WITH the Premier League season now well underway, the battle for supremacy on the virtual football pitch has only recently kicked off.
If it were a real match it would be a classic FA Cup tie; in one corner is EA Sport’s FIFA 17, with their usual Manchester United sized budget that is able to snap up the biggest leagues in the world.
In the other is Pro Evolution Soccer, a game that is reminiscent to United’s punk football cousins FC United of Manchester.
Whilst it may not have the ‘razzledazzle’ of all the official teams, it has always enjoyed a following both cult and fanatical in equal measure, and as those with fond memories will tell you, was king throughout the early-mid 2000’s.
Konami jumped the gun by releasing PES nearly two weeks before EA’s annual offering, but with FIFA 17 now available to the public we can finally see who has won the virtual derby for this year.
EA Sports has been making a lot of noise about how their new title now utilises the Frostbite engine made famous by the impressive physics of the publisher’s other key franchise, Battlefield.
On the pitch you probably won’t notice much of a difference bar some sharper faces, however it’s off the pitch the comparison becomes more stark.
Fans are now rendered at a much higher quality, although it would have been nice to see a little more individuality or extra models.
The cut-scenes in the journey (oh we’ll get to that) also benefit from Frostbite, with animations seeming natural, and showcasing visible emotion for the first time on a FIFA game.
The key difference though is sound, whilst not exactly graphics it does play a key part in any game and if FIFA has improved on one thing this year it’s terrace noise.
Chants are a lot more clearer and even have a flow between home and away fans as you would expect from a real football match.
Pro Evolution meanwhile is armed with Konami’s Fox engine, the same powertrain that made Metal Gear Solid 5 the visually stunning masterpiece it was.
The one advantage this has over Frostbite is that it flows at effortless ease, playing like a game running at 60FPS even though it is capped at 30 for consoles.
Konami have also made great strides with player likenesses since some of the abominations of last gen, with teams such as Liverpool and Barcelona getting the full treatment for their squads.
However, dig a little deeper and you find a few players who look off, Jamie Vardy in particular has an uncanny valley feeling to him.
Having said that though, Pro Evo is superior in the animation department, for instance if a striker receives the ball close to a marker he looks up for the tackle as you would expect in real life, whereas in FIFA he would carry on as if no-one was there.
It’s those little details from PES that actually make this a closer contest than it should be, as whilst Pro Evo may lack the aesthetic details of its EA counterpart, it’s the application of emotion and animations that makes this part too close to call.
This is where FIFA 17 plays it’s trump card: ‘The Journey’.
Whilst NBA2K and the Codemasters F1 games have dabbled in the idea of adding narrative, the journey is less fantasy than the former and more exciting than the latter.
As most will know now, ‘The Journey’ focuses on the career of Alex Hunter, grandson of Jim Hunter.
Whilst these two characters are fictional, EA does a great job at making them appear real, especially Jim with his stats and style of play being described to Alex.
The supporting cast also do a fine job immersing you in the football world, something millions of us dream of being part of.
However, it is a little rough around the edges, as lip-syncing can hap-hazard, and the plot a little linear to the point of unrealism (such as Harry Kane signing for Bournemouth), but it’s a really impressive debut for a mode that not only has been requested for years, but is also the one key reason to pick up FIFA 17 this year.
I’d love to see the developers branch out from just the Premier League to other countries, and maybe get a few non-league licences to give it the full Jamie Vardy treatment, but on face value it’s a huge pay-off considering how big of a gamble EA took pushing this mode to the moon.
It certainly is something PES doesn’t come close to beating this year, which has changed little on this front.
Konami fire right back though on this category, as even though it’s a bold statement to make, PES 2017 in terms of gameplay and physics is the best football game of all time.
The reasons for this become evident before the game even kicks off with one of the most in depth tactics editor in history.
Players can not only freely place a footballer anywhere on the pitch in a drag and drop style, but are also able to change formations for when their team is in and out of position, as well as adjust playing style and offer specific tactical instructions.
The result is that not only does every team play true to life, but also feel unique, it’s not a gimmick either as it translates to the pitch effortlessly.
For instance, when playing as Liverpool and you lose the ball high up the pitch, you’ll see the midfield press the opposition to death as they do in real life, or if you are Manchester City (AKA Man Blue) and are on the ball, the full backs will come inside to support the midfield.
This means that games play out like actual games of football, but also that you’ll have to change up your tactics depending on your opposition, as I found out in my Liverpool master league where I was demolished 4-0 by Sunderland after winning my opening two games.
It’s a frustrating challenge, but so is football management and when those results do happen, at least you know in yourself what went wrong.
FIFA 17 meanwhile, although a genuine attempt has been made to replicate such styles of play, lags behind on this front.
Whilst EA Sports may have amassed an encyclopedic level of teams and players, a lot of teams feel exactly the same to play as, even worse replicating their style can fail miserably.
I mentioned how Liverpool’s ‘gegenpressing’ was superbly captured in Pro Evo, well in FIFA it is impossible to do, even with the new Frostbite engine, the mechanics simply cannot allow for the levels of pressing required.
The passing is also still a little too sluggish to replicate the Tiki-Taka of Manchester City or Barcelona, and also renders ramdeuters such as Thomas Muller useless in their natural wide position because of how difficult it is to cut inside.
As for set-plays, well the new corner and free-kick mechanics work, but scoring a penalty is like trying to perform keyhole surgery with a bandsaw; it’s so tricky you might as well conceded a spot kick whilst defending knowing how difficult it is to score.
In this case, while FIFA does have an incredible amount of teams, leagues and players, they simply don’t feel unique enough from one another to feel satisfying and make matches not feel the same.
To be honest, it doesn’t really matter which game is better, because FIFA fans will stick to FIFA and Pro Evo fans will still have their option files (the way you get official badges and kits) already downloaded for PES 2017.
Each game also has its merits and drawbacks; Pro Evo replicates football superbly, but lacks enough meat in it’s offline and online modes to really be superior.
FIFA meanwhile has the opposite problem, ‘The Journey’ is a superb glimpse into what might be the norm for sports games in a few years time and career mode has enough added flavour to keep it interesting, but can get tedious at times thanks to gameplay that hasn’t undergone a major overhaul in four years.
In truth, this year is probably a score draw, but I’ll conclude with this.
If you love video games then FIFA has enough about it to keep you excited at least until a few weeks before they announce next year’s title.
But if you love football, in all it’s technical detail and variety, then Pro Evo this year might just be the game for you…
By Oliver Mackenzie