Welcome to the next generation, FIFA. What took you so long?
Most video games, even blockbuster sequels, exist in a kind of isolation. You treat each one like a self-contained entertainment experience. Football/soccer games, though, live in a very different reality than most video games. For one, they're sports games, which means a new one is released every year, a schedule that presents challenges to developers and problems for fans, who have to pick through bullshit bullet-point marketing to decide whether it's worth playing a game that's likely very similar to one they spent months playing last year.
Instead of being a single game that we look at in a vacuum and treat on its own merits, each year's release is merely the latest chapter in ongoing sagas.
The other weird thing about them is that FIFA vs PES is sports video gaming's only true rivalry. Most other sports are dominated by a single game, whether by force (like Madden's NFL rights monopoly) or by virtue (you'd be forgiven for forgetting NBA Live even exists given how popular NBA 2K is).
FIFA and PES, on the other hand, are like Batman and The Joker, their entire existence defined by the presence of the other. You can't play PES without talking about FIFA's licenses, and you can't play FIFA without talking about PES' gameplay, because those things are as much a result of targeting the competitor's weaknesses as their own inherent strengths.
And being sports games, titles that many fans devote 9-12 months of the year to, there's generally only room in people's schedules (let alone wallets) to get one of them. So the matter of comparing FIFA and PES isn't just an interesting exercise in approach and scale, for many people it's important business!
Ever since Konami's PES series switched to the Fox Engine a few years back, it has enjoyed a short period of (critical, at least) superiority over its flashier competitor, which limped through the early years of the XB1/PS4 generation with an engine that was, to put it kindly, dated as fuck.
While FIFA turned up every year with its licenses and its advertising budget, over the past few seasons PES has built a superior product where it felt it counted most — and also in the only place Konami could afford to compete — which was on the pitch.
I said as much last year. An ageing FIFA simply couldn't compete with PES' more physical and accurate representation of the flow of a game of football, its deep pockets and extensive licensing no longer able to paper over the cracks in its on-field product.
This year, though, things are different. While PES offers the standard "same game but with a few new tiny features" sports game approach, FIFA feels like a brand new series. Not necessarily in terms of how it plays, but in how it's been presented.
FIFA 17 | Two things to look at here: cracking goal, but look how far that defender ends up out of position
But first, PES. There's not much to say about PES that isn't boring "well this is slightly better/different than last year" breakdowns. It was a very good football game last year let down by terrible presentation and a disappointing lack of official licenses. This year it's an even better football game still let down by terrible presentation with a licence situation that's even worse.
There's just something about the Fox engine and Konami's code at the moment that has the series in a footballing sweet spot, somewhere it probably hasn't been this comfortable in since PES' 20006 glory days. Everything from the movement of the ball to the physicality of players feels great, with the result that (WARNING: sports video game cliche ahead) the game you play on the screen often looks a lot like a game of actual professional football, if not in terms of visuals then at least in flow and build-up play.
PES 2017 takes last year's game and just...cleans it up. Most notably the game's player animations are less stiff, which had long been a problem for the series, but stuff like crosses and holding the ball up also feel tighter.
PES 2017 | PES can be beautiful to watch.
There's something euphoric about the way you can string things together in PES 2017. Seeing a winger whip in a low cross that a striker takes, shoulders a defender he's holding off then slides it into the bottom corner doesn't look or feel like a video game moving from one programmed set of circumstances to the next. It just flows, elegantly, like a football should when its finding its through a bunch of world-class players into the back of the net.
FIFA doesn't play that nicely. It's not that it's a bad football game, far from it, but when you play the two side by side it doesn't take long to see which one plays the better game. FIFA has a new engine, which should have fixed a number of its longstanding issues, yet for whatever reason many of these persist. Players move like they're ice-skating on grass and have the turning circle of cement trucks, while too many parts of the game, especially in attack, still feel like they're a little bit on rails.
