Pro Evolution Soccer 2015’s motto is “The Pitch Is Ours”. It’s a rallying cry to purists, fans of the sport who want their game to play like the real thing, not just look like it. It’s also accurate: in almost every respect, Konami’s game plays better than EAs. But that doesn’t matter.
For the past few years, I’ve done a fairly extensive breakdown of the two big football games, in an attempt to decide which one was “better”. This year, mostly because Pro Evo launched two whole months later than FIFA, I decided against that single piece, instead reviewing FIFA on its own.
I won’t be reviewing Pro Evo, because I think that’s missing the point.
There’s a bigger issue with Pro Evo 2015 than what it does right (or wrong) as a single game. And that’s how it represents the state of the battlefield between Konami’s series and EA’s annual juggernaut.
Ever since FIFA retooled itself six years ago to become the dominant force in football gaming, Pro Evo – the former title-holder from the PS2 era – has been scrambling to respond. Year after year it tried to retake its position as top dog, and year after year the series became more of a muddled mess, the developers seemingly unsure on how to both tackle FIFA’s strengths while not losing sight of their own.
FIFA got bigger and bigger, and Pro Evo, once the favourite of both critics and fans, slid further and further into the background, becoming increasingly irrelevant in the eyes of the massmarket consumer.
Then last year, you got the sense things were changing. Pro Evo switched to a new engine that in parts played fantastically (though it broke down in others), and its player models looked lightyears ahead of FIFA’s ice-skating cartoon characters. There was a feeling that, in a year or two, Pro Evo might actually be back on track.
It only took a year. Sort of. This year’s Pro Evo is the best football game since FIFA 09. Almost everything about it just feels right: from the weight of passes to player movement to shooting, when you play Pro Evo 2015 alongside FIFA 15, it feels truer to the sport its trying to recreate. Slower, more artistic, more open to interpretation and expression. It never feels like it’s on rails, or that the AI is waiting to spring a bullshit equaliser in the 90th minute. It just feels like football.
It’s a shame, then, that this somehow isn’t enough. There’s so much more to a sports game than how it plays on the field. Stuff like how its careers are structured and how it’s presented are just as important as how a shot travels or how a keeper reacts.
While Pro Evo has finally nailed its on-pitch action, almost everything else about the game remains ancient and unwieldy. Menus remain clunky, like something from the PS2 era. Commentary is an embarrassment. EA’s wildly successful Ultimate Team concept has been copied, but as you’d expect, it’s a hollow and shameless facsimile.
Most damning of all is that Pro Evo’s licensing, one of the most critical aspects of a sports game, seems to be getting worse, when it needs to be getting better. A big part of FIFA’s dominance isn’t just down to EA’s marketing spend, it’s down to the fact that FIFA can boast things like Premier League licenses and stadiums, then make use of them using slick TV-like presentation.
Pro Evo tries to keep up – it has the Champions League, Italian and Spanish leagues, along with a few other minor comps – but when it comes down to it, it’s getting blown out of the water. Not only is it missing two of the best leagues in the world (England and Germany), but many big national teams aren’t properly represented either, including England and, bizarrely given the game’s origin, Japan (my Socceroos, long a Pro Evo mainstay, don’t have their authentic strips either).
What this leaves us with is a game that plays better on the pitch, but isn’t a better game, because as much as I love passing the ball around during a match, the thought of spending hours in the Pro Evo’s bogged-down menu system just so I can see West Midlands Village take on Merseyside Red, only to be subjected to the same three lines of commentary over and over and over again, makes me wonder if it’s worth it.
If this was just a temporary hiccup or misstep, it wouldn’t be that big a deal, but I’m getting the sense with Pro Evo 2015 that this is as good as Konami can do. That even with a new engine and a year off (there was no PS4/XB1 game last year), they didn’t have the resources to tune the gameplay and do something to improve the game’s commentary, menus or career structure.
That makes me worry for the future of the series, and its current position as the only thing keeping FIFA from descending into the Madden-like levels of complacency a sports game can afford when it’s the only game on the market.
Am I doomed to repeat the same words every year, from now until eternity? That Pro Evo is forever destined to play development whack-a-mole, able to only fix or improve one part of the game while leaving the rest languishing behind EA’s juggernaut?
I’m starting to think I am. Which, given just how well Pro Evo 2015 plays, really bums me out, because the best recreation of the sport on the market deserves a better game around it.