PES 2021 review: Come for the ball physics, stay for the deft through balls

eFootball PES 2021 Season Update is virtually the same as last year's version — save for a few tweaks, and released on Tuesday


It's alright.

You can rest easy now.

Although, let's be honest: There were some real fears about this one.

You can have all the licences you want, but for some things, even those aren't enough.

And it's one of those things that just has to look completely right or else it looks totally wrong.

You'll be pleased to know then that Konami's eFootball PES 2021 Season Update (that released on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 on Tuesday) absolutely nails Arsenal Football Club's 2020/21 away kit — that paan-stained/bloodstained/Highbury marble-looking beauty.

 PES 2021 review: Come for the ball physics, stay for the deft through balls

Screen grab from PES 2021 captured minutes prior to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang signing a new three-year contract with Arsenal

This year, the Winning Eleven/Pro Evolution Soccer franchise marks its 25th anniversary and a whole quarter of a century since the release of franchise debutante Goal Storm (World Soccer: Winning Eleven in Japan). It's also the second year that the series uses the extremely clunky frankly awful moniker of eFootball Pro Evolution Soccer. To be fair, force-fitting both 'football' and 'soccer' into a game title is just political correctness gone mad.

PES 2021 (for the sake of brevity, we'll just refer to it as that) is dubbed a 'Season Update', which had sparked some concerns about whether it might just be a DLC or an add-on. Konami's Senior Director of Brand and Business Development, Jonas Lygaard, assured us that it would be a 'standalone' product. And sure enough, it is. Without spilling the beans on too many details, Lygaard had disclosed before the game's launch, "[It's] fair to say that there will not be significant upgrades in keeping with the 'Season Update' approach. However, we have been transparent about our aspirations for our next-gen title and how it's effectively being rebuilt from the ground-up."

What that essentially means is that for a 'special anniversary price' of between Rs 1,999 and 2,199 — which is almost half the launch price of most AAA console games, you get yourself an updated and slightly tweaked version of last year's offering. This raises two questions: Should you get the 2021 edition if you already own the 2020 version? And why should you get it at all if Konami has, by its own admission, been focusing its energies on its next-gen offering? An effort will be made to answer both those questions and more, but all in good time.

Did anyone else wonder what was going through Lionel Messi's (the real one and not the animated one) mind in that promo as he held aloft a Barcelona jersey? Did anyone else wonder if the promo was shot before or after his recent rebuffed bid to leave Camp Nou? In either case, it hardly matters, because the Argentine remains the talismanic face of his club — that is among around 23 of the game's partner clubs alongside current European champions Bayern Munich, Italian champions Juventus, Scottish champions Celtic, Brazilian champions Flamengo and nobody's champions (at present) Manchester United.

That said, as a result of the extended 2019-20 season (due to COVID-19), PES 2021 arrived is a slightly out-of-date form, requiring you to download a Day One update patch to factor in reasonably up-to-the-minute (Kai Havertz was yet to join Chelsea Football Club at the time of writing, if we're picking nits) team, player and transfer information. Not too shabby at all.

After the snazzy-enough splash screen — that features either Messi, Marcus Rashford, Alphonso Davies or Cristiano Ronaldo — comes a familiar set of options: Exhibition matches, cups, leagues, Become a Legend (the game's mode where you take control of one player and take him all the way to the top), Master League (the management-plus-play mode) and myClub (basically the PES equivalent of FIFA's Ultimate Team of FUT mode, where you put together a galaxy of stars after opening loot box after loot box, and possibly dipping into your own wallet for that tasty little pay-to-win boost). Personally, I've never been a fan of the latter mode.

Elsewhere, however, everything is much the same as it was in PES 2020, which isn't a bad thing at all.

Why, yes that's Jerome Boateng and all his tattoos surveying his new work area after signing for Arsenal in my Master League. Screen grab from eFootball PES 2021 Season Update

Why, yes that's Jerome Boateng and all his tattoos surveying his new work area after signing for Arsenal in my Master League. Screen grab from eFootball PES 2021 Season Update

While all the modes are virtually identical to last year's avatars, Master League gets an update in the form of Pep Guardiola, Frank Lampard and Ryan Giggs being added to the fray, which frankly doesn't seem to make any difference at all. Considering the mode features your manager of choice (mine was a pleasantly cherubic and goatee'd Roberto Carlos) speaking via lines of text in cutscenes and picking between the same choices offered to every other manager in that situation, this year's addition is the equivalent of a differently-coloured or textured variant of a common in-game item. Looks nice, but doesn't really do anything.

Konami also secured the licences for the postponed Euro 2020 tournament last year and the relationship with UEFA is set to continue this year. Aside from "fully licensed data for all 55 teams" participating in the tournament, there's a detailed tournament mode on the cards, along with other promotions closer to the date of the event — which is nice.

But what about the actual football action, I hear you holler. After all, isn't that why anyone picks up a PES game? If it's television-like presentation, slick menus, a slicker soundtrack comprising the latest chart-toppers, voice acting and James Harden, you'd go for a very different series of games. As it stands, you're playing PES 2021 and you ought to be grateful, because the most relevant tiny tweaks in this 'season update' have come in the gameplay department and the good news is that they stick their landing.