Making matters worse for FIFA is that defending this year is...yeesh. It's not that it's hard, it's that there's an obvious game design issue at play here where EA Sports wanted to do away with the idea that a football player can simply win back the ball whenever they want by hitting a button, and instead want to subject you to minutes of frustration as you watch an opponent stroke the ball around.
I see their point! That's how football works, and in making the ball so hard to win back in defence, they obviously want you to take better care of it in possession. Problem is, this is a video game, not a UEFA badge coaching course, and that is not fun.
Things that are fun in FIFA this year include shooting, which feels a lot crisper and feasible at long distances, new set piece controls which seem to be frustrating hardcore players (no doubt simply because they're new) but which I love and a very effective new way to turn your shoulder and maintain possession in traffic or in the presence of a close defender.
It also looks a lot better. The shift to the Frostbite engine has finally banished the old "thug" character models, with their giant shoulders and cartoon faces and weird warping effect on the jerseys whenever they raised their arms. In their place are modern, realistic football players. I don't think FIFA's faces are quite as nice as PES', but it's a matter of splitting hairs. This game looks good.
And hey, like I said, it's not like FIFA 17 is a bad football game. It's the best FIFA has handled in years, and taken in isolation (which for many people who only play FIFA it may well be) it's a very fine sports title.
Overall, though, PES 2017 is much better at playing a game of football. If that's all you care about, and is all you base your purchasing/time devotion decisions on, there you go. Have at it, and enjoy yourself.
If you're still with me, though, let's talk about how sports games are more complex than just "which game plays better".
Despite all the changes that have been made to FIFA this year and all the refinements PES has introduced over the past couple of years, I think the football landscape in 2016 looks a lot like it did in 2014, when I said "Pro Evo plays better than FIFA, but that's not enough".
Because that's the position we again find ourselves in. PES plays a tremendous game of football, even better than it did two seasons ago, but its deficiencies in just about every other area — coupled with one massive addition to FIFA's offering — make recommending it over EA's series a tough proposition.
Konami's PES slogan, "The Pitch Is Ours", is supposed to be a rallying cry to hardcore fans that this is the game you want if you want the best game of football. In reality, it reads almost as a sad exclamation, accidental self-parody that the pitch is the only thing Konami can actually manage to get right.
From clumsy menus to to minimal upgrades for core components like Master League to a PC version that deserves a fiery death, everything about the nuts and bolts of PES — the things that over the months you spend more time in than actual games — feels budget, broken and/or underdone. How many years do we have to say this until Konami does something about it?
Its online play is a shadow of FIFA's Ultimate Team juggernaut, and commentary is a stilted, robotic embarrassment. This may all sound like fluff, but over the course of your time with a sports game, as you wait through load times, navigate menus and dig into modes and options over first weeks and then months, it all adds up!
And that's before we get to licensing. Which is dreadful. It's somehow even worse than last year. There's no Bayern Munich, despite Mario Götze appearing in the team's colours on the cover of PES 2015. There's no Juventus. Worst of all, there is no Real Madrid.
PES 2017 | MD White? Guys, if you only pay for two licenses in the entire game, one of them needs to be Real Madrid.
Long-term fans may scoff at this, numb as they are to Konami's repeated failings in this area, but for most people (and me) this is a big deal. They want to see real teams play against other real teams in real stadiums, and they want to be able to do so without having to tinker with image files and user-created kits like PES half-asses.
FIFA has long let them indulge in that kind of stuff, but in FIFA 17 EA absolutely murders Konami with the introduction of The Journey, which for me has been the deal-breaker in this year's contest between the two games. If you feel like EA had an advantage when it came to stuff like names and kits, you're going to love what happens when you're dropped on the ground floor and start living that stuff first-hand.
The Journey is EA's first serious attempt at creating something 2K has been doing with its NBA 2K series for years: namely, provide a proper singleplayer story mode, complete with a narrative and cutscenes. It's more than just a single new game mode, though. This isn't some bullet point for the back of the box. Just like 2K's MyCareer, The Journey is being positioned as the centrepiece of FIFA 17, and for a guy like me who prefers singleplayer, that's exactly what it's become.
