September is always a special month for sports fans as it usually means the new iteration of their simulation of choice will finally be ready for a new season. However, when it comes to Pro Evolution Soccer fans, this year is slightly different because instead of getting a brand new game, it has been replaced by an update; a decision that was encouraged by the global pandemic but is also part of a long term strategy, according to Konami themselves, which looking forward means a new engine and fresh mechanics for PES 2022.
To get a better understanding of the reasoning behind this decision, please allow me to reflect for a moment on the franchise in general. First called ISS until the very beginning of the 2000s, Pro Evolution Soccer became the most respected sport simulation when the PlayStation 2 first came out. For years, it was an absolute must-have for most players until the franchise's reign came to an abrupt end with the release of the PlayStation 3 in 2007.
EA Sports perfectly handled the transition between consoles and has never since relinquished its place as top dog of the genre. Konami took a few years to even realise that it had lost the fight, even though PES was still a solid game that was able to recreate great moments of digital football, even if all the names were wrong. Fast forward a couple of years to the launch of the next console generation and the Japanese publisher managed to catch up when the 8th console generation was released in 2013 by simply skipping it.
At that time, Konami focused on the current generation version of the game to give itself more time for the transition. The result was an excellent PES 2015. Minus, of course, the obvious lack of naming rights that have always been an issue for the franchise (that's a whole other kettle of fish). Therefore, the 2014 game finally showed long lost fans like me that PES was back.
So yes, Konami's decision to offer players a hefty upgrade in exchange for 30 bucks is probably the best they could come up with, given the situation. And it doesn't matter if more players decide to move to FIFA; just as they did in 2013, as Konami has decided to take its time and not release their soccer-sim on PS5 and Xbox Series S/X, which doesn't have to be a bad thing for the franchise. And it's even a good thing for FIFA fans in the short-term, if it means a better game next year... it's always good to have healthy competition, something NBA 2K or Madden NFL players will wholeheartedly agree with.
Now, let's talk about the gameplay
The eFootball PES 2021 Season Update is exactly what it sounds like: it's a big update for last year's edition of the game. To be honest, I've been pleasantly surprised by how it turned out since the gameplay has been improved, specifically in terms of the attack.
Without straying too far away from what makes PES PES, last year's iteration already allowed for faster transitions in attack. It's even more obvious here. The players you control feel faster in terms of their feedback and movements, which will please dribblers.
The ball also moves more fluidly, and assists have been greatly increased when passing. In the last game, it was very easy to miss key passes, making the game more realistic but also frustrating at times. Thus, easier passes are welcome although some players might not be too happy with the change.
All these tweaks in attack will make a defender's job more difficult, and aggressive pressing will probably turn out to be too risky. Fortunately, I have also noticed that AI errors have been greatly reduced, especially when sending in long aerial balls over the top.
Defenders can also rely on their keepers more, which used to be a recurring issue for the series, even during its golden age. They seem to be more alert than ever, although I have to admit that I only played with the best of the game (Neuer, Alisson, Ter Segen and my personal favorite, French keeper Steve Mandanda from Olympique de Marseille).
Another point the community often complained about was collision between the players. Over the 40 or so games I have played in the last few days, I have noted fewer ridiculous collisions than I was accustomed to seeing last season playing PES 2020, especially against very good players (I barely played against the game's AI).
Having said all that, some elements have not been touched at all, such as free kicks and penalties, which are exactly the same as before. And more generally, they've not tinkered with shooting, which already felt good with realistic trajectories.
The exact same content
There's no need to look at other game modes in PES 2021. The most interesting, myClub (Konami's equivalent of FUT) has been updated with recent transfers and stats tweaks to players, as per usual.
The Master League also remains the same and keeps all of its improvements from last year. Alongside that, there is Become a Legend, where you follow your player on the field, and Matchday (a less popular online mode introduced last year). All of these game modes remain largely as they were last year.
Added to PES 2020 last June as part of a free update, Euro 2020 will be included once again this year, just like we hope the real competition will happen in the summer. After all, it's always a special feeling to see your national team crowned the champions of Europe.
Finally, the menus are very similar to those in last year's iteration, and you'll have to wait until you're actually playing a game before you'll truly see the visual enhancements; the updated PES is undeniably more polished than its predecessor.
The final score
With this Season Update, eFootball PES 2021 remains a solid and realistic football simulation. When compared to other sports sims and the offerings contained therein, one might think that Konami should and could have sold it as a brand new game. If the update lacks a bit in terms of content, the gameplay definitely makes up for it and it remains relevant thanks to a bunch of tweaks.
I just hope that all these shiny new additions work as they should; it's an area where the series has sadly developed a habit of falling short... I'll update you here if I find anything untoward.