Labour or Conservative? Pepsi or Coke? Blur or Oasis? These are three big questions that have plagued British consciousness in recent years, but even these topics fail to divide public opinion as much as the bitter rivalry between EA Sports and Konami: FIFA Soccer or Pro Evolution Soccer? Arriving at roughly the same time every year, just as the nation's Premier League starts getting spicy, these camp-splitting football simulations and their staunch fanbases contest a fierce battle for supremacy in schoolyards, on the Internet, and in local pubs up and down the country. The developers are playing one-upmanship ad infinitum, making minor tweaks to the format and dynamics of the game in desperate bids to be crowned champion.
Last year, FIFA Soccer 10 made some serious strides that its Konami counterpart simply could not contend with. No longer was this war waged on EA's superior licensing versus Konami's more engaging gameplay, with FIFA Soccer delivering a comprehensive football experience on and off the pitch. Their challenge this year is to extend their lead, refining their already superior game engine without making too many radical overhauls. PES arch-producer Shingo "Seabass" Takatsuka has an almighty task on his hands, having taken his series back to the drawing board with the sloppy PES 2010, his latest effort must deliver on those glimmers of potential and make some big changes. Essentially, Konami has nothing to lose.
Both games place a keen emphasis on the freedom of passing, with PES 2011 spearheading its advertising campaign on the "engineered for freedom" slogan. Naturally, this is one area where you feel Konami has put a lot of work into, and this categorically pays off. Players are encouraged to ditch the D-pad and embrace the left analogue stick wholeheartedly, allowing passes to be placed anywhere you may see a gap in the defence. At first you'll overhit them, and then maybe you'll leave them undercooked, but once mastered it does provide the most fluid passing system we've ever seen in a football game. FIFA Soccer's passing dynamic has recently had a gratingly predictable rhythm where a team (regardless of quality) can tap the ball through the most impenetrable back lines, and unfortunately this is only resolved slightly. It's now less rhythmic, less predictable perhaps with the opposition now prone to intercept the ball or at least deflect its trajectory, but it doesn't grant the player the unbridled freedom of PES.
For those looking to send a 40-yard rocket whizzing into the top corner, you'll be sorely disappointed on both fronts. FIFA Soccer has made lobs impossible, goalkeepers far more intelligent and dead-ball situations a sphinx-like beast. Each goal will be celebrated like a last-minute winner, and while this highlights the realism of what is fundamentally a football simulation, EA Canada should remember that their fanbase aren't buying FIFA Soccer 11 to replicate scrappy 0-0 draws. And with Pro Evolution Soccer, the new range-shooting system takes some time to bear fruit: Shots must usually be timed to perfection, weighted to account for every inch, and blessed with a healthy amount of luck. It feels as though that the game's hapless strikers have been tacked on to counteract the wealth of goalscoring opportunities created by the superb passing dynamic, making the game feel unbalanced slightly. The incredible still feels possible with PES, though, allowing for a slight chance an overhead kick will creep under the bar and clinch the winner. It may undermine the sense of a simulation game, but who cares? Did you see that overhead kick creep under the bar and clinch the winner?! Yes!
This year's Pro Evolution Soccer also uproots its dribbling mechanism this year, with a host of tricks and feints now assigned to the right analogue stick—as has been the norm with FIFA Soccer for some years now. This is quite clearly a system that works well, and though it is a barefaced imitation on Konami's part, it's a move that was absolutely necessary to keep up with the pack. In this respect, it's somewhat of a role reversal for the series's bitter rivalry, with Seabass and his team now poaching ideas from EA Canada to bolster their flailing product. FIFA Soccer 11, though, doesn't make any groundbreaking changes; this is basically a more polished FIFA Soccer 10 with an updated roster and a few minor gameplay adjustments. This has allowed the PES series to make up crucial ground on their competitors, as theirs is a game which feels like a genuine improvement on its predecessor.
But which of these titles is worth your money? Who has got the bragging rights for the next twelve months? It's difficult to call, and it's by no means a black-and-white decision, because preference between PES and FIFA Soccer will ultimately boil down to what you're looking for in a football/soccer game. If you're hankering for a realistic on-field experience where possession is key, and games are won and lost in the midfield battle, you'd best go for EA's latest. PES 2011 offers "sexy football," its sleek passing system a joy to behold and its moments of rampant brilliance affording a more far-fetched interpretation of the beautiful game. Both demos are available to download on both Playstation Store and XBOX Live Marketplace, and I would encourage giving both a run out before deciding where to pledge your allegiance this year.
FIFA Soccer 11. Publisher: Electronic Arts. Developer: EA Sports. Release Date: September 28, 2010. Platform: Xbox 360. ESRB: Everyone. To purchase, click here.
Pro Evolution Soccer 2011. Publisher: Konami. Developer: Konami. Release Date: October 19, 2010. Platform: Xbox 360. ESRB: Everyone. To purchase, click here.