by Goran Damnjanovic, Gaming Columnist
Published in Gaming on 31st January, 2019
Pro Evolution Soccer 2019 finally topped FIFA, at least when it comes to gameplay. And for most, that's all that matters.
Back in the Sega Mega Drive (that's Sega Genesis for NA region) days, FIFA was the best sports game you could play. I played it at friends' or would rent a console and play it at home (I owned SNES and my main sports game on that machine was the phenomenal Madden 1996).
FIFA 1996 was the first football game that made me love the sport and FIFA 1997 was a blast to play, especially its indoor mode. But then one friend got a PlayStation and we saw FIFA 1997 in full 3D and that was it, the old Mega Drive version was out of the picture. FIFA was great for a while but then a new football game strangely named ISS Pro Evolution pushed FIFA to second place.
ISS (I believe it was the 1999 version) featured way better graphics and more importantly, way better gameplay. We were kids back then and the fact that Konami's title didn't have officially licensed teams was completely ignored because the game was breathtaking and the best football game we ever saw.
Ever since then FIFA was always in the second place for me. I always played Pro Evolution Soccer and FIFA was played only by some friends who simply preferred the fact that FIFA had a bunch of licensed teams and (arguably) better graphics. But the gameplay was always on PES's side and no one could deny that. Golden years of PES were between 2004 and 2006 when the three best versions of the game came out, and back then I played those games like a madman. With the switch to then-next-gen systems (Xbox 360 and PS3) the game simply lost its charm.
The game wasn't as good as FIFA 08 but I didn't care much because for a couple of years I weren't really interested in sports games and would play a couple of matches occasionally against mates at parties during high school. Then college came and with it loads of free time that was mostly spent with college buddies playing games.
And I got interested again in football and again started playing Pro Evolution Soccer, which wasn't better than FIFA but its arcade gameplay combined with loads of goals on every match and easy to pick up and play nature made it better for gatherings were a bunch of 20-year-olds would play football for whole weekends on end while drinking loads of beers.
A couple of years passed and we still loved PES but then, in 2013 just a couple of weeks before my final year on college started, Konami released PES 2014. I and my roommate were super excited and we simply had to play the game on release. We couldn't wait to receive the disk and install the game, and then the first match started and we were stunned by the game's brilliant graphics.
PES 2014 used newly developed Fox engine, made by Kojima Productions for next-gen consoles (Xbox One and PS4) and oh man, did it delivered. The pitch was amazingly detailed, stadiums looked like someone took photos and then somehow stitched those photos and created 3D objects with them and players looked like they came from Crysis. Everything looked like it came from the future and we loved it.
But soon after, when we came out from the Fox engine-induced narcosis, the problems started emerging. The game had bad physics, players would lose the ball too easy, the ball behaved like a beach ball and would ricochet randomly all the time, like in some over the top pinball game, and shot power was laughable. It was impossible to score from outside the penalty area and each shoot felt like you kicked a balloon and not a proper football. And then friends came over and every single one talked about just how PES 2014 feels broken and unfinished. But the biggest problem was that everyone kept playing it despite the fact it sucked!
But my roommate and I decided not to play that poor excuse for a football video game and to wait for the next release. I started playing NBA 2K (and again got super interested in NBA league, the flame that got extinguished for more than half a decade was on fire again) and was stunned by the quality of the game, and it quickly became my main time killing tool. My roommate never liked basketball so he silently suffered because playing PES 2014 again simply wasn't an option.
So we decided to save up money and buy FIFA 14. We did that and discovered new frontiers with FIFA's amazing simulation gameplay that included bunch of feints available by flicking the right stick; slower pace of the game that allowed for building meaningful attacks and playing smart defense that was super important in FIFA; excellent shot mechanics, especially during free kicks; and the addition of bunch of licensed teams and leagues that weren't available in PES.
You didn't have to download PES patches that installed licensed teams and brought real player names, to read long installation guides and to manually make transfers. FIFA 14 was the best football game I played ever since those early days of ISS Pro Evolution and the last year of college was filled with sleepless nights playing the game with friends (who only had to play a game or two before transforming from PES fanatics to FIFA believers).
And in the following years, FIFA was the first and only choice for me and for most of my buddies. After playing FIFA 14 they all switched to FIFA and never looked back. And I was happy because each new version of the game was just a tad better than the last one, which was totally fine by me because the gameplay was as good as in FIFA 14 and still miles better than in new PES titles (I occasionally played new PES titles but each one felt deeply underwhelming).
