When the whistle blows and the play starts, PES is practically unrivalled. FIFA does what it does extremely well, no doubt, but the passing game that Konami has been perfecting over the years is utterly superb. That remains the case in Pro Evolution Soccer 2019, as once again Konami has delivered a gripping interpretation of the beautiful game.
PES is at its best when you're playing forwards, facing the opposition goal with the ball at your digital feet. The passing and movement of the players is intelligent and realistic, and it's easy to initiate attacking moves that flow from player to player. There's a natural elegance to the play that we thoroughly appreciated, an element helped this year with improved contextual animations and refined visuals. If you can forgive the fact that many teams are playing in unofficial kits, you'll find a handsome game packed with fan-servant details.
The contextual animations are brilliant. Never before has digital football looked so natural, with realistic movements strung together with impressive fluidity. You'll see strikers hurdle keepers, one-twos finished off with blistering snapshots, and midfield tussles between players where the ball seems to have a life of its own. You're offered near total control of the action, yet at the same time there's a feeling that you're always trying to tame the ball and bring it under your spell - it's a juxtaposition that stops you feeling comfortable and keeps close matches tense.
So-called "magic moments" add further realism and authenticity to the action. Some of the game's biggest stars now play with a touch more individualism that sets them apart - just a little but just enough - from the other players on the pitch. It makes the best players matter more, adding spice to that moment when they receive the ball in an offensive position. On the other hand, these flashes of brilliance are mitigated by entirely plausible errors of judgement, from both player and the AI. It's imperfect but authentically so, and you'll regularly see scrappy 50/50 challenges and loose balls ping around dangerous areas when attackers overextend or defenders try to swipe the ball and clear the lines.
Referees are once again a little inconsistent, although they certainly added the kind of ironic drama you'd expect from any real-life official. Importantly, they never really influenced anything significant while we were playing and we were more often cursing our own mistakes than anything else. Another inconsistency is the match day atmosphere itself. Ignoring the fact that the commentary is inescapably bad, the atmosphere during some games is noticeably better than it is in others. If you're lucky enough to support a team that partners with Konami then you're in for a treat thanks to accurate chants and vividly recreated stadiums.
When the full-time whistle has blown things get a bit more problematic. While the act of putting your laces through a football is as satisfying as ever, the sometimes unintuitive UI frustrates. There are too many button presses, too many pointless screens to read through, and so many of the menus are a little confusing when they absolutely don't need to be. While there are certain UI elements that feel reassuringly PES, themes and touches that have echoed down the ages, so much of it feels archaic and we're getting to the point where building on top of old foundations just isn't working anymore - perhaps it's time to tear the whole thing down and start from scratch.