Ah, the age old question. FIFA vs PES. For some of us, it really does feel like an age that we’ve comparing and contrasting the two games. As an avid fan and follower of the sport both in its real and virtual iterations, I have personally stuck with and purchased every FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer instalment for more than a decade. Before Pro Evolution Soccer was even known as Pro Evolution Soccer. Throughout EA’s drought between the years 2000 to 2006, and through Konami’s between 2007 and 2010 equally. It hasn’t always been an easy ride to look at both games objectively or impartially, either. Try comparing the mighty PES 5 to the lacklustre FIFA 05, or the current title holder FIFA 10 to the whimpering efforts from Konami last year. There is no comparison.
This however is 2011, at least in video game release terms, and things have changed. Take a look at Metacritic and you’ll see a clear winner; an almost unified agreement of who is this years king. But I don’t agree that things are quite that straight forward. Rather than review both games separately or try and justify a score with a quick “X is just better than X” quote at the bottom of a clichéd summary, I’m going to try and look at the two games in direct competition. It’s a bit of a departure from how games are normally reviewed on Tap, but I’ll give it a go anyway.
Ping Pong Passing
Pro Evolution Soccer is a wounded beast. As former champion of the genre and following on from 6 solid years of unanimous, untouched and unprecedented supremacy on PlayStation 2, Konami has struggled with the step up to next-gen systems. Their initial PES 6 in HD for the Xbox 360 fooled nobody and the series has stagnated ever since. Compared to its glorious past, recent PES games have offered a shallow and pale imitation of a glittering past. By contrast, FIFA has continued to push from strength to strength. FIFA 08 set the wheels in motion, 09 turned out to be a revolution and last year’s model seemed to steal the crown for good. Konami is several years over due a return to their best. PES 2011 certainly isn’t quite up to that standard, but it’s much closer than it’s been for half a decade.
First impressions are important and as a seasoned veteran of both franchises, I found PES 11 creating by far the better of the two. My expectations were low, but were soon blown away by a game which felt fresh, new and exciting. Rather than feeling like a strained effort to recapture former glories, PES 11 feels like a new experience. Series producer Shingo Takatsuka – affectionately known as “Seabass” – and his team have clearly gone back to the drawing board to give the series a much needed re-boot. Although some of the fundamental mechanics are retained from previous entries into the series, entire sections of the old experience have been canned and re-built from the ground up. The result is a game that looks and in many ways plays like the Pro Evolution Soccer we once knew and loved, but there are enough changes to the formula (and a long enough gap in time since the last genuinely good PES game) for the latest build to seem new and interesting. It feels like the return of an old friend, albeit one you’ll need to spend a little time re-acquainting yourself with before you’re fully comfortable in their company.
FIFA 11 is significantly less exciting at first glance. In terms of visual and audio quality the game is no less impressive than you’d expect from an EA Sports release, building on the high standards set by its forbearers, but it will be a familiar experience to anyone who has played an EA published football game in the last 3 or 4 years. This sense of familiarity also stretches to the game play itself, which without a list of bullet point alterations and features within arms reach can be difficult to assess what’s new. It’s very much the FIFA experience you already know and either love or don’t.
So, about those bullet points? EA loves them. “Game Changers.” Stuff to put in blurbs on the back of a box. This year, the headline features are a new passing system, which rids the series of Ping Pong Passing, a new Career mode which fuses together the previous Manager Mode and Be A Pro modes into one integrated system, player personalities and Be A Goalkeeper, which, funnily enough, allows you to be a Goalkeeper in the game. Marvelous.
So how do the headline grabbing additions translate into the previous FIFA experience? It’s largely a mixed bag. Just like last year’s 360 degree motion, which is thankfully elaborated on in this years game, player personalities is a great idea that probably needs a year or two in the oven to really develop. The long and short of the idea is that lumbering defenders will no longer be able to sprint up the field, beating half the other team in the process before looping a shot into the top corner of the goal from 25 yards out, and likewise, forward players won’t be able to dive into match saving tackles with the same accuracy or precision as lumbering defenders. As far as that simple definition is concerned, the system generally works, although it’s currently done so in a way that tends to stifle the game play rather than encourage you to use the players at your disposal in the way the game wants you to. Maybe it’s just me, but storming up field with Sol Campbell is still too tempting.
