An inside look into the battle between soccer gaming’s title contenders
Since time immemorial, or at least, like, 1995, a battle has raged between two legendary gaming foes: EA’s FIFA series and Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer (the artist formerly known as Winning Eleven). While Konami clearly had the upper hand in the early gaming console days, only the most rabid PES fanboys would deny that FIFA has ruled the roost over the past decade.
For the first time in years, however, soccer fans have a legitimate dilemma. Though each franchise approaches the beautiful game in strikingly different ways, FIFA 2016 and PES 2016 are both excellent titles. Declaring a clear winner is a challenge, but the essential conflict boils down to style versus substance. In terms of audio-visual spectacle, FIFA wins hands down. Since its creation in the mid-nineties, a large part of the series’ draw has been its collection of officially licensed content, and the 2016 iteration is no different. Kits, badges, and stadiums from dozens of the world’s leagues are recreated in loving detail. In addition to the official Barclays Premier League graphics, which mirror real-life broadcasts, a Bundesliga license brings German league games to life like never before. Star players are recreated to near perfection, including a number of female athletes in FIFA’s new “women’s mode.” There are only twelve teams included and there’s no campaign mode to speak of, but it’s a fun and worthwhile addition nonetheless.
Compared to the competition, PES’ content is pretty paltry. While Italy’s Serie A and many of South America’s major leagues are fully licensed, other leagues are populated with generic teams. If you’re a Chelsea fan, for example, you’ll be taking to the field in the yellow of “London FC.” If you want a taste of German fussball, good luck. Besides FC Bayern Munich and VfL Wolfsburg, the Bundesliga is completely absent. Luckily, a robust in-game editor offsets the dearth of licensed content. Players can edit everything from team names to stadium banners, and with a little intrepid googling and the help of an active PES community, import custom-made authentic kits to make the experience feel more immersive. A new game shouldn’t require homework, but it’s admirable that the developers included tools to help players circumvent the glaring licensing problems.
It’s no surprise that FIFA makes a better impression, but it’s no slouch in the gameplay department either. In an effort to make FIFA a more realistic, tactical experience, EA has added a handful of new features. The most notable of these is the vastly improved defensive awareness of A.I. opponents, who now move to cut off midfield passing lanes and apply overwhelming pressure to the man (or woman) on the ball. To counteract this new aggression, players can now ping a direct, driven pass to teammates. The added pace on the ball leads to wild touches and unexpected fifty-fifties in midfield, requiring a more methodical, deliberate approach to build-up play.
While PES doesn’t offer a bulleted list of new game components, subtle refinements to the existing framework make it one of the most responsive, realistic soccer games ever made. Players identify space and make intelligent runs, battles for the ball are visceral and immediate, and tactical thinking pays dividends. Individual players feel responsive, while the flow of the game feels measured and methodical. It’s difficult to identify the specific elements that make PES’ gameplay so satisfying, but more than any other game, PES 2016 captures the ineffable feel of the sport. It’s the Thomas Müller of video games: earnest, scrappy, and inexplicably effective.
FIFA boasts an impressive array of licenses and impeccable presentation, but its gameplay changes don’t do enough to improve the on-pitch experience. It’s like a hot pocket served with black truffles and saffron – an average entree with world-class accoutrements. PES, on the other hand, is a finely marbled cut of Wagyu beef shoveled onto a crumbling slab of Styrofoam. The core experience is so good that you just might forget the poverty that surrounds it.
PES 2016 and FIFA 2016 were reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4