So round one to FIFA then. A hard fought victory it may have been, but FIFA's superior player fluidity, robustness and buffed visuals gave it the edge in the single-player and local multiplayer department over its more rigid, aesthetically inferior rival. Time then for the return leg, only this time it's PES's Legends mode taking on FIFA's 10 vs. 10 online multiplayer.
Let's kick off with PES's Legends. More modest in scope than EA's twenty-player offering, Legends allows you and three other players to slot into an otherwise AI-controlled team and take on opposition comprising of 11 computer-controlled players. Rather than controlling a real-life superstar, you must use your player from the single-player Become a Legend mode. Setting up a game is simple. Press the 'Auto Match-Up' button and wait for three other likeminded individuals to be plucked from cyberspace and plopped into your match. The process is usually fairly speedy (depending on what time of day you're playing), but more feedback regarding team-mate connections would have been welcome, as there's currently no indication of how long you may be waiting till you start playing.
Once four of you have been thrown together, one of you is appointed Leader and bestowed the honour of choosing the opposition and setting match parameters. After this you must all select a position. Bafflingly, you can't play in a central defensive role. Perhaps Konami assumed we wouldn't want to, or thought we lacked the competence and discipline to man a rearguard position for the duration of a match, but whatever the reasoning, playing as a stopper isn't an option. The flipside is you're regularly involved in attacking moves. With the AI taking care of defensive duties you can concentrate on getting into the right position for the next attack rather than stifling the opposition.
Thankfully, much of the lag that blighted PES 2008's online encounters has been eradicated, with the action often seamless and uninterrupted by stuttering jumps. The visuals have also been kept surprisingly crisp, with little compromised in the detail and resolution departments. However, one major bugbear is Konami's inexplicable decision to plaster the pitch with Combination Points (which score how well you're playing) whenever your team pulls off a decent move. String together several passes and a succession of numbers (usually housed in gaudily coloured stars and boxes) flash up on screen and obscure your view, making it impossible to see what's happening on certain sections of the pitch for several seconds. A misjudged feature if ever we've seen one, especially as the numbers that flash up make little sense.
So, let's move on now to FIFA 09's 10 vs. 10 online games. Following on from FIFA 08's five-against-five matches, this year's version has taken an impressive leap forward by doubling the number of human controlled outfield players. Clearly, this mode has captured the imagination of the masses, as there's an impressive number of willing participants no matter what time of day you play. Options abound when setting up a game, including customisable searches that give you full control over the calibre of players you want to be matched up with. Once a game has been set up, a five-minute countdown provides plenty of time for players to enter the fray and pick a side, after which there's a mad scramble to select a position from the ten available outfield slots.
Fears were rife prior to release that games containing twenty human players would inevitably degenerate into ball-chasing farce, yet the reality usually proves very different. Even when playing with lower-level players, most participants manage to stick to their allotted positions with admirable discipline, though admittedly there is a bias towards rushed attacks (during which defenders often find themselves outnumbered) rather than measured build-ups. There's also a genuine sense of competitiveness and combativeness, with little time to dwell on the ball before you're closed down. In many ways, these online games are even more competitive than their single-player counterparts.
With a strict stamina limit for each player, Roy of the Rovers heroics are impossible. Try to be everywhere and you'll be staggering around like a three-legged dog after a kick in the tits, and all before the halftime whistle blows. This encourages you to play in your designated role with discipline, to be a cog in a machine rather than the motor that drives it. You soon learn that it's essential to rely on, work with and trust your team-mates. The frustrations and rewards are very much like the real game: greedy strikers shooting and missing when passing to a better-placed player would have guaranteed a goal, or selfless wingers tracking back to cover you when you miss a tackle. Performance feedback is handled rather more subtly than in PES. A simple bar at the bottom of the screen keeps track of how well you're playing, with each successful pass, shot, tackle and piece of positional play either bolstering or diminishing your rating.
On the whole these 10 vs. 10 games proved highly fluid and bereft of lag: some feat considering twenty simultaneous online connections, compared to PES's four. However, some minor compromises appear to have been made regarding visual quality, though this is a small price to play for match fluidity.
Due to FIFA's lifelike rendition of the beautiful game, mastering each position takes plenty of practice, but it's the defensive roles that are by far the hardest to perfect. Learning to read the game is an essential skill to master if you're to stand any chance of stifling opposition attacks. While it may be frustrating at first, if you persevere you'll find that opting for a defensive role can be hugely rewarding.
Despite many areas of excellence, there are a few sections that still require some attention, such as post-match feedback, which currently fails to adequately inform you of where you've succeeded and failed in your given position. Other niggles include some stability issues (crashes were more frequent than in PES) and occasionally erratic goalkeeper AI.
So with both games clearly possessing their merits, which one should you opt for? Well, that depends on what you're after. If you're looking for a fairly un-taxing and forgiving footy kick about with a heavy bias towards attacking, then PES is probably your best bet. But if you're after the most lifelike, tactical and ultimately rewarding multiplayer online football experience around, then FIFA wins by a clear distance. It may not be perfect and still needs refining, but as a first attempt at bringing online 10 vs. 10 football to the masses, it's an admirably accomplished effort.