Stifle is also a word that could be used to describe the new passing system. The simple tap of the X or A button of old is now gone, replaced by a system that asks you to keep an eye on your power, placement and direction before moving the ball onto a team mate. Much like player personalities, the system generally works as advertised, but not without drawbacks. Conceding possession in the middle of the park is now a much more regular occurrence, and fighting against the system when playing as the game’s lesser rated teams – such as my own largely inept Sheffield Wednesday – can be a frustrating process. When the system works though, it works well. Knowing that splitting a defence wide open with an acutely timed pass that was your own doing, and more than a simple tap of a single button, is instantly gratifying, and stringing together a succession of passes with a team like Barcelona in full flow is beautiful to watch. The only problem I have with the new system is that it’s brought with it the introduction of the term Ping Pong Passing, a rather cringe worthy phrase used to describe the old, single button press formula. It’s a term that is now casually dropped into coverage of football games, as if to deride the old system as a complete failure in the process. Nobody seemed to notice or care about Ping Pong Passing when FIFA 10 was receiving perfect or near perfect scores left right and centre, but alas, I guess that’s the way things just work.
For the most part though, FIFA is FIFA. There are other subtle changes to the tried, tested and almost universally successful formula, such as an improved heading system that actually makes crossing the ball into the box half way to being worthwhile, but generally if you’ve played a FIFA game in the last couple of years you’ll already get the gist of it. Resting on such laurels isn’t a luxury afforded as easily to Konami. It can’t be, because if it did, then this year would be another sub par entry into a series which is desperately trying to reach out to its lost flock of fans. Rather than sell the new game in a neatly compiled package of headline features, Konami have simply opted for the tag line Engineered for Freedom, which does a far better job of explaining what PES 11 is about than your average cynic may suspect.
Engineered for Freedom
It sounds nice, for sure. It even sounds like something that once upon a time EA themselves might well have used to describe their own franchise, back when the respective roles of these two sporting powerhouses were reversed. What it isn’t though is just a catchy quip to sell copies of a game. It really does mean something, and it provides an umbrella for a whole host of game play tweaks and additions that help refine the PES experience . A new passing model finds itself tucked into PES 11 with just as much efficiency as in FIFA 11, but unlike its rival, PES 11 doesn’t feel the need to shout about it. It’s just a small cog in a larger and altogether more effective machine. 360 degree movement, quietly slipped into PES last year to keep up with the marauding FIFA 10, has also been tweaked and adjusted to offer much wider scope for movement. There’s a new, smarter and wittier AI, along with new animations and a greatly improved graphics engine which in certain lights and scenario’s arguably trumps FIFA’s rather glossy exterior. Whatever you thought you knew about Pro Evolution Soccer on next-gen systems now requires something of a re-think. Unless you still know the commentary team of John Champion and Jim Beglin, which yes, is still crap.
The end result is something which as stated earlier, is probably the first PES on PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 that is genuinely worth playing. Engineered for Freedom also works in context of the game play itself. Make no mistake, the days of charging up field with the ball glued to your toes are long gone, but PES 11 still feels like a more expansive an open game of football than FIFA 11. Getting into the right positions requires time and patience, but the results generally feel more rewarding and are easier to come by than the opposition.
By comparison, FIFA 11 can sometimes feel unbalanced. The quality and speed of the animation means FIFA 11 is an incredibly smooth and free flowing game to play, which when spreading the ball around midfield looks and feels fantastic, but for all that gloss the game seems to lose it’s way in both attack and defence. Even playing on modest difficulty settings, the AI defence can feel unnecessarily brutal, blocking your attackers with relative ease and with little more than an outstretched arm or foot. Combined with the fact that the new passing system means even more of your attempts to play the ball around defenders will go astray, working your way into goalscoring opportunities can often feel like a thankless process. I’m glad that the ability to just run through defences at will has long been eradicated from football games – both of them – but FIFA 11 often feels far too heavily weighted to stopping you from even attempting to do so; even with top players like Messi or Ronaldo. The introduction of Player Personalities has also failed to address the pace issue between some defenders and attackers, and as a result the likes of John Terry still find it far too easy to keep up with the aforementioned speed demons for comfort.
Thankfully though, the emphasis on defending does mean that you can use similar bullying tactics to your own advantage. When facing an opposition attack, simply holding the X or A button will mean your nearest defender will hone in on the attacker and disposes them as soon as they get near. It’s useful for sure, and the slide tackling has also been improved tenfold for the times when you will need it, but it does mean some matches will feel like a long and rather dull war of attrition. FIFA 11 plays great in the middle of the park, but watching the ball change possession between an AI attack that is too easy to defend against and an AI defence that is too difficult to break down will frustrate some. Prepare for plenty of 0-0 or narrow 1-0 scorelines early on in your FIFA 11 career.
During my early experiences with FIFA 11, I also found it far too easy to settle into a rhythm or exploit certain loopholes to score the same types of goals. Getting into the same old positions was the tricky part, thanks to the over zealous AI defending, but once I found the space scoring became a little too predictable. Cut inside the box at an angle, tap the finesse shot trigger and give the shoot button a light tap, and regardless of the quality of your team, more often than not the ball will casually roll into the bottom corner of the net and beyond the reaching fingertips of the goalkeeper. It’s not a guaranteed solution, but I found the majority of my goals against the AI (and most of them in said narrow 1-0 wins) coming from this or similar avenues. I just couldn’t seem to find the sweet spot from many other options. Not for the want of trying, either.
