There are some debates that have been going on since pop culture began. Pineapple on pizza McDonalds V BK V KFC. Xbox V PlayStation. Star Wars v Star Trek. Is it Gif or Jif? These debates are rarely settled (Except the pineapple one, get that off my pizza) but there is one that I feel has been settled for a while now. That is the yearly battle between PES and FIFA.
In my formative years, PES what where it was at. Presentation wasn’t as big of an issue when nobody looked right anyway, so in the days of PES5 and PES6 it was the only football game I played. FIFA struggled in the 2000s to get back on top after the heights of FIFA football 2003, and it waned and lost its way. Enter the PS3 generation, and FIFA picked itself up off the mat to fight back and beat down PES, almost to the point of it no longer being a debate.
In recent years, FIFA’s dominance has led to them perhaps focusing on the wrong things. Ultimate Team has been the main mode that development time has gone to, and aside from the story based “Journey” the rest of the game has remained similar for a long time. My personal favourite game mode, Pro Clubs, has been largely unchanged for years. There has been tweaks here and there but nothing to blow anyone’s mind.
I tried PES again in 2018, it was available for free on Xbox or PS4, and I downloaded to give it a try. It was a strange experience. I had pretty much ignored all the innovations over the years and just stuck to FIFA because that’s where my team was. Playing a football game that approached things from a different point of view was a refreshing break, but it did have its problems.
I don’t know lots about game development or programming, but I know enough to kind of understand how things can go wrong and the problems different obstacles can provide. Refereeing in football games is one problem I cannot even begin to understand how it is done. Unfortunately, the people at Konami who are responsible for the referee’s also seem to have very little idea either. 2018 and 2019 both had problems with the ref’s which at times break the games immersive and realistic simulation style. FIFA’S referees are by no means perfect, but they are consistent, and that makes it much less of an issue.
In recent years FIFA has completely redone its defending, and I think it’s the best innovation in football games since they introduced 360 dribbling. Gone are the days of sending your defenders after the ball like target seeking missiles by holding down one button. Defending on FIFA is an art now, and it’s made the game a much more rounded experience. PES feels a few years behind FIFA in this sense. The players still can be launched after the ball, but now they rarely win it. The idea is that you defend more with positioning than by charging at the ball and that is realistic, but only if your entire defence is paying attention.
PES 2019 lost me at around the 100th time my AI centre back just ignored a run and lost his man in the box, making my attempts to keep in shape and press at the right times irrelevant because the oppositions striker has the space to make a cup of tea before he dispatches the ball into the goal beyond my hapless keeper. PES 2019’s keepers are mostly there for show.
I do not have FIFA 20 yet, but I do have PES 2020, or eFootball PES 2020 to give the game its full title. I paid the money downloaded all the option files and updated all the kits, waited 2 days after release for the live update to refresh the players to their correct teams and then I dived in. It is weird. the previous year’s crisp passing feels a bit floaty; the natural movement of the players feels more robotic than I expected. The dribbling feels unnatural and it’s hard to predict what your player is going to do when a player is on their back.
Sometimes your player will shift his body weight to shield the ball, fighting off the player behind whilst maintaining possession and allowing you to control the ball until a pass is available. Other times, the AI player will just strut past you and take the ball with your player bumping off them and then having to go through the animation of him wobbling a couple of steps before you can control him again to win the ball back, by which point they’ve left you for dead.
Then you try to switch players to defend with you next in line, and instead of the defender you expect, you get given the right winger. This means more frustrating half seconds of them bearing down on your hopeless AI defence as you switch frantically between players. When you do get a hold of the right player, you then have to jockey and time the tackle perfectly, taking the ball and leaving the man stumbling over it as you emerge with the ball from what feels like a perfectly executed tackle. Then the ref blows his whistle and awards the opposition a free kick for your perfect, satisfying feeling tackle. There is a great feel to it when you master a tackle, but the fact that several of my best tackles end up in free kicks is so frustrating I nearly launched my controller into space.
What the game does well, is the finishing and the possession play. Passing around the defence and midfield in FIFA feels pointless. The opposition don’t hurry across from side to side to allow you to pull them out of position, and FIFA doesn’t appear to be heading that way. PES rewards you for patient, possession football, knocking it about and moving across the pitch leads to their defence starting to bend and flex until an opening appears and you can attempt the final pass to get a player into a goal scoring opportunity. It’s very satisfying and the best part of PES by far.
In terms of attacking game play, I would give the edge to PES between the two games. The new dribbling mechanic is difficult to use, but when you pull it off its immensely rewarding, as you send a defender for an ice cream and break into the space beyond him. The issue it has is that its main rival doesn’t have the same issues. FIFA is a remarkably consistent game. Each year it makes some tweaks, some gameplay changes, and it takes a period of adjustment. The basics of the game are very solid though, and for me I think PES has some brilliant ideas that feel like they’re standing on flimsy foundations. The defending needs a huge overhaul, while the refereeing will hopefully be fixed by a patch in the coming days or weeks. For now, though, PES is still climbing up the mountain that FIFA is sitting on top of.