The King is dead. Long live the King.

For almost as long as I’ve been comparing these two games—traditional “reviews” seemed increasingly pointless as the years wore on, especially since people generally only wanted to know which of the two they should side for—one has been outright better than the other. EA’s FIFA, flush with cash (and Premier League licenses), emerged around seven years ago as the dominant football title, superior to Konami’s rival PES series in almost every regard.

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Look past the results, though, and in the past few encounters the flow of the game tells a more nuanced story. One of a FIFA series, resting on its laurels with a dated engine and minimal improvements, being pegged back by a resurgent PES, running on Konami’s new Fox Engine and desperate to claw back the crown it held for most of the 00’s as the football game to beat.

Last year, PES came close. Very close. This year, Konami has finaly done it. If you’re only after a quick, tl;dr verdict, that’s it. PES 2016 wins.

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Those after the why, read on.

PES 2016

So, I have a problem with the way most sports games are both marketed and reviewed that I’m going to get out of the way first. There’s an obsessive focus on small details, changes, tweaks and updates compared to those found in last year’s version. On the one hand, I get it, these games don’t change that much year-to-year, so coverage needs something to focus on.

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But there’s an issue with this approach, and it’s that if this is all you focus on, you start to lose sight of the forest for the trees. A lot of this year’s FIFA reviews, for example, are doubling down on things like a small goalkeeping AI change and a new way to send faster passes. Those are important to note, sure, but are they that big of a deal when looking at the game as a whole?

FIFA 16

Because when I step back and look at FIFA 16 as a complete and individual video game released in the year 2015—not a vessel carrying bullet-point updates to FIFA 15—I see a game that’s dated and stale. Lumbering under the weight of an ageing engine that affects every aspect of gameplay, from rubbery animation to floaty ball physics to players that look like Adidas-draped balloons. EA can make all the little changes around the periphery they like, but at the end of the day, they’re just that: little changes.

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This game needs more than little changes. It needs a serious overhaul. There’s precious little that’s new about FIFA 16. From the menus to the commentary team to the halftime replays, it’s tough finding genuinely fresh and meaningful additions or improvements to the core FIFA 16 experience outside of a new draft system in Ultimate Team, some extra depth to manager mode and a promising (though quarantined and barebones) women’s game (more on that below).

PES 2016

Pro Evolution’s hunger, on the other hand, is evident exactly where it matters most in a game about playing football: on the pitch. Any kinks experienced by PES when switching to the Fox Engine and bridging two console generations over the past couple of years have been left behind, and this year’s entry feels supremely confident in almost all areas. It’s the closest a game from either series has come to feeling truly “next-gen”. Passing is crisp, shooting strikes a good balance between spectacle and accuracy, defending feels fair and there’s just an overall feeling of weight and physicality to everything that’s sorely missing from FIFA.

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An example: moving the ball around. In FIFA, even with the new long pass/first-touch system (which is trickier than it needs to be), there’s little enjoyment to be had in working the ball around the midfield. It feels like—in true Premier League style—the middle of the park is a checkpoint you need to blow past on your way to a shot on goal. In PES 2016, on the other hand, there’s such perfect sense of heft to the passing system and the collisions between attacker and defender that it’s a joy just kicking it around, probing for a weakness.

FIFA 16

Another example: FIFA has long had a problem where you’re often ushered into scoring a particular type of goal, so at times you feel like you’re playing a game of football on rails. That’s where I stand for a header at the back post, this is where I go to lob a throughball to a striker, etc. This remains in FIFA 16, only it’s even less fun, as a more menacing goalkeeper AI stops more of these routines from ending up in the back of the net.

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PES, meanwhile, has always been more open and chaotic, resulting in a greater variety of goals, whether through careful buildup or messy tap-ins. A goalkeeper AI change going in the other direction—they seem a little more lead-footed and a little more clumsy this year—only makes for weirder and even more random goals. Which sounds very unsporting, but this is a football game, and messy random shit ends up in a goal all the time.

PES 2016

It’s funny, last year I lamented that as good as PES was getting on the field, it’s off-field woes were keeping it from pulling ahead as the better overall package. I thought the only thing that would help Konami’s game improve was a better suite of licenses, or an abandonment of the publisher’s insane fascination with menus and network connectivity messages.

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Turns out I was wrong. All PES had to do was make its actual football so good that the rest of the game’s junk became less of a concern.

Just because it’s less of a concern, though, doesn’t mean it’s no longer a concern. There are still serious issues with Pro Evo’s presentation and finery, and they’re in areas that FIFA has always and continues to excel. While PES overhauled its main menu last year to basically copy FIFA’s excellent UI, every other menu you have to dig down into is an ugly, unintuitive mess. Also, Konami: please stop putting update messages at the start of your games. They are the worst.

