The topic of whether Pro Evolution Soccer (PES) games are better than FIFA games as a representation of football has been a fiery one, which seems to re-ignite every October as the latest incarnations are released.

When the wars started near the beginning of the PS2 era, there was no contest between the games. EA’s FIFA games had more polish, better graphics and all of the official licenses. What the PES games lacked in presentation, they more than made up for in gameplay. Hence the football games of choice for the PS2 years belonged to the PES series.

However, with the transition to the next generation of consoles (PS3, Xbox 360) bringing about the 2008 versions of both games, FIFA seemed to have made progress in leaps and bounds, whilst PES 2008 was far worse than the PS2 versions prior to it.

I have always enjoyed PES more than FIFA – I find PES to provide a more natural and free-flowing game of football with scenarios that you could envisage playing themselves out in a real match. Whilst I appreciated that FIFA 09 was a good game (and I haven’t thought that about a FIFA game since FIFA 99), I still clearly preferred PES 2009.

This year, after dabbling with both demos, I have reached a dilemma as to which game is better for the first time ever. PES 2010 is a big step up from PES 2009 but FIFA 10 is an even bigger jump from FIFA 09. To help make my (and your) mind up, the two demos will go head-to-head in different categories.

It is worth noting that the PES 2010 demo is considered to be an earlier build than the FIFA 10 demo. Also, both games are not the final product, so I cannot compare all game modes and features – only what takes place during the course of a match. But this could be a good thing, as the focus will be on the fundamentals. Do read on.

Presentation

Let’s get the superficialities out of the way before we get to the nitty gritty. FIFA, and indeed all EA games, has all the licenses. They have hundreds of teams, all the correct squads, all the correct kits. The menus are slick and consistent (they haven’t changed in a couple of years it seems, but I would say that this is probably a good thing).

The background menu music consists of the trademark Latin American samba fare that represents the passion of the sport so well. The ‘practice-while-you-wait’ type feature whilst the game is loading is a touch which has been carried forward from the previous next-gen FIFA games, and it is a nice one. Loading times have also sped up from last year, but I still find PES to be quicker.

PES seems to change their menu system every year, each time making it even more confusing. Tell me Konami, why do you enjoy playing games with us by daring us to find where you cheekily decided to hide how to change the controller options? Why do the labels for things make no sense? Example: you set up a match and are asked whether you want “vs player”, “vs com” or “custom”. What the hell is custom? So I go inside, and lo and behold, we have the familiar sight of assigning your controller to a side. Why the game does not go to this screen like it has done in the past by default, I will never understand.

The PES background music is awful, consisting of poor man’s indie rock and Konami’s choice of trance music. I’m not sure whether they choose these tracks because they like them or because they think we like them. After many years, I hope they still don’t believe in the latter.

Winner: FIFA 10

Audio

As I mentioned, PES’s menu soundtrack leaves a lot to be desired. FIFA wins on music. And although the PES demo has no commentary, I will eat my hat if it miraculously comes anywhere near the authenticity of FIFA’s Andy Gray and Martin Tyler.

Winner: FIFA 10

Graphics

About 5 years ago, PES was the football game for gameplay and FIFA was the football game for graphics. Strangely, this has almost been turned on its head (although I’ll talk about gameplay later). PES’s colour palette is more vibrant, the overall images are sharper and the detail & player likenesses are astonishing.

Although FIFA has improved in the visual department from last year, the players still look monkey like. Their shirts are all stretched and distorted and they just don’t look natural from close up at all. In fact the perspective in FIFA really bothers me – it makes you feel like there may be something wrong with your eyes. The default camera angle during gameplay is at a much higher angle than in PES, making depth perception a lot less intuitive. Of course, this can be tweaked, but it never really feels right.

Funnily enough, from a distance, FIFA looks pretty authentic, almost to the point that you feel you might be watching a real match. You never really feel this way with PES. And you will be seeing the game from a high-angled view most of the time, so one could argue that the close-up visuals are irrelevant. Whilst this is true, there is no doubt who is the looker amongst the footie games these days.

Winner: PES 2010

It's fairly obvious to me that this Gomez mug...

... is a lot more attractive than this one.

Tactics and Formation Editing

FIFA’s Team Management options have always been a little bit ‘dumbed down for the masses’ compared to PES. This year, it is no different. However, in the past you could have argued that actually it was PES who over-complicated strategy due to the plethora of options and player attributes. With PES 2010, I feel that this argument is no longer valid. PES now has an overall rating for each player, which helps you compare players at a glance – much like FIFA. Both games have these overall values changing depending on where you put the players on the pitch. Make Xavi a centre-forward, for example, and he becomes around a 50 rated player than a 90.

PES also has the well hyped slider system, where you can easily and visually adjust your team’s width, pressing, support, behaviour etc. The system is similar to that found in the Football Manager games, which is a very good thing. The same cannot be said, however, of the card system – where each player has a set of special abilities or ‘cards’ that can be activated or deactivated as you see fit. Turn Dani Alves’ run card on and he will surge up the wing to support attacks on the break, but leave a massive hole at right-back as a result. Whilst this is good in theory, since the impact of cards aren’t huge in my experience, they tend to be left well alone for the most part.

The depth of PES’s options combined with a much easier-to-use interface for tactical changes means that it come off trumps in this department.

Winner: PES 2010

Gameplay

Because this area is so vast and so important, I’m going to assess gameplay on a number of different categories.

Ball Physics

We’ll start with physics, since it affects all of the following aspects in terms of the overall feel of the game. PES was the first game to really treat the ball as a separate entity back in the PS2 era. All sorts of complicated calculations sort out the spin and air-resistance, and this has been constantly been tweaked and added upon to make the ball feel like a real object following the laws of physics. As a result, you can really feel the impact of your kicks on the ball.

