WHERE HAS IT GONE WRONG FOR FOOTBALL GAMES?
Six teenage lads are crammed into a bite-sized bedroom. Two around the PC, malfunctioning the motherboard by illegally downloading mp3’s as the others sit on the edge of the single bed staring, fully concentrated at a box Beko TV. It’s not PES or eFootball, It’s Pro Evo on the PlayStation 2 – The one with Colina on the front. Hours upon hours of winner stays on or round robin format and the glory days of football gaming. It was simplistic and that was key. There weren’t updates, coins, packs, points or any other pointless money grabbing gimmicks – Just the game, a 10 minute 90 minutes on the pitch.
To be clear this isn’t a FIFA versus PES who did what to who, rather a plight summary of the 2 franchises. Having tried to play the ‘next-gen FIFA’ in the last week or so I feel compelled to write this, I don’t give a scripted sweaty last minute winner which is better. I just want a good football game to play – A game that will excite, bring realism without sucking the fun out of the sport, that crucial fine balance. Other than the historically great PES Master League which still delivers some magical moments, I’m struggling. When I look back to those days of old, all I remember is joy. Very limited scripting, no buying wins in bulk, just great multiplayer on a level playing field and seasoned career modes to boot.
We are now 3 whole generations of console beyond those halcyon Pro Evo days and I’ve remained a constant throughout, buying all the PES games on release and most FIFA’s – some of which have been god awful, on both’s behalf. Whether football games were genuinely better in the early 2000’s or whether I’m wearing my teenage rose tinted spectacles with Pro Evo pride leaves a large scope for debate but, I would hope 20 years from now there are absolutely no doubts and no looking back. Games, in general, should be miles ahead of a previous generational period as the technology advances with the passing years. We may still have our own preferences or favourite console era’s but it should never be better from a gaming or technical perspective, the latest product should always be the best in that regard.
WHERE WE’RE AT
This year EA have at least tried to deliver a next gen version of FIFA 21 as opposed to Konami’s gap year previous gen ‘season update.’
Intially, I took this as a chickening out on Konami’s part but looking deeper, we are obviously in the midst of a global pandemic, we cut some slack. Also, having played FIFA 21 on PS5 and having seen the funny graphic comparisons with FIFA 17 which have emerged online, maybe the Japanese developer’s decision is, in fact, justified – more time will tell. Konami, by not releasing this year, now have the pressure of making their new version of Pro Evo, PES, Efootball, whatever they decide to call it next, absolutely flawless having given themselves that extra time cushion. You can’t help but feel it’s make or break for the entire Pro Evolution Soccer franchise.
FIFA, love it or loath it, is the juggernaut of football gaming which is fantastic if you’re a large Electronic Arts shareholder. Not so great for us – the consumer. It’s now at the point where no matter what footballing spectacle they put out in front of us, millions of copies will be, and are, sold worldwide come what may.
EA have the licenses, the fanbase but what they are currently offering on the pitch is, for me, very substandard – taking into consideration the substantial resources they have at their disposal.
It’s shockingly scripted with often clunky gameplay and the rip off roulette pack opening culture stinks of pure greed. With a budget as big as EA’s we should be seeing giant strides year in year out. All we actually see is updated transfer window rosters, a few tweaks to the menu screens and changes to whatever soundtracks are hot in the charts that year – A season update?
The FIFA online servers are usually decent. You can get matched up pretty much straight away – mainly because of the amount of people playing the game at any given time. And 9 times out of 10 you’ll get a lag free experience.
The problem you get online however, is a human one – your opponent. The player who doesn’t actually play the game as football but as just another video game. Basically looking to find any shortcut to win. The high through ball has been a cheat for many years, the unrealistic, overplayed skill moves and the mother off all controller based rage, the sweaty cutback. This fault isn’t necessarily with EA but it still makes me think twice about logging in. The point at which you can lay blame at the developers door is the incessant and relentless scripting. You know the score, usually 0-1 last minute after you’ve spent 10 minutes battering your opponent. The FIFA force field comes into affect and its impossible to score, even when you revert to the anti-football tactics mentioned above. Even when you actually get that win, your victories are usually tinged with the feeling of guilt – The computer helped you in some way and that there’s some poor lad or lass at the other end currently contemplating dropping their disc directly in the bin or worse, having to clean the bits of an expensive control pad from their bedroom floor after it connected full force with a wall. It’s a true nightmare at times – but, in the end, we always return for more. The Fifa juggernaut.
I do find selecting the lesser teams does actually serve up a better experience when playing FIFA online. You find more like-minded football gamers looking for a proper football match whereby the result is secondary. Being a Newcastle fan, this is where is becomes easy for me – Newcastle are shit but I love being the toon and playing at St.James park, the stadium detail is excellent. FIFA is pretty good at matching similarly poor teams and player ratings. You can have some pretty decent matches that way but the bottom line is avoid picking Barcelona, PSG, Real Madrid, Bayern – you get the gist, try Hull City.