But then, after a couple of years I spent on finishing my master thesis and a couple of exams needed to get my degree (those years were spent playing FIFA and NBA almost every day) I finally started working. Old college friends also got their degrees and either moved back to their hometowns or got a job. We stopped playing FIFA every day and got together on some weekends to play a game or two.
And maybe that was for the best because FIFA 17 looked and felt like a rehash of FIFA 16 (okay, I know that each new sports game is almost identical to the previous one but this time EA really stopped implementing meaningful and noticeable changes) and the same could be said about FIFA 18; it was being the same as FIFA 17. Nevertheless, I played FIFA during weekends and I didn't love it but it was fine.
Then 2018 came and the usual demos for both FIFA and PES. I downloaded both and wasn't impressed so I finally decided to skip getting FIFA and simply focus on playing games like NBA, Mortal Kombat, and Madden when friends are around. And that worked well but everyone wanted to play some football so I decided to download the free version of PES to have some football on my PS4 when mates are around because Konami stated that offline exhibition mode was to be found in the free version.
And I simply had to play a game or two while the game downloaded. Schalke 04 and Liverpool were the only two teams available to play before the game got installed so I picked the Reds and start playing. And the magic of football hit me again; I couldn't believe a game of football could fell that good. Everything was fluid like in no other football game; players featured perfect and rich animations and the feel when shooting the ball was out of this world.
This was way better than the demo I played just a few months before; all developers did was changing the ball physics a bit and slowing down the game a notch and that made massive changes for the better. The game felt perfect and I couldn't wait for the weekend to play it again. Of course, Konami being Konami didn't clarify that while the offline exhibition is included in the free version it would only have a couple of teams. I was super disappointed by that below the waist hit so fitting for Konami. But the football was so good I simply went to the PSN store and bought the damn game.
And then I enjoyed it for almost a whole week all alone. I never played football games online (FIFA's FUT mode were never my cup of tea). Occasional day-long gatherings with friends were more than enough to keep me satisfied. But this time I simply had to do it because the game was so damn good! I hated the way the ball was so heavy in FIFA and in PES 19 the ball feels like you really are kicking a proper football made to be played in real life football games.
The fine-tuned manual controls (L2 on PS4 controller) were way better than in FIFA and the lack of the whole bunch of tricks mapped to the right analog stick was unnoticeable because with L2 you could perfectly dribble a player or two and find a perfect shot opportunity. And the fast-paced waltz of accurate passes, on time dribbles, and effortless actions that always ended with a shoot was intoxicatingly addictive.
I spend about two dozen hours playing PES online over the course of five days. And then friends came on Saturday and it was the usual, "Yo man, have you got FIFA yet?" I told then I got the new PES and they sighed in disappointment. But I told them "just play one match." And my old roommate accepted the challenge and we played PES one against the other for the first time in more than six years.
The game ended and he simply told to the other two mates "Ok dudes, you have to play this. It's awesome!" and they played a game and were as mesmerized as I was. We stay up late playing this magical game, match after match until it was 7 am on Sunday. After that weekend we play PES 19 each Saturday for at least five hours. And I still play online almost every day. The game is that good.
Sure, PES 19 has its share of weak parts. That old pinball-like ball deflections are still there but they are massively toned down. Now they look like those situations in real football when the defense is nervous and they fail to kick the ball out of the penalty area making the ball to deflect and suddenly everyone wants a piece of the ball and chaos suddenly arises.
There are still a couple of "foolproof" ways to score but once you learn how to recognize those plays they can be countered with smart defensive positioning. Dribbles can be countered with ease but after some time you learn how to press L2 at the right moment, giving your player just enough time to trick the defender and gain space to shoot or pass.
Yes, goalies behave like robots on cocaine but scoring goals become relatively easy after you learn all the moves. And the game still suffers from a severe lack of licenses but on PC there are plenty of patches you can install to gain access to all teams. The good news for PS4 owners is that you can download an option file that includes all names, emblems, and jerseys on your PC, copy it on any USB flash drive and then quite easily copy all that on your PS4.
Here's the tutorial on how to do it (thanks Eurogamer). Sure, PES 2019 isn't a perfect game but it is a football game that came closest to perfection. And that's enough for me. Goodbye FIFA and I hope that we won't see each other for a while because PES is back baby!