EA Sports’ demo for FIFA 16 emerged earlier this week on all platforms, appearing almost a month after the demo for FIFA’s footballing rival, Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer 2016. With the competition hotter than ever, perhaps this represented something of a risk on EA’s part: following a string of improvements over recent years, the PES 2016 demo debuted to widespread acclaim, whereas many view FIFA as a series become stagnant. PES 2016 is due out from Tuesday, 15 September, while FIFA 16 will be released the following week, from 22 September.
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To begin with the basics, dribbling with the ball feels more fluid on the PES 2016 demo. First touches, bursts of speed, and changes of direction feel more natural, and they have their rewards, as clever dribbling shifts defensive markers and pressing midfielders out of position. This implicates another of the PES 2016 demo’s biggest strengths, which concerns the physicality of the game: how players tussle alongside one another when running, jostle for balls in the air, shield the ball under pressure, and so on. The PES 2016 demo arguably offers the most rounded and tactile football game so far in this regard. Shielding the ball proves highly effective, even as you can sense opposition defenders nipping at your heels; and successful dribbles require controlled movement, balance, and strength beyond raw pace.
The PES 2016 demo also plays a very fluid short passing game, even on a manual setting. And not only across the grass surface, for the demo displays a breadth of animations when the ball is somewhere between the ground and waist height: it can be controlled, or flicked on to a teammate in a whole variety of ways, adding a dimension to the game which FIFA largely lacks. If there is any flaw here, it is that passing sometimes feels too fluid, with even vertical passes up the pitch frequently coming off, and passes rarely misplaced or mis-controlled. Likewise, shooting on a manual setting is vastly easier than on FIFA: shots tend to hit the target, and seem to have a knack for beating the keeper.
In general, the PES 2016 demo plays more of an attractive end-to-end game, in which it is easier to pass or dribble through the centre of the midfield, and easier to ultimately score – and concede – goals. Long passing on the PES 2016 demo is also improved, as long balls move convincingly through the air, and hold up off the playing surface so that lofting a pass into space becomes a legitimate tactic. From wide areas however, crossing the ball feels too slick, usually resulting in a curved, whipped cross which seems to bear little relation to your player’s movement or technical ability. This can render headed goals unsatisfying, even though the game’s heading animations are more than up to scratch.
The PES 2016 demo has two significant flaws. The most severe – more of a bug than a misstep – comes on goal kicks, where central defenders push so wide in order to receive the ball that an opposition striker is invariably left in acres of space just outside the penalty box. If you try a short goal kick and fail to sufficiently angle the pass, or if you pump the ball long but lose a header on the half-way line, you’re liable to find an opposition forward through on goal with just the goalkeeper to beat – and vice versa, because from opposition goal kicks, you stand to benefit in the same way.
The other big issue for me is with through balls, and this implicates the ‘personal data’ settings on PES. These dictate the degree of absolute control you possess over your players, in terms of passing, shooting, and so on. In general the settings here are more convoluted than their FIFA counterparts: on FIFA, you can simply set everything to manual, which is at least straightforward. On PES, certain settings can be switched between ‘assisted’ and ‘unassisted’; others between ‘basic’, ‘advanced’, and ‘manual’; while when it comes to passing, you can choose between three levels of support or instead turn all support ‘off’.
The result is that while you can effectively implement manual passing and shooting, for through balls you can only choose between ‘basic’ and ‘advanced’. This means the computer continues to have some influence on the weight and direction of your through balls, always helping to guide them towards teammates. Perhaps the idea is that in practise, an unfettered, unguided through ball can still be made using the pass button; but this seems to render the through ball button obsolete, especially as using it spoils the pace and flow of the game. The range of options PES affords should allow a great deal of flexibility – you can also determine how computer-controlled teammates make attacking runs, and whether they will commit to slide tackles at the back – but the lack of a manual through ball option is an important failing.
When it comes to defending, outside the penalty area the PES 2016 demo displays a more astute pressing game. If outright mistakes are rare, still it is possible to consecutively press before making a successful interception. In contrast to FIFA, on PES it feels like you are able to press as a team. Inside the penalty area on the other hand, defenders tend to stand off and afford their opponents too much space: it is too easy to go on mazy dribbles in the box before getting a shot away.
Referees in the PES 2016 demo are too lenient, both when it comes to calling fouls, and when it comes to doling out cards. Hacking down a forward as the last man still often only results in a yellow card. Goalkeepers don’t make any egregious mistakes, but the game’s shot-stopping animations seem a little clunky: shots often bounce off keepers’ palms as though they were street curbs. PES’s menus remain cumbersome to navigate, and the game comes with a relatively poor selection of camera angles, though these can be edited in the settings.
