It's the same question every year: which is better, PES or FIFA? For the last five years, or thereabouts, the answer has been near-unanimously FIFA, with its greater depth and sophistication trumping the comparatively shallow game coming from Konami's camp. That wasn't always the case, of course. PES' PlayStation 2 heyday was so glorious that it has long held a sentimental place in the hearts of those that were there to experience first hand the suspect penalties, expertly crafted runs, and the agony of defeat at a stoppage time goal.
Sadly, most of those players migrated to FIFA, thanks to the quality of the football on offer being, quite simply, superior. Wonderful it is, then, that the PES vs. FIFA question is once again one worth raising without a hint of satire or cynicism. PES 2015 is not only the best game the series has delivered for many years, it promotes and prioritises a form of football that is, welcomingly, very different to that of FIFA 15--and variety across games is never a bad thing.
PES promotes a tactical and technical approach to football. If FIFA 15 is the embodiment of the Premier League, all action, speed, and ferocity, then PES 15 is the Spanish La Liga, more considered, subtle and delicate. Success is less about bursting through the midfield and delivering a killer through ball to your striker, and more about using the ball's movement to disrupt the opposition's shape, and create space for your teammates to work in. As such, it pays to have a basic understanding of how different formations create unique passing lanes, and set up situations in which you outnumber the other team in certain areas of the pitch.
Not that you need to have the footballing brain of Jose Mourinho to succeed, but some degree of knowledge is of undeniable benefit. Primarily, it's the quality of the defensive players that makes life difficult; the AI, especially on higher difficulties, is very adept at positioning itself in a way that limits your options. This applies not only to the defenders themselves, but also to midfielders that drop deeper when their team is without the ball. That means quickly getting used to attacking two disciplined lines of defenders, making it essential that you retain possession long enough to make an impact.
This makes PES 2015 a slower brand of football, which, predictably, results in fewer goals being scored in matches. This can be frustrating, especially if you're playing in a league or cup competition and consistently find that games are ending 0-0 or 1-0. Raising the match time from the default 10-minutes to 15-minutes helps immensely in this regard. Not only does this give you more time to score, but it allows you to express yourself calmly and methodically; there's far less panicking and resorting to hopeful shots from 35 yards, or forever pinging the ball to Ronaldo, Messi or whichever star you happen to have (if any).
Giving possession to Ballon D'Or contenders such as these can still work wonders, though. While the core of the game this year is about using space efficiently, the top players still perform like top players. The difference is that you have to make better use of their entire suite of abilities. Simply dribbling or pulling off long strings of tricks doesn't lead to many goal scoring opportunities, the feints and spins linked to the right stick not acting as some kind of magic wand with which to win games. Using your best players as a pivot around which the rest of your team flows is fine, but success doesn't come from the ability of an individual.
PES used to be perfect for those late, hazy nights where everyone is a little too jolly and looking for something simple to play. That isn't the case anymore. While not entirely inaccessible--lower difficulty settings remain terribly easy--PES does require more concentration than the vast majority of football games past and present; it's not a party game.
Further highlighting the idea that PES is aimed more at football nerds than casual fans are the included game modes, with the official licenses for the UEFA Champions League, Copa Libertadores, Asian Champions Leaguem, and various minor league competitions present. This is not a game for those only interested in Real Madrid vs. Barcelona, or Arsenal vs. Chelsea; this is a game set on trying to represent football as it exists around the world.
The contradiction to that, of course, comes the fact that huge swathes of official licenses are missing. While this doesn't negatively impact the gameplay, it does dampen the overarching levels of excitement and charm. Manchester Utd, for instance, are the only officially licensed team from the Premier League. They're joined by the likes of Merseyside Red (Liverpool), London FC (Chelsea) and West Midlands Village (Aston Villa).
All of the players have the correct names and, in most cases, accurately modeled faces, but playing with a licensed team versus an unlicensed team disrupts your suspension of disbelief. Most destructive is the complete absence of the German Bundesliga, with Bayern Munich, Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke unceremoniously included in the Other European Teams category. Borussia Dortmund are not here at all, with the likes of Marco Reus showing up only in the German national team.
The Master League career mode remains the primary time sink for single-player games, although it will be interesting to see how well the Ultimate Team-like myClub performs after a couple of months of play, and whether it even comes close to becoming the go-to option. More interesting than those, though, is the Role Control idea, which can be optionally assigned to a multiplayer game. This allows players on the same team to take control of entire defensive, midfield, or attacking units, rather than randomly switch to whichever player is closest to the ball. The result is a greater sense of involvement in the bigger picture; the fact that you're in control of a specific group allows you to work with your co-op partner in a much more meaningful and controlled manner. You still control only one player at a time, but only those that are part of your unit. It's an idea all football games should include.
Other details work less well. Menus remain ugly and dull, which is a problem that this series has never properly addressed, with predictable grey boxes and boorish black text doing little to get you excited or engaged. English commentary is similarly sleep-inducing, comprised mainly of reeling off player names and repeating the same descriptions of actions that you heard in previous matches. In keeping with the lack of licenses, the frills and accessories adorning the core game are workmanlike at best.
The answer, then: FIFA or PES? If you're looking for something fast-paced, exciting and guaranteed to give you goals, then FIFA is for you. If you're looking to delve more deeply into passing, movement and working out how to break teams down, plump for PES. If football games are the only thing you play, it's worth owning both in a bid to satisfy every mood. Most importantly, though, is knowing that PES 2015 is not inferior to FIFA 15. That in itself represents a huge step forward for a series that, for a time, looked as though it had no chance whatsoever of getting back to digital football's elite table.