There’s actually alot to like about FIFA. I’ve focused on the negatives – mainly because of the EA budget, there shouldn’t be as many down sides. I’ve seen and read an increasing number of not so favourable reviews that may make the developer sit up and notice that they are sleep walking through the same old motions season after season. I would love to see them push the boat out and give the game a reshfreshing overhaul but I suspect that, while sales remain high, you’ve got more chance of ‘packing’ team of the year Lionel Messi from a freebie.
Pro Evolution Soccer, at first glance, is an awful game. The layout, the menu’s, the unlicensed teams, players and commentary – which is muted from minute one.
And playing online, I’ve found, is near impossible. I’m not exaggerating when I say the very first Pro Evo you could play online, 5 I think it was, had better match making facilities and connectivity. That was 15 or so years ago with an ethernet cable into your (my specifically bought Netgear) router. In 2020, the era of super fast fibre broadband, it shouldn’t be too difficult to have a lag free El Classico, should it? Hugely frustrating – a word that sums up the majority of my football gaming career.
One time, not so long ago, my mate and I spent an hour trying to figure out how to set up a Co-op 2v2 match. After much deliberating with Google and a number of Youtube tutorials we finally used the rocket science like instructions to manage it. In the end, the lag experienced made it an tremendous exercise in the art of time wasting – Never again. What’s worse this year is that PS5 users have been experiencing slow down offline too. Why, oh why, Konami.
So why do I keep going back I hear you ask?
Simple, PES does still bring that element of magic on the pitch – where it truly matters. If you can open your mind enough to see past the bullshit and take it for what is it then you can still have a great time – especially on the legendary Master League. Taking a team of duff no hopers, building a weird emotional bond with each player and struggling through division 2 together and beyond still brings a superb sense of achievement. It maybe a bit of a dated format of dodgy cutscenes and cliches and in need of some serious refreshment but it has stopped me ditching football games altogether in the past few years.
Then, theres still that euphoric feeling of volleying a 25 yard cannon ball into the top corner which is one of the features Konami has managed to maintain throughout the franchise’s 26 year existence. The balance of frequency, it not happening all the time but knowing it could at any given time. Make sense? It’s a hard one to describe but it’s just right and it’s that feeling, like scoring a real life goal, you could never replicate with FIFA.
Also, the editing system, especially for PlayStation users, is brilliant and one that helps alleviate those licensing problems.
IF TWO BECAME ONE
The problem with both football games is simple. One offers everything off the pitch and the other on it, put them together and you’d have a pretty solid package but both developers seem content to cash in on the extra added in game purchases without any consideration to the actual game of football. I can understand why they have to do this but that doesn’t help a football purist seek the perfection he needs. In fact, having to lower our own football gaming standards and expectations is where we’re currently at and that’s a shame.
So where does each franchise go from here? For Fifa, it’ll probably be more of the same. Keep churning it out every September, minimal changes and watch the EA bank balance continue to expand. There’s no real need to mix it up it up, the formula has succeeded. It’s dull and samey – will I buy it? Probably. I’m a sucker for football, EA wins.
As for PES, as mentioned earlier, this next 12-18 months do seem critical. By delaying a proper next generation release, they have basically told the footballing world that having an extra year to work on things will help them produce something, the likes of which, we have never had on the virtual pitch before. They have set themselves up for a mighty fall should they not be able to pull it off. As a Pro Evo fan I hope they succeed and I’m eager to see what they come up with – some menu screens that don’t hurt your eyes would be a good start.
In terms of what could make either game better, other than the ironing out of the obvious previously stated problems, I would love to see an online multi-player Master League/career mode. The format would be along the lines of Football Manager but in console form. You, along with 2 to 8 players each have your own team and complete as the career moves along, battling it out for signings, leagues, cups etc. Each player would have say a week to play a block of their matches, maybe a virtual month’s worth and arrange to play against each other as and when the fixtures required. How hard would that be for EA or Konami to set up? Surely not so difficult, considering the amount of hours they waste on the Ultimate Team/My Team nonsense. They could even add their money grabbing extras within that format should they so please and it would put a refreshing spin on either career mode. Any chance?
For now, I’ll continue to play the Master League with my beloved Tyneside. That is, until I get the by-monthly urge to try FIFA again, play at St.James’ Park – maybe it’s changed a little? A couple of hours, maybe days later, it’s the same and it’s back to Master League or sometimes nothing at all for a period. That’s been the recurring pattern of the last few years but, in truth, I’m desperate for the two games to be great and to get equal satisfaction from both – and not just on one mode. I get the feeling that’s a long way away but one can only yearn for better days ahead for the virtually beautiful game.