Unlike PES' career modes — or even FIFA's older equivalents, which are still present deeper in the menus — The Journey puts you in the shoes of a pre-designed character, who has his own backstory and physical appearance.
Beginning as a young boy, you control a guy named Alex Hunter as he makes his way through the ups and downs of the professional game in England, experiencing everything from a loan spell with a lower-division team to cup finals and Premier League titles.
FIFA 17 | As a Villa fan, I thought we'd miss out on The Journey, since it's restricted to Premier League teams. Part of the story involves a loan spell at a Championship club, though, so I got to spend a few months being patronised on a daily basis.
The Journey isn't just a fancy singleplayer mode for a sports game, though. It's practically a full-blown RPG experience. While you'll be playing actual games of football, you also have to take part in training sessions with your team, which at first are used as tutorials for newcomers, but which soon become the best way for you to level up Alex's stats (both his overall numbers and by unlocking and attaching specific perks); the better you do in each drill (essentially FIFA mini-games), the more you'll improve, and the better your chances of making the starting XI for the next game, which in turn will give you more game time and more chances to level up.
Adding to the RPG feel are the quantity and quality of cutscenes that are used to break up the football. Sure, the story is corny as hell (it's your standard "boy come good" sports tale), but it's told with genuine sincerity, a few lighter moments and some very fancy cutscenes helping it all go down a little easier
So far so 2K MyCareer, but one thing FIFA improves on its own is that it tailors the game experience to suit the story. Instead of just asking you to play and then loosely cobbling some cutscenes together based on your performance, The Journey directly intervenes in your game sometimes to suit its narrative needs, creating roster spots for fictional characters on actual teams (which 2K has also done this year), injuring star players to give you your first shot and transferring big players (like Harry Kane) into your club to give the manager an excuse to present you with your career's first roadblock.
FIFA 17| The Journey's story won't win any awards, but it's told with enough quality in the models and voice acting that it's entertaining enough given the context. It makes the whole thing feel like a more complete, coherent package than just a collection of cutscenes padding your games. And while it runs into many of MyCareer's problems later down the line — like a drop in cutscenes once you establish yourself in a mid-career grind — its strong opening and overall packaging have made it one of the most enjoyable things I've played in a sports game in a long time.
Is The Journey going to mean much to the kind of person who obsesses over pack opening videos on YouTube? Maybe. But it definitely means a lot to me, a solitary player who used to craft his own narratives in career mode anyway, but can now indulge this style of play on a (relatively) Hollywood scale. It will also mean a lot to a more casual player, who now gets a guided tour of sorts (including tutorials) through the meat of FIFA's offering, while also serving as perhaps the only major sports games that is now totally welcoming of any brand new players, whether they be football fans taking their first steps in an RPG, or maybe even vice versa.
It's a key part of the FIFA 17 experience, a real reason to pick this game up even if you're not a hardcore football game player, and it's one that PES can't even offer, let alone match.
I'm disappointed that FIFA's move to a new engine didn't result in a bigger improvement to its on-field offering, and I'm disappointed that despite year after year of feedback PES still can't seem to fix their shit when it comes to basic issues of navigation and presentation.
Indeed, the established divides/cliches between the two series — that FIFA is the skin and PES is the soul of football — have become so entrenched this year that you almost wish the two studios could climb out of the trenches on Christmas Day, shake hands, join forces and release a single football game. Let Konami handle the on-field code and EA can do...everything else.
Since that's never going to happen, though, we're left with this eternal struggle, which some years is won by the plucky underdog, but which most years — like this one — is carried by the global juggernaut which is able to devote so much money and manpower to their game that even when it's not as good a football game, it remains the more enjoyable experience overall.
I played PES 2017 on PS4. I played FIFA 17 on Xbox One. I also played PES 2017 on PC, which is an embarrassing port, so that you don't have to.