EA Sports' Fifa versus Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer hasn't been a competitive rivalry for years. Fifa sells more now – a lot more – and the relative quality of either title never translates into massive shifts in sales, but PES is steadily gaining ground.
Last year's iteration of PES was the best football game in aeons. It was the product of years of toil following the series' fall from grace at the turn of the Xbox 360/PS3 generation. PES could well have been put to rest, but it endured, hopeful of a return to the glory days between PES 3 and PES 6.
Over the past couple of years PES has excelled while Fifa has stagnated. To say the series has been stagnating is not to say that the games are bad. Fifa still trumps PES in terms of features and certainly in terms of presentation, but when it comes to gameplay it's starting to seriously lag behind.
This year its Fifa that has changed the most about its core gameplay. Set pieces have been overhauled, offering more options around the ball to players during dead ball opportunities, and a targeting reticule for corners and wide free kicks going into the penalty area.
Physical play has been worked on, with a new real-time physics engine determining player balance during tussles for the ball, which now bring together jostling and shielding in previous games. To jostle for control of the ball or a player position, just hold the left trigger. The game's AI has been worked on as well, with teammates making more intelligent moves and runs. They even hold runs and make runs to influence play.
Pro Evolution Soccer, meanwhile, has made smaller changes. When you're following the release of one of the finest football games ever made, a year of minor rather than major changes is understandable. That said, Konami has introduced adaptive AI to PES this year, and it may be a revolutionary feature for football games generally.
Adaptive AI will, in theory, either prompt players to adopt new styles of play or make them better at the style they prefer. It adds a layer of challenge beyond immediate difficulty levels, with opposing teams adapting their tactics to make life more difficult for how you play. That means increased pressure on the players creating most opportunities, and in the channels through which you're trying to make things happen.
Other new features heading to PES include the ability to switch between offensive and defensive mentalities and more specific strategies that can be selected before each match and implemented during them.
The most immediately noticeable change for PES is how much it's been slowed down. Slowed down, but far from slow. PES 2016 was lightning fast, so the change of pace comes as a welcome addition that makes games that little bit more methodical and offers more time for approach play and midfield battles.
It's an interesting year, because neither game is making obviously radical changes in terms of their gameplay, but both are making waves ahead of their release. For PES, it's because last year's release was of such quality and fans are excited to see how that's built upon. For Fifa, it's because of the all-singing, all-dancing new single player story mode: The Journey.
The Journey appears to be (and certainly was at the game's revealed) a mad slice of footballing melodrama, and the one mode nobody expected to see introduced this year or any year. Far from the revolutionary and landmark addition of women's football in Fifa 16; The Journey feels like it could either be an interesting, entertaining new mode, or a shallow starting point for one that's been given marketing precedence to cover up minor changes elsewhere.
As it stands, Pro Evolution Soccer is once again shaping up to be the better interpretation of the beautiful game. It still has irritating commentary, but its free movement and precision exposes the relative failings of Fifa in those same areas. Fifa remains arguably the most feature-rich sports game out there, and will once again sell many more copies than PES, but PES's quality will ensure another year of Konami biting at EA's heels.