This is perhaps where I get my most enjoyment out of PES 11. Although the shooting is far from perfect and having to work the ball into the right conditions can make scoring just as much of a pain as in FIFA, there’s far more variety to the types of goals both you and the AI will score. You’ll attempt (if not always convert) volleys and overhead kicks, attacking players are more likely to throw themselves at an aerial ball and it’s much easier (but importantly, not easy) to score from outside the box. Not every goal will be as audacious as this may sound, but there’s a constant sense of possibility when attacking in PES that I think is lost or compromised in FIFA 11. Most of the time, that 25 yard volley you attempt after a cleared defensive header will sail over the goal, but once every so often it’ll crack off the underside of the bar and settle in the netting; at which point you’ll leap up into the air screaming and spend the next 5 minutes surveying your handy work from every possible angle in the replay. It feels great and it always feels possible, even if in the majority of cases it probably isn’t. Generally in football games, if the angle or opportunities work against you and you don’t think you can score, then you almost certainly cant. But where PES 11 and FIFA 11 differ is that in the former, you’ll still want to try. It’s a priceless balance.
West Midlands Village vs West Midlands Stripes
For all PES 11’s improvements however, which can’t be over stated enough compared to anything you’ll have played since PES 6 on PlayStation 2, the areas where Seabass and his team still need to improve are just as obvious as they always have been. Although the animations have been rebuilt, players still have a habit of looking incredibly mechanical and robotic. Watching your players come to an awkward looking stop after a run, or stutter after a change of direction or pace undermines some of the improvements to the games overall pacing and flow, and provides too much of a stark reminder of the PES we all know and frankly, would rather forget. The ball physics also don’t look or feel quite as natural as in FIFA 11, and the ball and is prone to behaving a little more erratically than you might expect, which can be off putting. For those who watched the worlds best teams and players struggle to control the Jabulani at this summers World Cup in South Africa however, you may barely notice.
It probably goes without saying, but such issues have long since become irrelevant for the FIFA series, which once again looks and sounds fantastic. The game is a visual treat and generally runs like clockwork with a fast, smooth and fluid pace that is currently unrivalled in the genre. As always, the game also has more licenses than you can shake a stick at, with more than 25 fully licensed leagues and thousands of players all portrayed realistically. There are some snags to this such as iffy looking Goalkeeper kits and the occasional licensing blunder, but these are few and far between. By comparison, PES 11 remains limited to just 5 major leagues; including the again unlicensed English Premier League, so West Midlands Village, London FC and Merseyside Reds make another inglorious return. PES 11 is however taking steps forward. The addition of the Copa Libertadores is a great feature that adds some welcome Latin American flavour to the game, working well as a stand alone mode and allowing you to play as teams such as Corinthians, who roll back the years to feature Brazillian legends Roberto Carlos and the real Ronaldo. Full Champions League licensing is this year also boosted by the additions of the Europa League and European Super Cup. It’s not ideal, but in Konami’s defence, all the licensing they do have is utilised with particular care and attention.
Such issues however can be forgiven because of how easy PES makes it for users to customise their game to their own desires. PES 11 once again features a comprehensive edit mode, which even adds a limited but surprisingly effective stadium editor to the mix this year, leaving users to craft the teams and players as they so wish. This level of customisation is also backed up by a keen and ever loyal community of PES fans who year in year out create a variety of different Option Files, which when transferred to your console via a USB stick, fix many of the licensing issues and add all the relevant kits, player names and teams to your game within days of release. It’s not an ideal situation, and those who prefer being able to play as their favorite team from the off without waiting for a fix will doubtlessly prefer FIFA’s instantaneous licensing, but such user support provides a fair alternative. It’s a level of community based customisation that is rarely seen on consoles, forming part of the heart and soul which makes the series such a popular one even when not at the very top of it’s game.
Also crucial to PES 11’s heartbeat is Master League, the mammoth time sink that acts as the games central single player core. Like every good Master League mode from the PlayStation 2 glory days, this years edition allows you to pick a team and set out on a career with either the real squads of the team you select, or the now legendary group of Master League misfits such as Ximelez, Miranda and Huylens; who long term fans of the series will be oh so familiar with by now and who will be just as inept whether you start a career with Blackpool or Barcelona. The basic premise is to guide your team to glory in as many competitions as you possibly can, buying new players along the way to improve your side as well as developing and bringing through youth players. It’s a simple formula that doesn’t sound all that unique in principle, but particularly if you start out with the default Master League players, building your own team from the ground up and watching them develop (and hopefully, succeed) provides an enticing hook.
