Welcome to the Year Of Bad Sports Video Games.
I’ve been doing this head-to-head review for years now, the only one of its kind in Kotaku’s critical arsenal, because this is the only space in video games where it makes sense to do it. FIFA v PES is the last significant battleground in sports, and it happens every year, so it feels right (to me, at least) to pretend that there’s a large audience of people out there who want to play a football game, but would like help deciding which one.
To recap and see where exactly we’re at in this eternal and undying struggle, here’s what I said at the conclusion of last year’s showdown:
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.
Womp. What I should have said was that 2019's stagnation was only going to be even more stagnant in 2020.
I talked about this a lot in my NBA 2K21 review, but I’ll repeat it here: I should have remembered in 2019 that 2020 was never going to be an innovative or memorable year for sports video games, because even in the best circumstances development resources would have been stretched trying to develop versions of series like Madden and FIFA for both the current consoles and the upcoming next generation.
And these have not been the best circumstances! A global pandemic, and the accompanying economic and social upheaval that have come along for the ride, have thrown annual development routines into chaos. Games like Cyberpunk, which were announced in 2012, can simply be pushed back a little later (and then a little later still). Sports games don’t have that luxury, thanks to the annual deadlines they need to hit in order to capitalise on real-world seasons (and, you know, to satisfy licensing agreements with giant sports leagues and multinational advertisers).
Which is why we nearly didn’t get a PES at all. If you missed it back in July, Konami decided to take the year off in 2020, and instead of releasing a new game opted to make PES 21 a roster update to PES 20. The company explained the move by saying:
...the sheer scale of everything we are aiming to achieve for our next-gen debut has made it necessary to pare back our efforts in other areas of development. As a result, we have made the decision to launch this year’s PES as a streamlined offering in the form of a “season update”. That being said, we are still extremely confident that this year’s game offers fans more than enough thrills to tide them over until our next-gen title is ready for launch.
To compensate players for the disappointment, Konami also made the decision that “this year’s PES will launch at an affordable anniversary price”. More on that soon. EA Sports, meanwhile, managed to release a full-price standalone game, at least according to the letter of the law, if not the spirit.
Neither game offers much that’s genuinely new, PES especially, and both are looking extremely tired this late in a console generation, even on PC, where sadly this year’s FIFA is based on the PS4/XB1 version and not the upcoming next-gen editions.
All that being the case, here’s my tl;dr verdict for this year: don’t get either unless you’re desperate, but if you absolutely have to get a football game this year, I actually think PES 21 is the better option. Read on if you want to know exactly why that is.
I know I’ve drifted towards giving my blessing to FIFA in recent years, mostly because of its production values and unique game modes (The Journey remains sports gaming’s best singleplayer moment this console generation). If both these games are so similar to last year’s versions, though, and I said FIFA was better last year, what’s changed in 2020?
Partly, it’s down to the fact that even in years where I’ve hands-down recommended FIFA overall, Konami’s offering has almost always been the superior game on the pitch, and that’s more important than ever this year when both games are so limited and stale off it. And mostly, I’m breaking with Kotaku review protocol here and mentioning the price.
We never talk about price or supposed “value” in a review here because in almost every scenario they’re tainted metrics by which to judge a game. What one person might think is cheap another may find prohibitively costly, and a game that might have been $50 when one person was reading might be available for nothing on Game Pass when another stumbles across it.
Plus, you know, we’re here to talk about a game, not act as a buyer’s guide. Yet let’s be real: this particular annual review is basically just that, and so given its own unique place on the site—and this year’s unique place among those—I’m going to make an exception.
At $50, FIFA 21 is a big no thank you. At $30, PES 21 is slightly more palatable.
A lack of new features across the board (both boards) and the fact PES 21 is literally a roster update doesn’t mean these games are identical to their predecessors. FIFA continues to devote itself to pace and physicality, with its only real new feature of note being new ways of dribbling and controlling the ball in attacking positions, perhaps drawing on Volta’s street football for inspiration. As exaggerated and unrealistic as excessive tricks can be, it’s still a lot of fun to dance your way past three defenders and smash it into the top corner.
PES meanwhile just keeps on doing its thing. I’m not sure how much of PES 21 is new and how much is just leftover PES 20 gameplay tweaks made via updates in the months between me reviewing the last game and this one, but it does feel better, thanks to an intangible combination of tighter animations and crisper passing, married to the best ball physics in all of sports video game history. In PES, it feels like the ball is the star and the players moving around it, like it should be in football, whereas in FIFA it always seems like the player models are the focus and the ball simply an object to be blasted between them.
If you asked me to play one game for the rest of the season, or which one I’d rather buy of the two, I’d pick PES. I’m exhausted by both games’ efforts this console generation, but I’m more sick of FIFA’s rubbery player models, unrealistic ball handling and heavy reliance on scripting. PES, on the other hand, has atrocious commentary, yet I can’t stop admiring the way it prefers to recreate the game of football—and does such a good job of it!—and not just the broadcast experience.
Licenses have always been and continue to be an issue with Konami’s series, but they’re sometimes an issue with FIFA now too (Juventus and Roma are both missing from FIFA’s Serie A, for example, while an increasing number of international teams are stuck wearing unofficial kits), though this year PES at least makes it easy—indeed it even encourages you—to import actual kits and competition names made by fans on the PS4 and PC.
Being an update to a game that was already lacking in features, PES is still limited compared to FIFA. EA’s game has multiple whole other game modes that its rival lacks, like it’s Volta campaign and women’s football, but while these are present on FIFA’s install doesn’t mean they do anything to shift my opinion here (the women’s game in particular really needs to be updated, especially after having it form such a triumphant part of The Journey).
The stuff that PES does offer, like its Master League and career modes, feel (and look) like they’re ten years old. That’s mattered a lot in recent years, and counted against PES more than once, but now, in 2020?
With seemingly the entire planet in a state of flux right now, and football itself beset by capitalist excess that threatens to destroy the game as we know it, it almost felt good this year to settle down with these two games and have them so bereft of stuff to talk about. To tune out all the money EA has thrown at FIFA over the years, look past PES’ continued business bungling and remember that, outside the influencers, the licensing deals and the ads, it’s football we’re playing here.
And PES’ football, as always, is better. Last year, or the year before that, that wasn’t enough for Konami’s series, but this year it’s superior on-field performance—coupled with a more compelling price point—make it the game to recommend.
I realise an endorsement like this sets a distasteful precedent—that these publishers could simply trot out old code with new rosters every year and charge money for it, and I’ll just lap it up—but remember, I’m only endorsing PES if you’re “desperate” and “absolutely have to get a football game this year”. Otherwise, like I said up top, this is the Year Of Bad Sports Video Games, and there’s no harm in simply taking 2020 off, maybe just updating last year’s games with new rosters (and kits, if you’ve got PES) and seeing how everything looks this time next year.
Note: If you’ve read this far and were wondering what I’ve got to say about both game’s microtransaction modes, get outta here, I’m not talking about that shit.