Francis Fukuyama gets a lot of flak these days. Yes, in retrospect, declaring the end of history and the triumph of liberal democracy in 1989 was a little too spicy a take. Things have gone a bit off-piste lately.
But look, Francis: we’ve all been there, mate. It happens. Some of us thought the decades-long culture war between each year’s iteration of FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer might finally be over.
eFootball PES 2020 (PS4)
Each seemed to be carving out its distinct, discreet and loyal fanbase, making the old to-and-fro of which was the better game entirely moot. But now Pro Evo has made a decisive play for the esports market by rebranding as eFootball PES2020, rolling its tanks onto FIFA‘s beautifully rendered stripe-cut lawn.
That, though, isn’t what makes PES2020 more loveable than FIFA, and nor is it what will make it the connoisseur’s choice. It’s not even the gameplay, though it’s been improved by dialling down the pinball element and adding a more realistic passing mechanic which brings a player’s momentum and balance into the equation.
No, Pro Evo‘s strength has always lied in its tendency towards the madcap and off-kilter, and deeply surreal sense of humour. Back in the day, that meant being able to give players the head of an oversized chihuahua or a beagle, and working out who Pone Joels and Porn Darry were meant to be. In PES2020, it’s mostly to be found in the much-loved and entirely rebooted Master League mode.
Formerly a pretty inert turn-based semi-management sim mode, it’s now gone completely and excellently mad. You pick your managerial avatar from a line-up of made-up nobodies and bona fide legends including Zico, Ruud Gullit and Johan Cruyff.
Then you stick them in the dugout at Barnsley, and watch as Cruyff wanders around the Oakwell dressing room, nodding appreciatively, and looks at the team of no-hopers, sawdust and promising youngsters familiar to seasoned Master League players: Q Arcas, Castledine, L Giorza, R Jarvis. Yes, Johan Cruyff’s nod seems to say. Barnsley are going places this year.
It’s the newly introduced cut-scenes and dialogue options which really make Master League fun. You get to see Emmanuel Adebayor excitedly shouting down a camera lens about how excited he is to be in south Yorkshire on a year’s loan, and ramp up some press conference mania as latter-day Diego Maradona. In a white shirt and yanked-down tie, he gives off extremely strong David Brent vibes.
Realism has never been entirely the point of the PES games. The edit function basically begged you to bend the fabric of space, time and reality. You put the proper club names in, obviously. Then you gave each your own idealised kit design, and maybe a funky third one in chequered orange for fun. Then you maybe tweaked some stats. And sorted out Zidane’s hair. Suddenly, you were down the rabbit hole. I spent most of my GCSE year making a team of celebrities including Jarvis Cocker, Vic and Bob, Bunk from The Wire, and the Abbey Road-era Beatles as a back four.
It was a creative sandbox in a way that FIFA, which cleaved to simulating reality brilliantly, never really was. PES has managed to not just keep its madness intact but amplify it, and weave it into a more satisfying playing experience. The series has always played all its goofiness and off-brand strangeness with such a straight face and wide-eyed sincerity, and that’s what makes it so hard not to love it.
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