Few sports games are as consistent as Pro Evolution Soccer (PES). You always know what you're going to get with this series: a purist soccer sim that's light on licenses but long on gameplay, a hardcore experience that defines itself in opposition to the more popular FIFA. But no sports game makes you work harder to appreciate its relative merits than PES 2019.
As always, PES 2019 is rough on every front except the actual matches. It buries its features behind loads of charmless menus, many of which look as if they haven't been updated since the PlayStation 2 era (especially the tactics screen). There are times where PES 2019 feels like it's begging you to turn it off and play literally anything else.
But then the games start and everything changes. The licensed teams, particularly Barcelona, capture all the grandeur of a high-profile match between the giants of the sport. On a moment to moment basis, it has some of the best gameplay of any sim, matching even giants like NBA 2K.
Players flit about the field even when not possessing the ball, effortlessly beginning runs at just the right moment. Defenders will stick their foot in and pluck away the ball, or jump in for a quick interception. It feels like, well... soccer, in the way that overlapping runs will smoothly develop on the wings, or the ball will rattle around in the box after bouncing off the hands of a keeper.
As with everything else in PES, the gameplay can be unforgiving. Momentum plays a huge role in PES, and steering a player moving at even a modest speed can feel like steering a mack truck. It's also rarely easy to abuse the A.I., putting more pressure on the player to understand how a formation ought to work and execute on it. Human opponents have an annoying tendency to play extreme pressing football, but PES 2019's off-the-ball A.I. and skill moves are robust enough that you can burn such aggressive play pretty heavily if you play your cards right.
With the possible exception of the momentum, which I think is a little too overpowering, I would characterize most of these items as Good Things, making PES 2019 an appealing prospect for hardcore soccer fans who care more about realism than aesthetics. It can be fascinating to watch the interplay as a strong counter develops, ending with a well-struck ball in the back of the net. Those are the moments that make you remember why you fell in love with the sport in the first place. And hey, there are even some nice additions like quick subs in this version: a rare quality-of-life improvement for PES.
But then the games end and you remember what a strange, ramshackle experience PES can be. MyClub, which has admittedly seen some updates with this year's version, is still a very weird mode. It's ostensibly the answer to Ultimate Team, but without the straightforward card packs found in other games. Instead, PES relies on needlessly complicated scouts and agents, who have a chance to randomly generate a player from one of a handful of tiers. Scouts and agents can be purchased with in-game currency or acquired from the Auction House, though the latter is so poorly designed that it's virtually unusable.
Compared to other modes of its type, MyClub is also quite simple. You won't find solo challenges, drafting, high-level competitive modes like Weekend League, or really any other option save straightforward head-to-head play here. While MyClub has made some progress with the introduction of special featured players, a version of the in-forms found in other games, its lifespan seems limited.
This is a problem through all of PES 2019's modes, actually. It loads up on everything from online team play to the ability to play a single season, but few modes offer more than superficial variations of what's available in other games, and most are hampered by PES' poor interface. While not necessarily a negative, it's sort of telling that PES 2019 offers a multiplayer league, but that it's strictly offline. It's like the series never left 2004.
Probably the best mode is Master League, PES' answer to the traditional franchise mode. Though hardly pretty, it still brings with it a bunch of solid ideas, including a smart scouting system that will quickly and easily surface players who fit neatly into your lineup, and team roles that dynamically change as they develop. It's perhaps a bit too easy to sign top players—I got young Manchester City stud Leroy Sane over to Roma for a song, for instance—but it's enjoyable enough on a game-to-game basis, and certainly much better than the headache-inducing MyClub.
Assuming you're not into franchise mode, though, PES 2019 is in danger of wearing thin rather quickly. It's here that its comparative lack of licenses becomes telling. True, the likes of Liverpool and Barcelona are present, but with few lower leagues represented, it's hard to feel like you're having an authentic experience in Master League. With far fewer teams, you're even more likely to play the same opponents over and over again in head-to-head games. The overall player pool is also thinner. American soccer, if you care about such a thing (I do), isn't represented at all.
In that, PES 2019 is basically a series of compromises. You have to care about the action on the field so much that you're willing to disregard almost everything else. This is a compromise some players will be willing to make, especially in light of how frustrating FIFA has been over the past couple years. It's just a pity that PES 2019's modes, which are so vital for extending the life of the overall game, are so lacking.
At this stage, though, PES is what it is: a hardcore alternative to FIFA designed to appeal to true soccer simulation nuts. Secure in this identity, PES 2019 has achieved a level of quality that eluded the series back in the bad old days of the late 2000s. But alas, the next step remains elusive.
PES 2019 is a marvelous soccer sim on the field, and remarkably dated off of it. Those willing to forgive its still-awful user interface and simplistic modes may find magic, but its ramshackle presentation doesn't do justice to the hard work put into the gameplay.