Which is what both galacticos of the football franchise world have been accused of, year on year, since time immemorial. At least PES 2021 (or eFootball PES 2021 Season Update, as it’s absurdly calling itself this year) is straight with us about it.Let’s talk about the football. For anyone who didn’t play last year’s game, which is also this year’s game, it represented a significant step forwards for a franchise that had already been outdoing FIFA for on-pitch fluidity all generation. Passes just seemed that bit more varied, incidental touches that weren’t part of canned animations gave each passage of play an organic feel, and the subtlety of control was worthy of exploring hour after hour. By taking manual control of players just before they took the ball, you could curve runs wickedly, take goal-beckoning first touches and acrobatic volleys.
Hit the pause button and back out into the menus, however, and you might as well have climbed inside a time capsule and entered ‘2005’ on the dial. It was a cavalcade of typefaces that would make graphic designers sick in their mouths, describing a sparse selection of modes that hadn’t changed much since you bunked off your sociology lectures to play them on PS2.
FIFA, meanwhile, not only has all the licensed kits, names and badges you could ever hope to skip past on the team select menu, but a narrative-driven Volta mode and the mighty FUT, among others. Foregoing all that variety and presentational sparkle is the trade-off you make for better football on the turf, and the equation doesn’t change a jot with this release.
Where things started to get really interesting for PES 2020 were in its data pack releases. Yes, it was nice to stay up-to-date with Neymar’s hair but more importantly these data packs tweaked the values underpinning its football, and they fine-tuned them to near-perfection. Then further updates absolutely ruined it again, to the degree that superstars earning a squillion pounds an hour seemed incapable of taking a first touch. Then they fixed it again.
The needle has swung both ways with data packs, then, and in many ways you can view eFootball PES 2021 Season Update as a full stop on that ongoing saga, a kind of bells and whistles edition of Data Pack 9.
Sadly it’s not the very best football this particular game has played, but improvements to first touches and to control at sprinting pace do a lot for it. Through balls, chipped or ground passes, and crosses can all be pinged in with a level of granularity that turns a game on a dime when a perfectly weighted one connects, while your ability to gently steer a player’s run off the shoulder of their marker while they anticipate the ball reaps big rewards when it’s timed just right.
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There’s still too much ball-watching from the AI though, both from the opposition and the players on your own team who you don’t have highlighted. It’s most noticeable after passes are deflected and have no clear recipient; 21 AI players seem to go to sleep until the one highlighted player finds himself with the ball. It breaks the immersion and it can cost you what would otherwise have been clear chances.
While I’m on the subject of AI, I want to see a transformative step forwards next year because the old routines are really showing their age now. Have you ever in your life watched a left-back dribble around in two complete circles before firing off a pass? It’s as common here as the potato-headed players without proper face scans.
Devotees will find some new content hiding in those PS2 era menus though. Master League is bolstered with some new manager avatar options, including softly spoken silverware-hoarder Pep Guardiola, and the Euro 2020 tournament that hasn’t happened yet is playable in PES form, licensed kits and all. If that sounds meagre, remember that football games got away with releasing only these tournaments as full-priced games for years.So we know what eFootball PES 2021 is, and we also know quite categorically what it isn’t. The harder question to answer is that pesky one about whether it’s worth buying, even at a discounted price.
On paper, season updates feel like the answer to every annualised sports franchise’s problem: there’s just not enough bandwidth to innovate between titles when you’re held to a yearly release schedule. Not really. Not the kind of innovation that changes the way you play. What we’re faced with as football game fans this year is deferring gratification, sacrificing a good game to get a great one later. In a perfect world we’d review this year’s game next year, when we’d know how Konami used that extra time and resources.
Without the luxury of that foresight, eFootball PES 2021 feels like a pragmatic solution to a problem Konami can’t be blamed for – working from home, producing an annualised game, during the advent of a new console generation. That’s not to say it isn’t disappointing, but the pricing strategy and the fundamental quality on the pitch do mitigate that disappointment.