PES continues to stand out most of all for the individuality with which it imbues major superstars. Lionel Messi and Arjen Robben play like their real-life counterparts, and differently from the other players in the game, in everything from their running animations, to their stroking of the ball, to their stances and gestures. Partly as a result, teams in PES also seem more distinct: in FIFA, teams from all nations and of all levels often share a markedly similar style of play. In many respects FIFA affords a more consistent, more rounded gaming experience: there are few overt flaws with the game, and its multiplayer offering, its range of modes, and its superior presentation complement its capabilities out on the pitch. But this one facet alone – the expressive individuality it endows superstars – will prove sufficient to earn PES many fans.
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If dribbling feels less dynamic on the FIFA 16 demo, with less individuality and less tangible control over the ball, on the other hand despite a smaller diversity of passing animations, its short passing game poses more challenges and offers more rewards. On a manual setting, passes can easily go astray, so that the game demands and appreciates focus and rhythm. And though its teams struggle to press as collective units, FIFA still offers a more compact midfield experience, which accurately reflects the real nature of most football matches – even if this sometimes leads to FIFA feeling a little bogged down.
Players don’t jostle quite as convincingly on the FIFA 16 demo, although both games continue to show improvements on this front; but FIFA has the edge when it comes to some other aspects of collision physics, especially with regard to blocked shots, goalkeeper animations, and fumbled attempts to control the football. Sliding and standing tackles are also more satisfying on FIFA, their execution a matter of positioning and precise timing. And for this year’s edition of the game, EA have added a nice rumble to the controller on crunching slide tackles. More broadly, defences appear tighter now, back-lines effectively keeping their shape.
Where on the PES 2016 demo, it is too easy to get a stylish shot on target, in FIFA it still seems that only a limited type of shot, from a limited number of angles, will lead to goals. The power bar fills at a slower pace on FIFA for both passing and shooting, which is certainly more to my taste. But there is surely a middle-ground when it comes to shooting difficulty, which so far neither title has quite managed to reach. Perhaps part of the problem with FIFA lies equally in overpowered goalkeepers: even when shots do hit the target, and seem destined for the corner of the goal, keepers mostly find a way to tip the ball wide of the post.
Long passes on FIFA are decidedly second best when comparing the two titles, and still need plenty of work: the ball is either chipped up relatively short, or blasted long in which case a bounce usually sends it beyond the confines of the pitch. But crossing works, varying depending on the skill and momentum of the crosser. And over the last few editions of the game FIFA has increasingly made it possible to cross the ball from a direct free-kick.
FIFA has managed to cut out several silly flaws which marred last year’s offering: for instance, opposition players no longer fall over and slice the ball out of play whenever they attempt a short corner kick. Yet it still happens too often that players on the same team get in each other’s way – sometimes with disastrous results, as they tumble over one another and strain to right themselves.
In terms of graphics, camera angles, replays, and menus, FIFA still holds the lead over PES by some margin. And the game possesses more licences, more modes, and surely still football gaming’s definitive career play-through, as PES’s Master League has continually lagged behind in content as well as legitimacy. Of particular interest for me – especially after closely following the 2015 Women’s World Cup – is the addition this time round of twelve women’s national sides. Two of these, the United States and Germany, appear on the demo; and in addition to a wealth of new animations covering all player responses – as they face off following fouls, challenge refereeing decisions, and so on – there are specific animations pertaining only to the women which help to distinguish the experience of playing as one of these sides. It remains disappointing that EA have failed to include all twenty-four of the nations who competed earlier this year in Canada.
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So PES 2016 seems set to afford a more inspired, and what feels like a more intuitive game of football, modern in its focus on pressing and quick transitions between defence and attack, sometimes too slick, but excelling most of all when it comes to encapsulating the character of the sport’s leading players. Yet the demo also presents a couple of crucial flaws, which Konami will hopefully have spent the last month correcting ahead of Tuesday’s release.
FIFA 16 offers a more hardworking game, true to the nature of contemporary packed midfields. The game’s harsh difficulty provides for a genuine sense of achievement when you do manage to find a rhythm, keeping things tight at the back, retaining possession, and carving convertible goalscoring opportunites. But in the meantime playing FIFA can prove something of a strain. As always, FIFA stands out for its presentation: both for its graphics, and more importantly for the range of teams and modes on show.
Preferring FIFA’s career mode, and looking forward to the introduction of the women’s national sides, my inclination is to start the football gaming season with FIFA 16. But it is hard to make the best of a choice between the two titles. Both are competent football simulators in their different ways, with PES 2016’s gameplay probably more attractive, without necessarily being better or more nuanced or more realistic from any objective point of view. Both would be well worth your playing, if only the burdens of time and money and team-building didn’t force a commitment.