between Luigi and his older, far more successful brother mirrors that between football gaming giants FIFA and Konami’s PES (Pro Evolution Soccer for the uninitiated). For over a decade, these two franchises have been the only two serious contenders for the coveted “get your mates round to play it” trophy, but there’s been one clear winner every year. FIFA has the benefit of EA’s immense weight and marketing heft, as well as official licensing and a tried-and-tested feel that makes it the go-to option for football fanatics looking for a faithful home console recreation of the beautiful game.
This isn’t entirely fair, though, because barring a few dodgy years (looking at you, PES 2008), PES has been an incredibly strong franchise. Its physics and player interactions are second to none, and although it lacks the titanic authenticity of FIFA, PES makes up for this with a scrappy derring-do that translates to (dare we say it) a better game on the pitch than FIFA has ever offered. It’s now time for the 2019 entry to line up for a penalty. Will the game blast the ball into the stands, or is this another scorcher for PES?
The answer to this question is unfortunately a little less dynamic than you might want. PES 2019 is...another PES game, with all the peaks and troughs you’ve come to expect from the franchise. If you’ve never played a PES game before, the games are well-known for a slightly more accurate, sim-like version of football than their bigger counterparts. They’re also incredibly reliable in terms of polish and game feel; FIFA is often riddled with bugs on day one, while PES offers a clean, satisfying and enjoyable game of football from the get-go.
PES 2019 continues this venerable trend. The game looks gorgeous, with arenas shimmering in the sun and some players absolutely glowing with realistic textures and physics. We say “some”, because just like previous years, Konami has made the frankly baffling decision to scan in some players’ likenesses to the game and neglect to do so for others. This leads to an uncanny valley-style leap in realism between the scanned-in players, who look great, and the non-scanned-in players, who, err, don’t. The difference is too stark, and it’s baffling that Konami ever thought this visual discrepancy could slip by unnoticed, especially given the impressive fidelity of the rest of the game.
Nitpicking the graphics and visuals is not why we’re here, though. We’re here for a good game of football, and it’s very, very hard to argue that PES 2019 doesn’t deliver on this front. Put simply, PES 2019 is the best-feeling game of digital football we have ever played. We don’t say that lightly; there’s stiff competition in this field, and a game needs to bring its best if it’s going to compete with FIFA. PES 2019 is in a league of its own when it comes to game feel, though.
Ball physics feel great, with passing and shooting packing a satisfyingly weighty punch. It’s almost possible to hear the thunk of a player’s boot as it lands against the leather of the ball. The simulation-style physics are accurate and impressive; in our entire time playing, we didn’t spot a single glitch or out-of-place object. Playing the game on a 4K display actually made us almost forget we were playing a video game once or twice, because the core mechanics were so immersive. Setting up a perfectly-timed play and watching it come off without a hitch is just way more satisfying in PES 2019 than it’s ever been in any FIFA game.
Sadly, that game feel is sort of the only string to PES 2019’s bow, because the game modes on offer here are the exact same as in PES 2018. Some of the AI functions have been touched up, there are a host of new skills for players to pay attention to, and the negotiation and budget management systems of the career mode have been improved, but there’s no escaping the familiar feeling that playing PES 2019 brings. Simply put, it just feels like PES 2018 with a new coat of paint, and whether you pick it up or not should depend entirely on whether you played that game to death.
There’s also the minor issue of licensing. Whether or not you’re in this for an authentic game of football will be a deciding factor in whether you pick up PES 2019. The same spotty, inconsistent licensing issues that have plagued the franchise for years are still in place here (don’t expect to see the back of Man Red any time soon), and there’s the added sting of Konami losing the UEFA Champions League license this year, which has been their only advantage in terms of realism.
Licensing issues aside, though, PES 2019 feels exquisite to play, looks beautiful and offers a wealth of different modes and options for armchair athletes to play around with. It doesn’t bring anything new to the table in terms of modes or too many refinements to its gameplay, but if you’re a big PES fan you probably weren’t expecting (or wanting) that anyway. Pick this one up yesterday if it’s your first PES game, or if you know what you’re getting into. It won’t trouble FIFA’s crown any time soon, but if you’ve ever found that version of the beautiful game a bit soulless or just not realistic enough, then PES is your go-to goalscorer.