The battle between FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer should be far closer than it always seems to end up being. While the late 90s and early 2000s belonged to Konami’s offerings, FIFA has (rightly or wrongly) increasingly been dominating the football game scene for the past 10 years or so. A plethora of official licensing along with typical EA style presentation has caught the eye of most gamers, despite the on-field action being no better than many of the PES games in that time. And so it comes round again, new updates to both games, and the parallels to previous years are clear to see.
Presentation-wise it’s a familiar story. FIFA’s glossy menus, accurate team sheets and pixel-perfect kits make most of PES’s presentation look drab, careless and lacking in accuracy. Pro Evo still doesn’t have many official licenses, and so the usual made up teams will be waiting for you out of the box. This isn’t as much of an issue as it used to be though; recent updates to the PS4 mean you can now download some totally free user-created kits and team details and import them into the game. It’s a little clunky, but it works beautifully and totally transforms the way the game looks while you’re playing. It’s not ideal obviously, but the argument of “PES doesn’t have the right teams or kits” doesn’t apply any more if you’re willing to spend 10 minutes getting it all set up. Definitely ground made up by Pro Evo on that one.
What you definitely won’t easily fix in PES though is the player likenesses. Using the Frostbite engine, most of the players in FIFA actually look like their real life counterparts; you can easily recognise them without seeing the name on their shirt, although they’re still struggling with Jack Grealish’s hair. PES on the other hand is a bit bonkers in terms of players’ faces. On the whole it’s very tough figuring out who’s celebrating with you after scoring, and while there are regular updates from Konami which update a few faces each time it’s not a patch on FIFA. If that’s a deal breaker, and you can’t cope with a game whereby the very occasional close ups aren’t hugely accurate then you’ll want to give PES a miss. The problem with that though, is Pro Evo really shines where it matters.
The whistle blows, the match starts, and PES takes off. FIFA has very often had the issue of slightly sluggish responses to commands thanks to the incredibly detailed animations it uses. More recent versions have been better, but the free-flowing passing, movement and realistic tactics used during a PES match still feels more enjoyable and true-to-life than that of FIFA, in my opinion at least. I’ll enjoy playing FIFA, that’s not in doubt, and the TV-style presentation goes a surprisingly long way into masking the gameplay’s shortcomings, but there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that PES is better to play. Passing, as is becoming the norm, is incredibly crisp and precise, and threading that perfect through ball feels every bit as satisfying as it always has. This year there’s a small amount of guidance with the passing which could have felt intrusive, had it not been handled with such quality. This time round if you have the right player, have made the right amount of space for yourself and have another top notch player running into space the Konami hand of God will add that extra little bit of quality to your final ball. It might be a dinked lob over the defence, it might be a pinpoint accurate through ball between two defenders or a ball down the line which sets a winger free, but it never feels cheap and only goes to make you feel like you’ve carved open a golden chance all by yourself. It doesn’t happen often – the variables that need to be just right are quite strict it would seem – but it’s definitely there once or twice per game.
Shooting too is more refined in Pro Evo, and while it’s true that I’ve always preferred the shooting on Konami’s offering to that of FIFA it’s still more satisfying even when taken in isolation. Even perfectly timed volleys might not always be on target, but when your player connects just right it’s an awesome feeling. In fact the most impressive moment I had in a game was having a corner headed away by the opposition defence, only for my midfielder to hammer a volley from 25 yards against the bar, leading to an almighty goalmouth scramble which, annoyingly, ended up being cleared. But it felt great, the kind of adrenaline that is often absent from sports games. Don’t get me wrong, FIFA is still very good fun to play, but given the choice of ignoring the presentation and just sitting to have a match or two I’d head for the PES box every time.
But we’re back to the presentation again, and while I’d love to say the game should be all about the football itself, it makes a difference. Licenses or not, if the team behind Pro Evo actually got hold of someone who could design a menu system, or overhaul the MyClub mode to be a little more user friendly then we might have a fairer competition on our hands. FIFA’s multiple game modes put it on another level compared to Pro Evo, and even if the much anticipated Journey mode isn’t quite as amazing as it might’ve been it’s a very professionally created story, and you just can’t imagine anything like that coming into a Pro Evo game at any point. The Ultimate Team mode, which is fast becoming the only reason people buy FIFA now, is still exciting and relatively easy to get used to despite the huge depth. Buying a pack of cards and finding that elusive striker you’ve been chasing is still a thrill, something that isn’t quite matched by the PES MyClub equivalent, and the wealth of options and tournaments available across the game still puts PES to shame.
As a result of all this it’s almost impossible to recommend one game over the other. FIFA has the looks, the glitz, the more popular commentary team and the more refined online modes, and while the stability of PES online has improved massively in recent years, the matchmaking is still a bit wonky; I regularly had my slightly ropey Villa team put up against Barcelona or Manchester City – hardly a fair matchup. That’s something that FIFA still does extremely well, and when I spend a lot of my time in the Online Seasons modes it’s always a sinking feeling on PES to see my opponent popping up with a team significantly stronger than the one I’ve picked. And yet, despite FIFA looking the part it’s Pro Evo which is better to play, something which has often been the case but rarely been recognised by the FIFA fanatics which will buy it every year without fail. If you want a footballing game, you need Pro Evo. If you want a fancy looking game, you want FIFA.
And that’s what it boils down to. For a gorgeously designed, well refined game with loads of ways to play you’ll be wanting FIFA without a doubt. But if you just want a game where the matches are better, the gameplay is more enjoyable and smacking in a 30-yard screamer feels genuinely special, then PES is your best bet. As for me my affection for Pro Evo has only been strengthened this year, and while I’ll come back to FIFA to play against friends online it’ll be PES which will stay in my PS4 for the longer periods of time. Both awesome, but for pure footballing joy, PES is awesomer. If that’s a word.