To the layman, football might appear to be just a sport. It's twenty two men in shorts and shirts, chasing and kicking a spherical object, as tens of thousands of red-faced fans cheer and bellow in unison. It is, I imagine, quite baffling to watch with no interest or investment. However, to the fan, a true fan, whose devotion runs so deep it wouldn't be surprising if he bled the same colours inked into his team's kit, football is important. Football is religion. Football is life.
Which is why the ongoing tug-of-customer-war between Fifa and Pro Evolution Soccer is such an interesting battle. Fifa 11 released last Friday, and its impact was so great, it earned a colossal £28 million in the UK alone, and even prompted waves of criminal activity, with police responding to reports of thugs lurking outside the likes of Tesco and Asda, in the hope of robbing Fifa shoppers.
PES 2011 releases this coming Friday, and while I doubt it'll elicit a similar reaction, its reception, both critically and commercially, will finally determine a victor, for this year, at least. But who do the spoils belong to? Is Fifa the quintessential football experience, after years of playing second-fiddle to PES' dominance? Or has Konami's so-called overhaul robbed Fifa of the crown?
My first football game was Fifa 98'. My love-affair with the beautiful game was in its nascent stages, as was videogames grasp on the rules of not only football, but physics. In 98', you could run the length of the pitch, unchallenged, and send an automated shot into the net. Or, and this was my personal favourite, score a half-way line goal with such ease it rendered Beckham's fifty yard chip against Wimbledon in 95 a mere tap-in.
It would be a while before I picked up my next football game, when I committed a heretical act, and purchased Pro Evo 4. Oh. My. God. It was like the real thing! I could pass the ball around like Arsenal, score a poachers tap-in just like Ruud Van, and defend as watertight as Man Utd's former rearguard. It was something else. I was a card-carrying PES fan, safe in the knowledge that I'd be set for life. At least, when football games were concerned!
2 Nil Up
What is it with success? Why does it prompt such a lazy, myopic attitude? We see it in life, in football, and, yes, videogames. Konami had it all. PES was on fire. It was so popular, when in the school playground, if you replied "Fifa", to the question of "What game do you play?", you'd either be shunned or forced to play in goal when the inevitable round of penalties occurred.
But as the years dripped by, and each annual edition of PES came out, fans began to detect a trend. With each year, promises were made that we're never kept. Konami promised an overhaul, but could only deliver a letdown. Oh, I bought it, and so did millions of others. But then a fateful day occurred. Or, rather, a year. 2008, and the return of Fifa.
Say what you will about EA, but their Vancouver studio is persistent. Years of coughing up dust in PES' wake, and suddenly the tables begin to turn with Fifa 08. It wasn't perfect, but EA had begun to understand how we want to play football. The passing was crisp, the first-touch mechanism was promising, players ran, tussled and shot with realistic weight and momentum. PES, on the other hand, had slipped into a slump, not to mention the pitches looked more like fields of vomit than grass.
Fifa 09' was a fatal blow. It was fun to play, as realistic as you can expect a videogame based on a real-life sport to be, and was as slick and polished as you'd expect from a tent-pole EA game. PES was on the proverbial ropes, finally beginning to get its act together, but struggling to hold a solid block, as EA primed another blow.
The Final Whistle
I thought I'd be as unbiased as could be this year. I downloaded both the Fifa 11 and PES 11 demos, sampling both EA and Konami's annual offerings. I was impressed with PES. Konami had actually upped their game. They'd recaptured that same sense of joyous freedom I'd enjoyed in previous games, and it didn't look like Sensible Soccer anymore.
But, oh my. Fifa 11. The major difference between the two is how crisp and smooth the experience is. Arsenal play like Arsenal. Barca like Barca. And Chelsea like Chelsea. If you're looking to pass the ball into the back of net, then the former two might be for you. But if you're in the mood for solid rearguard action and efficiency upfront, then the boys in blue may be more to your liking.
PES, on the other hand, is a little... slow. Konami obviously intend for fans to pick it up, learn the ropes and feel a sense of achievement with each perfectly worked goal. Fifa, on the other hand, is almost ridiculously easy and streamlined. You'll be thrashing Professional mode in no time. The importance of this relates to multiplayer, not just online. Bringing round a few friends for Fifa, you can easily slip into an epic game to match the very best matches.
And in the end, this is what fans want. Lower-league teams offer more of a challenge, on both systems, but the upper echelons, the Man Utds, the Chelseas, the Barcas and Madrids, allow you to slice open defenses with pinpoint through-balls, send in expert crosses right on a target-man's head, and score thumping thirty-yarders to the delight of the virtual crowd.
Don't get me wrong, it's not like you can't do this in PES. Quite the opposite. Messi is a dream, the ball seemingly stuck to his feet, and hit the sweet spot and you'll be scoring goals for fun. But Fifa has an edge, however imperceptible, that just nicks it here. Maybe it's the smoothness of the passing, or how each shot looks and reacts different, no matter how its placed. Perhaps I'm simply a graphics-whore, and the true-to-life realisation of my favourite sport is nudging me into Fifa's arms. Whatever the outcome, if both EA and Konami continue to improve, year on year, then we're in for a treat!