The ball in FIFA, on the other hand, seems much too light and floaty. Crosses just feel wrong (the camera perspective also makes them look wrong). Kicking the ball overall is just not as satisfying as it is in PES.

Winner: PES 2010

Dribbling

Interestingly, this year both FIFA and PES have broken free from the long standing 8-way dribbling to allow 360° dribbling, meaning that your player doesn’t look or feel like he’s on rails. At least, that would be the idea. To be blunt, PES just hasn’t managed it quite as well as FIFA. Although there is a movement arc and it is difficult to just magically face your player in an angular direction with no intermediate animation, I find that players seem like they still want to ‘snap’ to the axes somewhat. Both implementations have allowed each game to make a huge step forward in terms of how natural dribbling the ball actually feels. But FIFA has made a slightly bigger one.

The sheer number of animations in FIFA add to the realism, and things like stumbling and players accelerating from a jog to a sprint make player behaviour life-like. This is enhanced by the way that animations flow seamlessly (almost) from one to another. In contrast, there is still evidence of where movements are ‘stitched’ together in PES.

Winner: FIFA 10

Passing

For a while now, I’ve often become frustrated that my passes in PES don’t go where I want them to. This has been improved in this incarnation, and ball physics and movement are still excellent (as mentioned above).

But my eyes were opened when I played FIFA 10 for the first time. Although the ball feels a lot more ‘floaty’, passes actually seem to respond more precisely to where you are pointing the analogue stick. Although PES and FIFA both have a power gauge for measuring long passes, FIFA also implements this with short and through passes. This allows for much greater control over placement, and less frustration overall. Oddly, PES had power gauges for shoot and long pass way, way before FIFA. You’d have thought they’d be the first to carry it over to other passes. Sure, PES still has manual pass with the right-analogue stick, but it is extremely fiddly in practice for all but the masters.

PES long balls feel a lot better, but this is down to (again) the ball physics being excellent.

Winner: FIFA 10

Shooting

This is one of the things that made the PS2 versions of PES so much better than FIFA at the time. And in 2010, it is no different.

The power gauge fills up at a slower and more sensible rate in PES than in FIFA. You can feel your player winding up for the shot as you hold the button down. The ball obviously behaves better in PES, so this adds to the satisfaction. Goals are harder-earned but more satisfying in PES – you need time and space, placement is more subtle and important, and the goalie is pretty difficult to overcome in 1-on-1 situations. With FIFA, a 1-on-1 attempt on goal is still about 90% likely to go in without much effort.

And boy, are long shots a lot better in PES.

Winner: PES 2010

Set-Pieces

FIFA has introduced a flashy new create-your-own set piece option in FIFA 10. It isn’t in the demo, so I can’t really comment. It also isn’t related to the overall gameplay feel of a set-piece, and so it would be irrelevant in this context anyway.

Almost entirely due to the ball physics, set-pieces just feel more precise in PES 2010. The camera angle is a lot better in allowing you to judge where the ball is going to go – FIFA’s flat camera throws me a bit. And what is with the corners? The ball behaves like it is filled with helium and stays in the air for an awfully long time.

Winner: PES 2010

Penalties

When I heard that PES 2010 was introducing a better penalty system, I thought “great, they’ll make it more like FIFA 09 in terms of adding a power gauge for shots, giving you more than 3 directions to choose from and allowing you to move the keeper more freely when saving penalties.”

Evidently, Konami aren’t a very logical bunch. Their idea of a new penalty system involves the camera staying fixed at the wide camera angle used to play the rest of the game. That’s right, you are watching and saving the penalty side-on! Maybe this is going to be changed for the final version – in fact I’m sure it is, because as it stands, it is diabolical.

Winner: FIFA 10

Defending

Tough one this. I’m going to treat this as merely how the player in control behaves when defending, because much of the movement and defending done by the team is controlled by AI, and so will be discussed later.

Off the ball, the players behave more realistically (as they do on the ball) in FIFA. However, precision of movement coupled with the ‘super cancel’ feature (stupidest name ever) in PES does make it easier to manually position your defender. Slide tackling seems slightly better in FIFA, but all in all, it is pretty difficult to pick one over the other in this department.

Winner: Tie

AI

When considering opposition AI, both PES and FIFA have believable playing styles. They can be equally tough if you crank the difficulty up, and both are rewarding to beat. However, it is usually the players on your own team that aren’t under your control that make the most difference to you during a match. In this sense, PES tends to sort out defending and movement of your own players more successfully. There are issues where defenders leave gaping holes, but this is evident in both games.

The difference in goalkeeping AI is like night and day. I can’t put it in simpler terms – GKs in FIFA are plain dumb. They run way out of their areas to clear loose balls, they are appalling at saving 1-on-1s, and shots on target in general. It really puts a dampener on a match when erratic AI behaviour (and not player skill) determines the outcome. All sports games make us slaves to AI in some way, shape or form, but I’d rather close my eyes and put my faith in PES code than in FIFA code.

Winner: PES 2010

The Verdict

Hmm, well the scores say 7-6 in favour of PES 2010. But numbers aren’t everything (never thought I’d say that in a million years…). The bottom line really is that both games this time round are so good that is is really down to personal taste as to which game is preferred overall. Although that really doesn’t help me decide which one to buy. I guess a fairer picture can be painted once both full games come out and can be directly compared.

For the record, I actually liked the FIFA demo a lot more than PES the first time round – it looks and feels much more like watching a real football match. But upon reflection, it is easy to forget just how fun a game of football PES actually plays and just how many things it has going for it. Doing this review has actually reminded me how much I enjoy PES, and I guess that could be the deciding factor in which game I plump for in the end.