Right from kickoff, the difference between a simulation and an arcade game is apparent, with every tap of a button or flick of a joystick resulting in a most deliberate action that plays out on screen. "Well done, 'genius'," you may well say, possibly adding a "Good to see you know how a video game works" for good measure. But there's a difference between triggering an animation that takes your controlled character from A to B, and actually taking your controller from A to B yourself.

A combination of the players on offer and the assigned tactics makes Wales one of the more exciting and challenging sides as which to play. Screen grab from eFootball PES 2021 Season Update

A combination of the players on offer and set tactics makes Wales (right) one of the more exciting and challenging sides as which to play. Screen grab from eFootball PES 2021 Season Update

And so, player movement is that much more intuitive and with a dexterous touch, so too is the ability to nudge the players who aren't on the ball (basically, those about to receive a pass or a cross) into position. Eschewing grandiose tricks for subtle (and more importantly, practical) ones that can be woven into fluid movements up and down the pitch has always been the PES way and it's no different this time out.

Furthermore, with the slowed-down style of action that was introduced in PES 2020, all of this really allows you to think through an attack before executing it. At the other end of the field, goalkeepers behave less erratically. And it's all great... when it works, that is. Unfortunately, along with the series' fantastic ball physics and collision detection — which has become de rigueur now, you also get that infrequent but jarring (almost as jarring as the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard) instance of utterly cretinous behaviour.

Either you'll have a player run into a teammate and in the process, knocking him off the ball, or amble around aimlessly after being tackled by an opposition player or (and my personal favourite) get in the way of a teammate who is about to launch an effort on goal. None of these, it must be added, pop up more than once a game at the very most — but they're out there, waiting to throw a spanner in the works. Speaking of launching an effort on goal, the game provides an unarguably superior experience when you're in attack than when you're in defence, which remains an area of operations that is still a bit hit-or-miss, depending heavily on the mood of your defenders — who will either peel away inexplicably or conversely, get into great positions when not under your direct control.

In attack, there's very little as satisfying in PES 2021 or indeed in video game football today as threading a well-timed and equally well-aimed through ball past a maelstrom of limbs and embarking milliseconds later on a lung-busting run with another player to beat the offside trap and receive the ball in perfect position to slot, chip, hammer, caress or walk it into the goal. You'll want to carve out a fair chunk of time after you've done that, however, because you're likely to spend a few minutes watching the move from multitude of angles after.

Graphically, there's very little new here. PES 2021, like its successors, has that innate knack of getting it spot-on with some player likeness (to the point of bringing you within a hair's breadth of the uncanny valley) and leaving you scratching your head about whether that shiny new midfielder you just transferred over into your Master League team even looks human. When it comes to reproducing running styles and celebrations, it's the same story: Some players and their actions (for instance, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and his jaunty jog that swiftly transforms into a lightning sprint with gazelle-like strides) are captured perfectly, while others are as cookie-cutter as they come.

While the snow looks lovely, the contrast between a fully-reproduced PSG and a non-descript Leicester City does not. Screen grab from eFootball PES 2021 Season Update

While the snow looks lovely, the contrast between a fully-reproduced PSG and a non-descript Leicester City does not. Screen grab from eFootball PES 2021 Season Update

When you're talking about a PES game, there're two topics of conversation that have become increasingly moot, and we'll dispense of them as quickly as we can: First, yes, the commentary (courtesy what feels like a 25-minute recording session with Peter Drury and Jim Beglin, such is the level of repetition) is as bad as ever — repetitive, often random and sometimes irrelevant, repetitive, tedious and did I mention, repetitive? Second, despite all the partnerships struck by Konami, the level of licensing across the game remains low (see image above), but as always it's nothing a relatively up-to-date option file can't fix.

Onto the big questions now.

Should you get the 2021 edition if you already own the 2020 version? Absolutely not. In my opinion, there simply isn't enough new stuff on offer in PES 2021 to justify forking over an extra couple thousand rupees of your hard-earned cash. A decent option file can get you the latest rosters and the handful of tweaks and presence of Messers Lampard, Guardiola and Giggs aren't sufficient to justify the cost, even if PES 2020 owners are offered a 20 percent discount on the new iteration.

And why should you get it at all if Konami has, by its own admission, been focusing its energies on its next-gen offering? Should you find yourself among that group of people who don't own last year's version and haven't played it and would like a taste of the zenith of current-generation of console-based football, you could do a lot worse than PES 2021. Additionally, you're not going to find a better alternative at that price.

In conclusion, while it is refreshing (in an industry where publishers churn out the same old game with an updated roster and a few new bells and whistles year after year) for Konami to come out and say in no uncertain terms that its focus is on the next-gen and be upfront about the fact that PES 2021 is just a season update, that shouldn't influence your decision to acquire this game or not. At the end of the day, if it's a largely polished (if a bit rough around the edges) and in parts, breathtaking, football simulation you're after, either update your PES 2020 roster with an option file or get on board for the PS4/Xbox One generation's last footballing hurrah.

PS: I'm not entirely sure if it's the sound of waving goodbye to a gaming generation or something else entirely, but PES 2021 caused my system to make the most godawful racket with the fan working overtime.

Game reviewed on PS4 Pro. Review code provided by publisher


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