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Xaor’s Corner: Learning from PES 2013

 

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Many in this community will have devoted some time over the last few days to playing the first Pro Evolution Soccer/Winning Eleven demo, which was released across all platforms last Wednesday. For those who haven’t already, I would definitely suggest trying it out – it is definitely the most competent PES game Konami has produced this generation, even if it is still a case of getting the best out of tired technology.

The contrast with FIFA, in some places, is huge, and it’s those contrasts I’m going to focus on today. In some areas, PES is still clearly the inferior game. Animation quality is poorer, and the ball often seems to react a little oddly given what has happened to it. There are some fairly standard collision issues. The detection is more than a little off, with clipping (objects moving inside eachother) and the opposite effect (objects responding to collisions before objects collide) are common. I’ve even seen a few cases of ball-player collisions being missed entirely.

With PES, there is a very clear gap between the visual and the physical – from a game design perspective they are pretty exclusive concepts – and this can make PES look clumsy compared to FIFA. This can be forgiven only up to a point, and while PES 2013 does better than any previous game, it can shatter immersion, make you feel cheated, and appear egregiously unrealistic even if the cause & effect makes footballing sense.

The lack of proper camera customisation options, and general lack of decent camera options is another major frustration for me. Aside from the Blimp camera, every camera is very zoomed in. I can’t express how ridiculous it is to be unable to see the men in the box if I am crossing from the top of the sceen. PES veterans may be used to the forced reliance on the radar, but that’s really no excuse. The Blimp camera, unfortunately, is simply at the other end of the extremes. Given that PES now features more full manual features, it’s simply ridiculous to be trying to pinpoint the pass using a radar.

Some problem areas are notable for their similarity to FIFA. Blind passes aren’t remotely discouraged, but worse still the play which can be achieved on the highest levels of assistance goes far beyond ‘ping pong passing’. I’m pretty gutted to see that Konami have fallen into all the same pitfalls EA did with assistance, even after such high profile complaints.

I find the level to which PES penalises the ball carrier’s pace particularly constraining. FIFA has a bit of an issue with this too, but in PES 2013 it’s very difficult to really burst away from a defender, or to feel that ever really running flat out. PES certainly has a more patient and realistic game flow than FIFA, but it is being achieved, in part, in a latently artificial way.

This article however is not really about what PES does wrong. Instead, I want to highlight what PES does right which FIFA does wrong. I have used most of the fortnightly Xaor’s Corner articles to try and explain what FIFA does wrong, and how it should improve, but it’s always difficult to illustrate what the problem is, and even harder to prove the validity of any proposed solution. Fortunately, in some places PES provides such an example.

Movement

The biggest thing I always notice when I swap between playing PES and FIFA is how differently the players move between one game and the other. Pro Evo 2013 has a much more genuine simulation of human movement physics than FIFA does. Player’s accelerate more slowly, and most importantly take a lot longer to go from sprinting in one direction to the other. There is also a more noticeable delay down to player reactions, and together these factors are absolutely massive.

It totally alters the way that I look at space when dribbling and passing in the game. In much the same way that a lightyear is a distance rather than a length of time, I consider ‘space’ in football to be a concept of time rather than a concept of distance. For me, space isn’t how many meters separate one player and another – but how long it would take for that space to be enveloped. Even though there isn’t generally more space in PES than in FIFA from a distance perspective, the amount of time that distance buys you is much higher.

That effect is doubled when the player not only has to overcome distance, but also their momentum. In FIFA, it takes a player very little time to react to decide he wants to change direction, slow down, and accelerate back up to speed in the other direction. In PES, each of those three stages takes longer, and that multiplies to a game where there is far more space to play football, where in FIFA the three stages occur almost instantaneously.

It works both ways though, because when you’re on the ball you often have to take into account your movement and your level of control over the ball when turning. In FIFA, there is a sense in which after the first touch you get total control. With the exception of sprinting, you can pretty much turn where you want with very little penalty.

In PES though, even given the comparitively lower jogging pace, the ability to turn while conserving speed and control is dramatically reduced. As such, if I’m moving in one direction it’s much harder for me to change direction, and so there is a sort of art to getting your team moving in the right direction. You can’t just pass forward, turn, and pass forward again – you’ll often have to go with the flow that your players control and momentum makes for you, but it feels good, and it feels right.

I don’t think PES is doing anything much cleverer, technically, than FIFA. I don’t think that PES has proper ‘foot planting’ any more than FIFA does. The major differences are pretty simple factors – slower acceleration, a significant speed penalty for sharper turns even at jogging speed, a lower jogging speed, and slower reactions – but it makes a world of difference.

The difficulty is having these things without making movement feel unresponsive. It hasn’t always been the case, but I think PES 2013 has a good balance between the two, even if it is held back a lot by its lack of raw top end pace in my opinion. FIFA is tuned currently very much to the responsiveness end of things, and though this is quite accessible, it does a very poor job of representing movement and hence real football.

Manual

Over the last couple of years, PES has implemented equivalent systems to FIFA’s assists. There have been various manual passing mechanics for years, but since 2012 there have been 5 levels of passing assistance, and in 2013 there is also manual shooting. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to yet encompass crossing. As I mentioned in the introduction, I think the high levels of assistance are pretty awful, but on the lower settings the game feels really good.

What I think is most interesting is their take on the lowest assistance settings compared to FIFA’s manual settings. I’ve been a manual FIFA player for a long time, and feel it’s by a long way the best way to play FIFA, but I am very conscious of its flaws. FIFA may have had a proper manual setting for six years, but, frankly with PES’s first decent effort, it already has it beat, particularly with passing.

