Another year inevitably sees the latest iterations of the video game industry’s hottest sports titles roll around. With respect to football (soccer), EA has ruled the roost for over a decade with its FIFA franchise, while Konami’s PES – once king of the hill in the early 2000s – has been left trailing in the dust. But there’s no question that the latter has been fast making up ground as of late, offering a far more polished package that is fast bridging the gap between the two.
FIFA, on the other hand, almost feels like it’s reached a ceiling recently – at least with respect to its presentation and gameplay. The formula continues to evolve, but it doesn’t feel like it necessarily has to go anywhere in particular. It’s already very good. The big point of difference most recently has been the introduction of a story-driven career mode, The Journey, as well as honing its popular FIFA Ultimate Team mode (FUT). But PES has its own bag of new tricks for 2019.
At E3 2018, I went hands-on with both FIFA 19 and PES 2019 and had a chance to speak with developers from both EA and Konami about the key innovations lined up this year. Here’s what I learned, and what I think of the two games.
FIFA vs. PES at E3
Before you get excited, no, EA wasn’t prepared to talk about changes to FUT, aside from reiterating the announcement that FUT would be integrating UEFA’s Champions League into the mode. Any questions pertaining to X were stonewalled, with EA unprepared to talk about the mode until later in the year. What I did discover, however, was more about the actual innovations being brought to its gameplay mechanics and systems.
There are three key changes this year that arguably represent the most notable alterations in years: timed-finishing, advanced tactics, and special touch. EA was keen to tout these as game-changing features that were making substantial changes to the way players engage with the game. The truth of the matter, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that they aren’t quite as definitive as that. That being said, I did appreciate the changes across the board.
By far and away the biggest takeaway for me was the introduction of advanced tactics – the ability customize and shape your tactics and then assign them to the d-pad, replacing the generic options we’ve been accustomed to for years. It’s super intuitive to use, simply ticking a slider up and down in the options menu according to preference. There’s even a representation of your alterations via an animation that shows what happens when you break in attack or run back in defense depending on what position the slider has been set to. Better yet, you don’t have to make wholesale changes to your entire formation; you can simply alter specific aspects if you want to. Loading the box, for example, with players for a late-game corner. Previously, of course, you would have had to switch the entire team to ultra-attacking, and if you forgot to switch it back you’d leave yourself wide open in defense. There are a handful of specific alterations you can make that you can save as special tactics to use in the fly, such as speed, aggression, width, how quickly your team will counter after regaining position, etc.
Elsewhere, there’s the special touch mechanic – something that was actually introduced in-part last year for certain characters but returns to 19’ as a full feature across the entirety of the roster rather than just special characters. It essentially alters the dynamic of how each player receives the ball, opening new options to beat opposing defenders on the turn or slide through-balls to teammates fluidly. There are more realistic and dynamic animations that come with that, as well as a new move called the ‘fake-out’ that is executed by holding the bumper as you trap the ball. The Active Touch System is a neat concept but doesn’t alter the feel of proceedings as much as it sounds as though it would. I’ll say that dribbling and passing does feel very good, though, and in combination with the new jostling system EA has dubbed ‘50-50’ battles, there’s now an element of uncertainty to possession that requires more precision than before but doesn’t ever feel cheap. EA actually commented to me that the jostling system actually felt rather unnatural before, and they’re confident that this year’s iteration improves on it markedly.
If you were wondering: the optional close-control button remains a feature and special touch’s automatic functionality doesn’t replace the extra control you’ll have by holding that down.
As for the new shooting mechanic, it adds a new layer to finishing that’s entertaining to pull off but doesn’t actually replace other shooting options. It’s executed by tapping shoot and then holding it down a second time right before the player strikes the ball. It’s not easy to pull off, and if you miss-time your hit it’ll send the ball rocketing off in the wrong direction (along with a blinking red indicator to confirm the mishit). I’m sure over time I’ll end up experimenting and probably using the new system to my advantage for more technical finishes, but I didn’t ever feel it necessary during my 30 or so minute demo. That’s not a bad thing, of course, but don’t go thinking it’s changing the dynamic of shooting in any particularly substantial way. It’s an entirely optional risk/reward strike that can add power and accuracy to a shot, or go disastrously wrong. What it does markedly improve, however, are headers and volleys, which now feel less like luck and a lot more about precision. Free kicks and penalties, however, remain unchanged from FIFA 18.
Other changes of note for this year is the inclusion of Champions League, which will form the basis for the final chapter in Alex Hunter’s The Journey trilogy. Outside of the story-driven mode, you’ll be able to play European Football as a single tournament, editing whatever teams you like. The Champions League is to debut a new look in 2019, and I was told that FIFA has been updated to include all the latest kit designs and marketing themes to make it as authentic as possible.
FIFA vs. PES at E3
Last year saw the first of what Konami described as a three-year plan to transform PES into a more competitive and substantial football sim. It’s part of a concerted strategy to bring the longstanding franchise back into contention with its rival, FIFA, and it saw the introduction of exciting new modes like 3 player, as well as further building on its partnerships with licensed partners.
2019 continues that trend, but PES has already suffered an almighty blow having lost Borussia Dortmund as a partner this year. During the E3 presentation I attended, Konami was keen to stress that it has worked hard to bring new legends, ambassadors, and authentic leagues to the package. Although the loss of Borussia Dortmund was never mentioned, you’d have to imagine that filling that void has been a top priority over the past month.
