This has Been a Sad Year for Football Games

Owen was right. I don't think sports games are worth reviewing. But the battle between FIFA and Pro Evo, the biggest annual contest not just in sports but in all of gaming, is too big to ignore.

Having played both of this year's games, then, I figured I'd write something up on the state of both. And how both have been such a disappointment (though for entirely different reasons).

I'll start with Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer 2012. Jesus. What a mess this series has become. Once a brutal simulation of the real thing, the game's declining sales and ageing technology have left its developers clutching at straws, slapping things on and yanking other things around in an aimless attempt to stay relevant.

With a ping pong passing mechanic, a ball that rolls like a balloon and shoots like a wet paper bag and player animation that looks little better than the PS2 days I got the strangest feeling playing Pro Evo 2012. I wasn't playing a Pro Evo game any more. I was playing Virtua Striker 2012, a stiff, arcade representation of football that's about as enjoyable as playing the real thing with a stick up your ass and a twenty pound ball.

It still doesn't have important licensing deals (like the Premier League), still has characters who open their mouths like South Park's Terrence & Phillip and still has some of the worst sports game commentary of all time. By all rights, this should have been the year Pro Evolution was finally and mercifully branded irrelevant and consigned to the touchline.

But it hasn't been. Because FIFA, surprisingly, has been a bit of a disappointment as well.

It's a relative, disappointment, of course. FIFA is still not just the best football series on Earth but the best sports game series on Earth, period, its slick presentation, attention to detail and genuine drive for meaningful annual updates setting it apart from other franchises, like Madden, that are rightly derided as being lazy.

In 2011, though, the series tripped up. Its biggest addition, a new physics engine that manages player collisions, is I feel a bust. While the retail release is missing the hilarious bugs that plagued the demo, serious glitches remain, making it feel like an addition for the sake of addition rather than one for the sake of progress.

Players collide, and then collide again, banging shoulders like they're drunk in a bar and looking for a fight, while the ball languishes untouched between them. Other times, a tackle will cause your player to just drop to the ground, like there was a crazy man in a bell tower across the road with a rifle taking shots at attackers. And it takes him, a professional athlete, ten seconds to get back up again.

It's frustrating, because it's not realistic (it's so absurdly implemented it's far from it), and that runs contradictory to what FIFA has been striving for the past 3-4 years to achieve. The game would be more enjoyable had the system not been introduced.

The game's new defensive control scheme is...interesting, but so many button presses clashed in the moment between tacking and regaining possession that I had to turn it off and revert to the "traditional" scheme. The new menus look better, are faster and work great for singleplayer, but other game modes are buried within EA's ridiculous attempts at branding, which until you've translated them only make sense to EA's marketing team.

What's disappointed me most about FIFA 12, though, are the little things. It just feels like there are more glitches, more little hiccups in the AI than usual, stuff you don't notice in your first five hours of play but then can't help but notice over the next fifty.

Attacking AI players fear the penalty box as though it were filled with snakes. For some reason, in many instances you're no longer automatically switched to the player nearest the ball in a loose ball situation, resulting in hilarious (and frustrating) episodes where the ball lands five feet from a player's feet and he's content to just stand there staring at it. And through balls seem to have gotten worse, remaining the one area FIFA could actually learn from Pro Evo.

That's the stuff that kills you when you're playing a season or more. Those infuriating, throw-the-controller-at-the-wall moments, which can often be the difference between victory and defeat. They kill because they're out of your hands, and there's nothing worse in a sports game to be cursing shoddy AI. Lose to a well-made goal, to the better team, that's fine. That's sports! But lose to an own goal caused by a physics engine malfunction and it feels like torture.

Before you think I hate FIFA 12, remember, like I said, in FIFA's case, my complaints are relative. This is still a great sports game, and this year there's a wonderful new online framework that filters and channels you into appropriate matches. If you were looking for a football game for Christmas, and asked me to choose between FIFA 12 and Pro Evo 2012, I'd laugh, then say, yes, get FIFA. It's great.

But if you liked FIFA, I'd follow that up by saying you should probably play FIFA 11, as without the stupid collision system and smarter AI it's the better game. Which you don't say about sports games too often.

And as for Pro Evo? Please, Konami, put it out of its misery. Either take a year off and come back with a refined, focused product, one which can go back to its roots of being the hardcore football game, or don't bother coming back at all.

(Top image by awesomePCgames | YouTube)

You can contact Luke Plunkett, the author of this post, at plunkett@kotaku.com. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and lurking around our #tips page.