This is for two reasons. First, it is actually feasible to do both very short and very long passes, and it doesn’t take ages to charge a long pass. Secondly, there is a reliable level of consistency to those distances. To be honest, it’s what you would expect, but these are two thing FIFA doesn’t have. Manual veterans may have got used to the oddities of FIFA’s passing – the way that you can initiate ball curve by setting your player in particular ways, the way that first touch and volleyed passes are almost always much stronger than you’d expect, and the way that a pass from a standing position is usually really weak – but PES has none of these pointless awkwardnesses.

It’s amazing how much easier this makes manual passing. So much of what makes manual difficult on FIFA isn’t the fact that it’s incredibly difficult to aim and weight a pass – it’s a combination of the long charge time and its unpredictability which make it so difficult. I’m not saying that manual on PES is something accessible enough for everyone – but I think it proves that the ridiculously high levels of assistance on offer in FIFA and PES are unnecessary for the vast majority.

When playing on FIFA Clubs, I tend to use assisted direct passing, because I don’t feel it’s fair for my teammates to suffer with me on manual. I’m always surprised by how many of my passes on assisted don’t work as I intend for them to.

There are quite a few problems – enough for a whole article – so I’ll keep this fairly brief. I find that the game is very bad at interpreting which player I’m trying to pass to. Particularly when I try and pick out, for example, the second of three players who are in a rough line, it will very often choose the wrong one. Secondly, it tends to choose quite poor ways of getting the pass from my player to the recipient. Even with the direct pass button, it always wants to aim the pass so that the pass will get to the recipient assuming he continues running as he is currently.

Like with many of FIFA’s quirks, you do get used to it so that you can often avoid it, but, it does mean that you cannot make a lot of very makeable passes. To give the simplest of examples, imagine a case where three stationary players are in a line, with the defender between the passer and his teammate. In real life, the passer can very easily push the ball into the space to the left or right of the defender – in FIFA, he will almost certainly try to make it directly through the defender.

The problem here is effectively that assisted always has one pass in mind out of the essentially infinite possibilities. If it’s the wrong one, you can’t make the pass, however possible it might be in real life – and I don’t think this is a very easily soluble problem. Designing AI which can craft the right pass purely off the basis of the intended recipient sounds almost impossible to me – but that is in effect what FIFA tries to do with assisted.

Don’t get me wrong, assisted is still very good at what it’s good at – and I do think it’s the most effective way to win at FIFA (though, I’d argue that it’s the assisted long balls and throughballs which are most exploitable). It just is, by its nature an incredibly oppressive scheme. It removes our choice and our control to the extent where FIFA’s passing game is devoid of real life. Along with changes to movement, along with changes to AI, along with changes to the tactical side of FIFA, I am essentially convinced that a total revamp to the passing system is necessary in FIFA – and I think that PES’s example of manual done right (or at least a lot better) shows just how exaggerated the belief about manual’s difficulty is.

Tactical Interface

Almost no-one could deny that PES has FIFA trumped when it comes the tactical side of the game. Comparisons between PES’s management interface and FIFA’s are pointless – there is no contest. PES’s system is intuitive, quick, and deep – FIFA’s is incredibly clunky and mostly ineffective.

When I play FIFA with friends, we simply don’t bother setting up our teams. You can definitely achieve an advantage out of doing so, but, often by exploiting the games fallabilities rather than any genuine strategic advantage – nor are the player personalities emphasised enough to make me care a huge amount about which players I have on the pitch. Most of all, the sluggishness of the interface makes it not worth the effort.

To the contrary with PES, I’ll happily spend a minute or two setting my team up. The choices are far more meaningful, and they play out more predictably and realistically on the pitch. This, frankly, is the by product of years of focus on AI, personality, and tactics, and undeniably, that focus has been lacking with FIFA.

With FIFA, each of these vital areas has been afforded just cursory glances: FIFA 09 with Custom Team Tactics and Formations, FIFA 11 featuring Personality+, and finally FIFA 13 with AI. Each of these areas is pretty critical, and, at least in FIFA 12, these areas leave much to be desired.

The team management interfaces are the worst of the lot. It makes a terrible use of screen space, and a lot of options are buried multiple levels deep in the famously laggy menus. Making a tiny change, like moving one of your players a bit further up the pitch takes the blink of an eye in PES’s drag and drop system, but in FIFA you have to go into the formation menu, press to go to the edit mode, go down the list to the player in question, choose to edit his position, then move him click by click. Even if everything else worked perfectly with this system, the cumbersome menus make them inaccessible to newcomers and tiresome for veterans.

The system that PES has incorporated for a few years is one that works so well that EA could be forgiven for making a carbon copy – and it’s a system which makes the most out of a control pad, touchscreen, or mouse. Unfortunately, fixing the interface is only part of the battle. At least as important is making sure that what plays out on the pitch reflects what the user has set up their team to do.

Conclusion

PES may have been eclipsed in popularity and dwarfed in critical acclaim by FIFA this generation, and in a sense with PES 2014 being on a new engine, this is the end of that particular battle. It will go down in history, at least in the mainstream gaming media, as a trouncing: as FIFA reclaiming the throne and giving PES a thorough pasting as PES struggled to get a foothold with old technology. Yet, in reality we should add the caveat that while FIFA has triumphed, PES has succeeded in some very important areas which EA have all but neglected, and considering the lead EA held between 2007 and 2009, that should be fairly humbling.

It would be an extremely brave man to bet that PES 2013 will knock the wind out of FIFA 13’s sales (pardon the pun), but in more than a few ways it is the better game, and personally, if I was looking for the best vs CPU experience, this would be my pick by a pretty long shot.

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