I can’t remember the last time both of these games so underwhelmed.
In recent years both have had their individual highs and lows. FIFA’s last pre-Frostbite seasons were rough, and PES has long been walking a knife’s edge between eccentric brilliance and outright embarrassment.
This is not a normal Kotaku review
Sports game reviews are usually pretty boring, so for a few years now I’ve decided against giving each of these titles a spotlight of their own, instead pitting them in a caged fight to the death. Only insane people are going to get both of these games, so most football fans probably just want to know which of the two is the one to pick up. Most years it’s FIFA. Some years it’s not.
Every time one stumbled, though, the other was there to carry the day, whether it was PES’ Fox Engine revolution or FIFA’s surprisingly excellent single-player story mode, “the Journey.” I’d always be able to point to one of these two games, combatants in the last genuine competition in the sports game market, and say this one is definitely the one to get.
This year, instead of a confident thrusting of my finger, I can only half-heartedly wave my hand. PES is stuck in the same rut it’s been in for years now, capable on the pitch but increasingly a shambles off of it, while FIFA has somehow, in a genre defined by its obsession with incremental upgrades, managed to go backwards.
Here’s how this year’s head-to-head review is going to work. I’m going to give you what I like most about both games and what I don’t like. I’ll give a reluctant endorsement to one of them, and then we’re going to go our separate ways and reconvene same time next year to see what’s up.
CAREER MODE - This is less of a big 2019 update and more of just the slow accumulation of features over the last few seasons, but FIFA’s career mode—especially as a manager—is now so fully featured that it’s like a Football Manager Lite, down to keeping players happy and getting into the nitty gritty of international scouting. The new contract negotiation system, which plays out with agents in a tense cinematic office/restaurant environment, is fantastic.
SETUP TOUCH - FIFA’s new “setup touch” makes it far easier to either hold the ball up in tight spaces, set the ball up correctly for a long pass (see below) or take a player on 1v1. Stopping a ball dead at your feet, rolling it a bit, doing a stepover then blasting past a flat-footed defender is one of the best feelings I’ve ever experienced in a football game. I know this sounds like one of those annoying little incremental bullet point updates for a sports game, but this really does make a big difference to the way I played the game.
MISKICKS - While for the most part FIFA has tried to get more realistic over the past decade (it was originally a decidedly arcade experience), one area where it always lagged behind PES was the way you could string together pinpoint passes regardless of the direction the person receiving the ball was facing in relation to where he was kicking it.
In FIFA 20 there are now very strict rules regarding this, so if you try and just spam quick throughballs into the centre of midfield with your back to the opposition’s half, your players won’t perform leg-snapping miracles, they’ll just completely miskick it. Combined with the physicality and 1v1 “strafing” of the setup touch, it really helps to slow down FIFA’s pace, and really helps with allowing for calculated build-up play in an opponent’s final third, a ploy previous FIFA games just weren’t interested in accommodating.
VOLTA - Ah, this one stings. I’ve been dying for the return of indoor football to mainline FIFA for decades. This year it’s back, and...it sucks. FIFA’s rubbery player animations struggle on the tighter confines of Volta’s fields, and the Hello Fellow Kids attempt at a storyline is absolutely excruciating.
ULTIMATE TEAM - Every year Ultimate Team inches closer, NBA 2K-style, to becoming the central focus of the FIFA experience, and every year that bums me out a little more. This mode is essentially gambling, it’s bad news for kids, and it has no place in a retail video game that’s already asking for you a big up-front investment.
“THE PITCH IS OURS” - Every year PES’ gameplay, with its methodical player animation and 1:1 ball physics, gets a little closer to playing like the real thing. This year it got a little closer still. I never, ever score the same goal twice in PES, and its midfield battles are far more tactical than FIFA’s breakneck race to the penalty box.
MENUS - This seems like a minor thing to heap praise on, but for the longest time PES’ front end has been a nightmare to plod through. This year it’s much nicer, which for a game you might be spending hundreds of hours with, makes a big difference!
SLOPPY - PES 2020 is just so rough around the edges. It launched without correct team rosters, data updates take forever, in-game replays are doubled in length due to constant splashing of the game’s logo...everywhere you look, there’s just stuff there (or not there) that feels unfinished.
COMMENTARY - I think Peter Drury is the worst commentator working in football today, so his mere presence in the game isn’t helping here, but even were I a fan I’d still be criticizing PES for this. Its commentary is repetitive, slow and bizarrely unspecific, and after a few games got so tiring I just played games without it.
AI - Here’s the real deal-breaker with PES though: Throughout my review, the AI would continually just break down, especially when it came to player movement off the ball. Sometimes my striker would start to make a run behind the defense then just stop and wander off, while my defenders would see an opposition striker heading at them and turn their backs. It didn’t happen all the time, but it happened more than enough for it to make a difference on the scoresheet in several key games, which was absolutely unforgivable.
Both games underwhelmed this year because neither failed to progress significantly from where they were in 2018. FIFA 20 in particular feels like a lesser offering than FIFA 19, because “the Journey” was such an accomplished and enjoyable addition to the game; its absence this year is sorely felt, especially when Volta’s own story is so poor by comparison.
We’re here for a recommendation, though, not commiseration, and so despite its shortcomings I think FIFA is once again the better overall offering. Volta might be a misfire, but the way I can try and take defenders on 1v1 is now more fun than it’s basically ever been in a football game, regardless of the publisher, and the state career mode is in threatens to pull me away from Football Manager (of which I’m admittedly a pretty casual player) entirely.
PES, meanwhile, tried a little harder than usual this year, spending more on licenses (not having Juventus in FIFA is weird) and changing the name of the series itself. As befitting a game mired in quicksand, though, the more it struggled, the more it found itself stuck.
The overwhelming impression I got playing both games this year is that they’re just tired. Both series are in need of a fresh shot of adrenaline (and a fresh coat of paint), and they were never going to get it in 2019, in the twilight of the sixth console generation. We can only hope that this year’s stagnation is just a result of something bigger and better coming along next year.
Note 1: I played a retail copy of PES on PC, and had a prerelease copy of FIFA on PS4.
Note 2: I am never calling PES by its new, dumb name.