The decades-long battle for supremacy in the football games market can be seen as a microcosm of the modern games industry itself. In one corner, you have EA Sports' FIFA franchise – the archetypal corporate behemoth, with its expensively acquired official licences for all the major global football leagues. And in the other corner, there's plucky underdog Pro Evolution Soccer (known as PES to all and sundry), which is renowned for compensating for its lack of official licences by typically sporting superior gameplay.
So which game you opt for could be seen as a function of how you define yourself as a gamer: would you go for the franchise created in a more amateurish manner by enthusiasts for enthusiasts, or the big, glossier one with a marketing budget that rivals many small countries' GDP? Years ago, gamers voted with their feet – FIFA games shift in vast quantities. But PES soldiers on, so how compelling a purchase is this year's instalment?
Pro Evolution Soccer 18 review: Core gameplay
First, the good news. PES 2018's core gameplay is unimpeachable and, for any football purist, clearly better than that of FIFA 18.
Its various passing systems are silky-smooth and offer total, fine control over where and how you might want to deliver the ball. Off-the-ball players oblige by making exactly the sorts of runs they would in real life. Things are great when you're defending, too, thanks to the ability to press and harry opposing forwards.
Exemplary animation sets mean on-field proceedings look more fluid and less robotic than they do in FIFA, too, and the ball physics feels spot-on. If it's feel and fine control you crave, PES 2018 still can't be beaten.
Pro Evolution Soccer 18 review: Off the pitch
But away from the field of play, the news isn't so good. From the off, you're pitched into a jumbled and confused menu system – a common problem with Japanese-developed games – which contrasts sharply with FIFA's invitingly simple user interface.
It is, admittedly, easy enough to jump into a quick match in PES, or play a Premier League, Europa League or Champions League season. But, of course, the Premier League isn't called the Premier League in PES, because EA Sports shelled out for the licence.
Of the Premier League teams, only Liverpool and Arsenal are officially licensed. The latter being particularly galling for a Tottenham Hotspur fan, since although real players are included (with decent enough likenesses), the game is forced to call it North East London. Merely licensing a handful of clubs will surely sow divisiveness among fans of their rivals?
At least PES 2018 has its own equivalents of all FIFA's different facets, but they often fail to convince. Become a Legend – PES 2018's equivalent of FIFA's "The Journey", in which you carve out a career as a virtual footballer – is great fun to play when you're actually on the pitch. But off it, it completely lacks any sense of excitement or fanfare. There's no sense of leading a vicarious footballer's life, which is something we'd all like to do.
Pro Evolution Soccer 18 review: Ultimate team
MyClub, which has the unenviable task of taking on the all-conquering FIFA Ultimate Team, has some interesting underlying gameplay premises thrown up by systems that let you hire agents to bring in top players, different types of scouts who can combine to bring in the precise players you need and the ability to turn rubbish players into trainers.
But that is all buried behind an interface that can best be described as impenetrable. And the roulette-wheel style method of acquiring new players, which lets you see desirable ones but makes actually picking them out a near-impossible lottery, is plain annoying.
Master League, which lets you take control of all aspects of a club as its manager, also has bafflingly complicated elements – in particular, the means of negotiating with other clubs, which is pretty fundamental. Admittedly, it contains more or less every aspect of a manager's job (unlike some football sims, you don't have to worry about developing the stadium or the like), but its complexity makes you work harder than it really ought to. The result being that, after scratching your head for a while, you give up and play a straight league season or cup competition instead.
Sadly, that's not the last of PES 2018's weak points. The commentary, from Peter Drury and Jim Beglin, isn't great, and soon begins to grate. As does the soundtrack, which has too small a playlist and mostly serves to remind you how bland and identikit modern pop music is. One measly modern Blondie track provides a smattering of relief from the wall-to-wall AutoTune.
So you'd have to be something of a contrarian – or an extreme individualist – to favour PES 2018 over FIFA 2018. Which is a real pity since where it really matters – on the pitch – PES offers the superior experience.
Perhaps it's time for a rethink involving, say, a cut-down version that doesn't concern itself with trying to cover off everything that's in FIFA, rips out the confusing menus and terminology, and adopts a laser-like focus on simply playing football? In that case, Konami would be able to market an all-new PES to football purists as being about nothing but the beautiful game.
All the aspects of PES 2018 which really matter are brilliant. But all its extraneous aspects, to differing degrees, are a bit shoddy.
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