This more than any other has been the one area where even during the lean years, fans of PES have been able to hold their heads high and say they had a genuine reason to still appreciate the series. As much as I’ve tried to love FIFA’s Manager Mode, given that it allows me to take charge of my home team from the off without the need for editing, it just doesn’t stack up. FIFA 11 unfortunately offers no exception to this. As far as a feature set is concerned, there’s nothing particularly wrong with the now re-branded Career – which now encompasses Be A Pro alongside the traditional Manager Mode – but the whole experience feels shallow, soul less and, well, dull. News items stretch to little more than vague injury or fitness updates and the transfer market still seems totally out of sync with reality. Developing new players also never feels as important as it should be and playing your way through a season can sometimes feel like little more than a grind from one match to the next. Factor in some familiar bugs from last year (seriously, EA?) and the fact that failing even secondary challenges during a season can get you sacked regardless of your performance in other areas, and Career mode once again shoots wide of the mark. I don’t expect Football Manager levels of authenticity or realism, but Career mode should be starting to offer more. Once again, that “spark” is disappointingly absent.
Having read back through this review, I’ve noticed that there’s something of an air of balance towards PES at the expense of FIFA. That’s partly through intention and partly just subconsciously based on my thoughts and experiences with both games. Have a casual gaze across an aggregate site like Metacritic, and if you’re looking for a score to tell you which of this years games to buy, there’s a clear winner. FIFA 11 is once again this years darling in the eyes of the masses, and even for a sceptic, it’s not hard to see why. Technically speaking, there’s nothing wrong with FIFA 11. Sure it has some bugs, probably more than such a high profile and highly funded release should have, but other than that it’s a game that both looks and plays exceptionally well. It’s got all the licensing, all the game modes and all the glitz and glamour to appease anyone, whether that be your hardcore football fan or the casual players who will probably buy nothing but FIFA and Call of Duty all year.
My biggest problem with FIFA 11 however is something purely subjective. I find it inherently boring to play. The game looks fantastic in full motion, but some of the tweaks to the game play, the overly aggressive AI and the predictable patterns and methods of scoring goals can sometimes leave the game feeling clinical and lacking in soul. The newly formed Career mode is a genuine step forward from FIFA 10 but still feels hollow and lifeless, and in my opinion leaves FIFA 11 without a genuinely compelling single player component to drive the main thrust of the game. For those who mainly play online, FIFA 11 remains streets ahead of the competition, with head to head matches, online clubs and 11 vs 11 matches offering plenty to get your teeth into, but it’s largely what fans will already know and expect from the series. In truth, there’s not an awful lot new in FIFA 11 for fans to get too excited about, and I’d perhaps even argue that some of the features can make this years efforts feel like a strained, tired and more frustrating clone of FIFA 10.
With it’s lack of licensing, continually awful commentary and familiarly dodgy animations, Pro Evolution Soccer is still the ugly sister of the two. For me however, there are far too many critics out there who have been too quick to knock PES 11 simply for failing to match up to the slick fluidity of FIFA. I’ve read (but won’t name and shame. This isn’t a trolling exercise) countless reviews that read like the reviewer actually enjoyed their time with PES 11 more and appreciated it’s fresh take on the genre, before closing their article with a brief comment about it’s lack of polish and awarding a lower score than FIFA. Is that really what we’ve come down to?
PES 11 is far from perfect and isn’t particularly pretty to look at through the eyes of the football purist, but in my view the experience it delivers is simply more entertaining. It doesn’t match FIFA for realism (although I’d argue all day long with anyone who claimed any football game could ever be genuinely realistic), but it successfully captures the essence and soul of what makes the real sport so exciting. There’s a charm, unpredictability and natural excitement about the way PES 11 feels to play that I personally believe is missing from FIFA 11, perhaps more so this year than in the last two. Individual moments of brilliance or once in a life time goals won’t happen every time you pick up the controller, but PES 11 at least instills the sense of possibility that encourages you to try. Whether it be the game itself, the rags to riches story of Master League or the sense of community that builds and adapts around the game each year, PES 11 is a game with a personality. It helps that this year, for the first time in quite a while, it also plays a pretty good game of football.
By now of course, most football gamers will have already decided and more than likely already own their game of choice this year. There are countless reasons why any one gamer would choose to play either of the two, and perhaps even more reasons why they’d choose not to, but in a world that seems dominated by praise and full of superlatives for one, I appreciate the opportunity to air my thoughts in favour of the other. Welcome back, Pro Evolution Soccer. Let battle re-commence in a years time.
This article was based on the PAL retail copies of both FIFA 11 from EA Sports and PES 11 from Konami. As I have chosen to do a comparison between the two games more than a “review” of sorts, no direct individual scores have been awarded. For the sake of conformity though, and if anybody really feels the need to ask, let’s just give them both.. oh, I don’t know, 4 out of 5 or something..
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