New leagues include Argentinian, Scottish, Danish, and Russian Premier League. Russia is actually a PES 2019 exclusive, as are the Allianz Parque and Camp Nou stadiums. Scoring exclusivity for the Russian league is a big get for PES, especially off the back of the World Cup being hosted by them this year. Russian football fans passionate to play their nations club teams were just given a very big reason to consider PES in 2019.
Philippe Coutinho is the new cover man for the game, and David Beckham is its notable Legend player. Interestingly, it’s “modern David Beckham,” as opposed to his appearance during his youth. He’s been body scanned recently during PES 2019’s development, so expect to see all his latest tattoos, as well as a special new pair of boots. Other legends include Romario, Roberto Carlos, and Johan Cruyff.
PES 2019 is the first current-gen-only PES game, launching on PS4, Xbox One, and PC via Steam. The big innovations for this year’s edition center around making the game feel and appear more realistic. PES has always been terrific fun to play, but it’s struggled to match the presentation of FIFA. I was impressed during my 30 or so minute demo with just how good it looks, though it’s still noticeably less pretty than FIFA 19. The player-characters and general textures of the pitch aren’t quite as sharp, but what PES 2019 does introduce are a number of little details that help immerse players in the experience.
Interestingly, just as FIFA is doing with its new special-touch mechanic, PES has introduced “Magic Moments” and something they call ‘First Touch Impact’. Iconic players such as Roberto Firmino execute their signature skills like the no-look pass, and the changes to first touch dictate how well players trap and control the ball according to their skill. I must say, again much like FIFA, I appreciated how well PES felt to play but didn’t necessarily notice a huge disparity in control and trapping abilities between players.
PES 2019 sure does feel fun to play, though, but probably for the opposite reason that Konami was trying to portray during their demonstration – it’s fast, fluid, and arcadey compared to FIFA. Where FIFA feels overly stiff and almost too finicky sometimes, there’s less to think about and less uncertainty in possession because the game isn’t trying to always mimic real-life so pedantically. Don’t worry, though, there’s still challenge in the jostle and the opportunity to steal the ball on a heavy touch; it just doesn’t feel as though mistakes have been programmed into player-touch as obviously as it has in FIFA. That’s a good thing, because that’s often transparent and frustrating in my experience.
Along with executing special tricks automatically with ‘Magic Moments,’ players display visible fatigue if you push them too hard, and there’s a whole stack of new animations when shooting, too. The shooting mechanic has actually been given an overhaul so that you’ll have better feedback on where shots are likely to place according to player body position. During my demo playthrough, I found the shooting in PES 2019 required noticeably less nuance and precision than FIFA 19. Of the shots I took, most were dangerous without too much care as to whether they were perfectly timed or lined up. I actually found that super entertaining, but it feels slightly old fashioned next to FIFA – as if I was playing FIFA 12 or 13.
Konami were keen to highlight the return of snow as a weather system, and we were encouraged to play a match at Liverpool’s Anfield Stadium during the demo. After having talked up the impact that snow had on ball physics, I can’t say I was overly impressed with how much of a difference it made. Certainly, in comparison to a damp pitch in FIFA games I’m used to playing, in which there’s a huge change in the dynamic of a match, the snow in PES 2019 didn’t really do anything but add an interesting change of aesthetic.
With respect to its game modes, PES 2019 has introduced an overhaul to MyClub. Player Packs now replace the Ball Spins of Special Agents when signing new players. The plan is to release high performance players throughout the year along with Legends. Players of the Week, too, which are upgraded players whose stats are temporarily boosted according to their recent performance in real-life. Konami also spoke of an improved negotiation and budget management systems.
So Which Football Sim Is Best?
FIFA vs. PES at E3
Toppling EA’s grip on the football-sim throne is no easy task, and despite making some notable improvements that have produced a really entertaining package, PES 2019 still isn’t achieving that goal. But that wasn’t really ever in doubt. If you’re wondering whether PES 2019 actually constitutes a viable alternative to FIFA, it certainly does. Those hankering for a change of pace from FIFA will find a well rounded and exceptionally fun football-sim in PES 2019. The series has always boasted great gameplay, and that remains a key takeaway, but the little details and graphical nuances Konami is adding is starting to approach FIFA-levels of quality and immersion – it just still isn’t quite at the same level of presentation.
The killer for most users will be the lack of authentic leagues in comparison to FIFA. It’s great to see the efforts of Konami in forming new partnerships with lesser leagues, but the void of some big teams and various leagues is always going to be a put-off for new players. In the battleground between FIFA and PES, those without a single football game in their collection are likely better off with a package that features the greatest number of teams and leagues. FIFA won’t ever be beaten in that regard.
Yet for those with previous editions of FIFA, are you really missing out that much by trying something new? FIFA’s changes have been small and incremental even in its most major updates, and 19 is no different. The big new function for me was the ability to change tactics on the fly, and honing the new shooting mechanic gives it a point of difference from before. But is that really enough to justify the purchase? I’d almost be more inclined to start from scratch with something new. That said, those invested in FIFA Ultimate Team and The Journey won’t share the same sentiment – particularly so if EA introduces the sort of changes that fans have been asking for in FUT.
Perhaps if you’re wondering whether PES is for you, hop into the upcoming demo (info to be released July 21) and see if the gameplay jibes with your style. As for FIFA, anyone familiar with FIFA over the past three years already knows exactly how 19 plays.