FIFA also dominates PES when it comes to licenses, mostly down to the fact it has the rights to the entire Premier League, from on-screen graphics to a recreation of all 20 stadiums. This year, that gulf has only grown wider, because FIFA also now has the exclusive rights to the German Bundesliga, with similar slick presentation. That’s in addition to a ton of other leagues, covering everywhere from Australia to Brazil.

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PES, meanwhile, has a few big European leagues (Spain, Italy, France) and the Champion’s League license. Which are fine, but they don’t fill the void left by the Premier League and Bundesliga. On the downside, this sucks! On the bright side, the game’s famous copyright-skirting edit mode has been improved—at least on PS4—to allow for much easier importing of fan-made content. I downloaded some files and followed some instructions here and after about an hour’s work had a full Premier League complete with badges, armbands, kits, crests and managers (see image below). There’s even the option to assign commentary names to the sides whose names are also actual places, so clubs like Chelsea, Tottenham and Southampton can have their names spoken by the commentary team. It’s far from an ideal situation, but for serious Premier League fans, it’s worth noting.

Speaking of commentary teams...commentary teams! As always, FIFA’s Martin Tyler and Alan Smith are excellent, but as always, despite the fresh additions to his repertoire, much of Tyler’s general banter is getting a bit stale.

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The commentary in PES, meanwhile, has had an almost total overhaul. Goodbye Jon Champion, hello the ever-excitable Peter Drury, a man I find utterly unbearable in actual football games, but whose fervour seems more at home in a video game where I’m directly in control of the action and doing ridiculous things.

An all-new commentator means an all-new series of calls, but even then, it doesn’t take long for Pro Evo’s failings in this area to show up once more. Both Drury and his sidekick Jim Beglin are often stuck saying their lines out of context, robot-like, Konami failing to string together the right set of tones and inflection. “Hello everyone, and welcome to this all-important cup match between Liverpool and Bournemouth.” There’s also way less lines in total than you find in FIFA, so it doesn’t take long before you start noticing duplicate/spamming commentary calls.

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This would traditionally be the part where I’d move on and talk at length about both series’ multiplayer, but I honestly don’t think I need to. If you play FIFA online you’re probably playing Ultimate Team, and any kind of critical appraisal of that mode or the game itself is pointless, because you’re hooked on that shit like bath salts and already have the game and have already spent another $300 on it. If you’re playing PES then that game’s version of Ultimate Team (MyClub) still sucks.

And in a world where Spike Lee is being hired to write cinematic singleplayer experiences, both game’s career modes (and “play as the young star footballer” campaigns) feel under-done (though relatively, FIFA’s is better, especially with new options for training players in manager mode).

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FIFA 16

This stuff might all sound like fluff compared to the core gameplay, but it’s important fluff, and for many can help be the deciding factor in which of these two games they devote the next 9 months to playing. Your undying love for Manchester City, for example, may mean you prefer FIFA’s glitz and Etihad™ Stadium® branding over Pro Evo’s more substantial and rewarding gameplay.

As important as it is, though, I just feel like PES 2016 is such a superior offering as an actual game of football that you’d have to be very into licenses to let that sway you. I mean, I enjoy seeing authentic TV pre-game visuals in a video game as much as the next guy, but I enjoy PES’ sturdy, free-flowing football a lot more.

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So, to recap:

WHAT PES 2016 DOES BETTER:

  • Passing
  • Shooting
  • Running
  • Defending

WHAT FIFA 16 DOES BETTER

  • Licenses
  • Menus/UI
  • Commentary
  • Career Mode
  • Online? I don’t know, I think Ultimate Team is a scam.

WOMEN’S FOOTBALL

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OK, so I felt like writing about this separately, since it’s not only split off into its own section of FIFA 16, it’s something PES simply doesn’t have a competing feature for. I also spun it off because I don’t feel like it adds that much to FIFA to warrant opting for it over PES. At the moment.

FIFA 16’s women’s mode, if you don’t know, adds 12 international women’s teams to the game. Your options with them are limited to just friendlies or a small tournament. Which isn’t much, but this is the first year they’ve been included, so baby steps.

What’s there, though, is great! Much was made pre-release of the fact these women’s teams would have lesser stats than many of their male counterparts, but once you actually start playing, that becomes instantly irrelevant.

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EA hasn’t simply added ponytails to its existing player models; instead, the women’s mode feels like a completely different game with completely unique handling. They feel snappier and sharper to move than the guys, and while mistakes seem more common (maybe a consequence of the lower stats?), it was just more fun playing this mode.

Shame there wasn’t more to do with these teams once you play a tournament or two, but like I said, baby steps. I’m really looking thiforward to seeing where EA goes with this in the years to come.


SYSTEM NOTES

I played PES 2016 on PS4. I played FIFA 16 on Xbox One. I also played PES 2016 on PC, which is a rubbish port, so if you’re PC-only, bear that in mind.