Football is a sport of great rivalries: Rangers vs Celtic, England vs Germany, Ronaldo vs Messi--these are all fierce contests in their own right. In the world of video games, footballing rivalries manifest in the battle between FIFA and PES.
Each year EA's behemoth and Konami's plucky challenger battle it out to see which game can win the hearts of soccer fans everywhere. FIFA is consistently popular, but PES's resurgence in the past few years has won a bunch of fans over. The question is: which is better this year?
No matter your preference between the two footballing franchises, there can be no doubt that FIFA 18's presentation beats PES 2018's. PES's lack of licenses remains an issue, especially for those playing on Xbox since only PS4 and PC owners can install fan-made kit mods to make teams look closer to their real-life counterparts. FIFA, meanwhile, has almost every license worth acquiring, and makes good use of them with official graphic overlays, team-specific commentary lines, and more. This year, EA has improved the diversity of atmospheres you can experience in the game, dramatically changing the lighting and types of crowd noise you'll hear. Add that to an already slick set of menus, better-looking character models than ever, and the most addictive FUT pack-opening animation yet, and FIFA is a supremely pretty package.
In contrast, PES struggles to compete on the aesthetic front. Character models continue to improve (especially in the lower leagues, where some player faces are surprisingly accurate), but as a whole PES looks flat compared to FIFA's flashy exterior. Menus have not changed in years, crowds still sound lackluster, and I'm still stuck playing as Man Red rather than Manchester United.
It’s safe to say FIFA 18 wins this round.
When it comes to how FIFA and PES perform on the pitch, it's a little more tricky. Everyone has their own opinion on which feels better to play, though our PES 2018 review awarded the game an 8/10 primarily for how fluid it feels when you get into a match. Passing feels slick, dribbling responsive, and shots gratifying. Goalkeepers are still weirdly awkward and defending can be fiddly, but overall we think PES 2018 is the most satisfying football game ever made.
FIFA has definitely improved since last year, with more satisfying shooting and slightly more responsive dribbling. Crosses are the most improved aspect of FIFA 18's gameplay, now whipping into the box with plenty of pace--and two new modifiers allow you to either loop crosses higher or drill them along the ground when necessary. Crucially, it's much easier to score from crosses and long shots now, leading to some wonderful goals.
Like FIFA 17 though, it still has problems. Dribbling--despite the improvements--still feels clunky and passing feels limp and unresponsive compared to PES. Different teams and players also don't feel distinct enough, and lower league players feel disproportionately poor compared to world stars.
FIFA 18 is on the up, but PES 2018 remains the king on the pitch.
Off the pitch, one of the main battlegrounds for soccer games is in their breadth and depth of modes. FIFA has traditionally edged PES in this respect, and this year sees another strong showing from EA's contestant. Alex Hunter returns in a second season of The Journey, FIFA's story-driven mode that's something unique to EA's series. It's not perfect--the ham-fisted appearances from real-world stars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Rio Ferdinand are not exactly Oscar-winning--but it's an interesting and unique way of playing soccer.
Elsewhere, FUT continues to expand and is now almost a game in itself. This year sees the addition of Squad Battles, where you play a number of matches against other Ultimate Team clubs controlled by AI, before being ranked against other real-world players for the amount of wins you manage. Squad Battles offer another way of earning rewards, as do the new Daily Objectives, and together they flesh out the single-player side of a mode that's traditionally offered little for those not willing to play online.
Career Mode is pretty much unchanged save for revamped transfer negotiations. They now offer the ability to set up sell-on percentages and release clauses to players' contracts, and are conducted through interactive cutscenes, similar to those seen in The Journey. They don't really change much, but they're at least more exciting than seeing the same offer letter template in your Career Mode inbox for the hundredth time.
PES' Master League sees some neat enhancements: the new menu layout makes the mode easier to navigate, release clauses improve transfer negotiations, and the new Challenge Mode keeps things interesting with unexpected scenarios like players wanting to leave for greener pastures. It still has some annoying drawbacks--low transfer budgets and youth players being littered with unknown, gibberish names continue to grate--but it does a decent job of rivaling FIFA 18's Career Mode. The same can't be said of MyClub, which tries its best to distinguish itself from FUT with different features like Scout cards, but continues to appear as a knock-off Ultimate Team--which, to an extent, it is.
Luckily, PES has an amazing new way to play. Random Selection Mode returns from Pro Evo 6 with a few twists to shake things up wonderfully. You and a friend (who has to be in the same room, as the mode is local only) are each handed a squad of random players from a selection of leagues or countries you choose, so you might end up with a weird hybrid team of players from across the world of varying standards. What follows is a psychological battle of attempting to steal your opponent's star players while protecting your own. Up to three trade rounds allow you and your friend to pick a player from the other person's team who you want to pinch. You then pick a player from your own squad who you want to protect, and one you want to get rid of. Crucially, at no point until after all three are chosen do either of you know who the other person has picked, leading to a tense moment at the end of the round where it's revealed if you've successfully robbed that 92-rated striker your lucky friend got dealt. Manage to steal their top player and the bragging rights are all yours--at least until they manage to win the following match against the odds. It's a small addition that some people may never even see, let alone try, but it's the best silly party mode seen in a soccer game since FIFA 12 unceremoniously ditched Lounge Mode.
PES also adds 3v3 online co-op this year in an attempt to rival FIFA's Pro Clubs. It's not as deep, but along with Random Selection Mode it's at least a promising sign that Konami is looking to expand its range of modes each year. FIFA still has more ways to play, but PES is making good ground here.
Which Is Best?
Overall, whether or not you'll prefer FIFA 18 or PES 2018 likely depends on what your priorities are. PES 2018 is definitely a far more satisfying game on the pitch, but FIFA's presentation is exceptional, and does a better job of immersing you in the world of football than PES's flat looks. It will also depend on what your friends decide to pick up, and how important online play is to you. FIFA's online offering of FUT and Pro Clubs is superior, though PES's addition of 3v3 online co-op is welcome.
As for us? We'll be playing both games for many months to come, but we think PES 2018's excellent on-pitch showing means it edges this year's cup final.