Now, I'm not N'Gai Croal, and Rich Melville's not Stephen Totilo. In fact, we don't really know who those people are - we just got sent this link and they sound important. But while we'd like to say today's good-humoured squabble over the relative merits of Pro Evolution Soccer and the latest FIFA is inspired by their antics, we're going to go with the real explanation: EA and our publisher thought it was a good idea, and when we started talking about it we sort of agreed.
So, what follows is a chat between a PES fan (Tom) and a FIFA fan (Rich), aimed at putting the former's historical merits into the brand new context of the shiny FIFA games we got to play in Canada. The exchange below is ripped verbatim from our emails, and any suggestion that it was painstakingly stage-managed - or that we deliberately set each other up for fluid counter-points so it didn't descend into witless farce - are so far wide of the mark that Frank Lampard's feeling better already. And yes, I have done that one again. Read on, and try to believe.
Tom Bramwell: Rich, I'm going to pretend this is like one of those discussion panel things and start my first bit by introducing myself. Hi everyone! I'm Tom! Everyone thinks I'm a die-hard PES fan, presumably because I gave FIFA Road to the World Cup 2/10 and never get to review any of the others. EA is known to think I "hate FIFA". This isn't actually true, because that would be pointless. Anyway, I will now begin by diving surreally into an assertion about ball physics. You know, Rich, the way the ball behaves has been one of Pro Evolution Soccer's defining characteristics for a length of time so stupid that it's probably entitled to a government subsidy. When People's Hero Steven Gerrard sprays the ball cross-field, the way it accelerates, arcs, floats, lands and bounces all looks convincing. People often talk about PES' slow build-ups and low scorelines, and identify those as reasons the goals give players such a huge sense of elation; but I'd argue that the way the ball feels to strike contributes just as much. Based on what we saw in Canada, do you reckon FIFA can match that?
Rich Melville: Yes. But before we go any further, hello Eurogamers, I am Rich. I am a FIFA fan. I am also not writing this bit of the answer because Tom's trying to make it all look nice on the page and didn't tell me that first. Suspend your disbelief. But I will be writing this bit, so, I do think FIFA can match that. The amount of research EA has put in to working out how a ball - and the air around it - works in terms of pure physics is staggering. It makes my brain hurt just thinking about it. And doesn't the ball sometimes bounce off PES players like a pinball? There's no denying the PES physics are fun, but they're not as realistic as they could be, are they? There has to be a balance between realistic physics and fun but based on what we saw, next-gen FIFA ball movement looks great. Konami will no doubt be constructing a similar system thanks to the power afforded by PlayStation 3, so there's still a lot for both EA and Konami to prove.
Tom Bramwell: In FIFA's case though, a lot of this is still theoretical. PES is fact. The pinball doesn't derail the illusion. PES6 wasn't exactly a watershed moment, I'll grant you, but a lot of the things EA told us about - varying pace to beat opponents, using tricks to create openings, stretching for the ball, slow-dribbling - can already be done in PES. The FIFA trick system also seems to have the hallmarks of "it's in the game - but only because we stapled it onto its face"; it'll need to be massaged into what they're doing very cleverly if it's to be as approachable and integrated as it has to be to work. PES though already has dozens of feints. You can flick the ball in the air, do the Marseilles turn; the "flip-flop" trick is in there. Did you see Kaka leaving the ball to Ronaldinho on the edge of the England box on Friday after we got back? I've been doing that on the Internet for a year. People always fall for it.
Rich Melville: I didn't see the Kaka and Ronaldinho double act as I fell asleep due to jetlag and rosť. I know what you mean about the tricks in PES but, honestly, how often do you see them happen, especially online when play is often a race to the box or gaining a corner? There's lots of button-fiddling to be done and you get the impression that, in the heat of the moment, it's better to charge the opposition and prepare that cross rather than showing flip-flaps. Or flip-flops. Or whatever. Both players have to agree to play in a 'skilful' way for things to work, otherwise you'll be stood there farting around like a seal with a beach ball while a grunting, drooling Rooney steals the ball and barges his way to the goal, red cheeks flapping. There's strategy in PES but it's not as accessible or obvious as in FIFA, and there's going to be some people saying that in the following posts - it basically depends on how much time you invest as to which game you'll warm to.
Tom Bramwell: Speaking of accessibility, FIFA's great hook is, of course, the brand and the likenesses. It's one of the main reasons it's the biggest-selling game in the football-hungry United Kingdom year-on-year. And on that note, one of the most impressive parts of our trip to Canada was touring the motion-capture studio. For the benefit of the readers, there was a pair of gigantic motion-capture stages, each with around 100 cameras that can be arranged all around a 50-foot basketball court. Rubberised turf can be laid over the top for football. They capture in real-time from those little hand-taped balls fastened (by Velcro) all over the players' bodies. They can also attach smaller balls to the face and capture expressions in a weird booth that looks like something out of a Clockwork Orange or Marathon Man. Then they go through and isolate the moves they want and develop them in-game. This is "pivotal" to what they do, they told us. Having also watched how the players behave in-engine, it's hard not to come round to FIFA's side on this. On PS2, when the gap to realism was easier to fill in with your mind's eye, the way the players shaped themselves was well worked - but other areas, notably the crab-like sidestep motion - were less impressive. Xbox 360 brought this into striking contrast - PES looked like an oily mannequin festival scattered across a picturesque rug. Were you as seduced by what you saw in Canada? What stood out about it?
Rich Melville: With the look and style of FIFA, there are a few things to consider when talking about the animation. With Konami, you get the impression that animation follows after gameplay development, where the development of FIFA seems to develop both gameplay and animation in equal measure - hence the impressive trick roster. The truth is, with Konami's team concerned almost entirely with the flow of play, the players lack polish in some areas and although accurate, players sometimes resemble zombies when placed against the sheen of EA player models. The FIFA in-game chase-cam which kicks in as you run for goal (in a similar way to Gears of War) shows just how detailed the animation is. FIFA's always looked great - the personal differences which players have with both games are centred around the actual gameplay, though it doesn't hurt to have the best-looking game on the block, either. There's a greater attention paid to replays, cut-scenes and TV-style cams in FIFA, too. It's like watching Sky Sports and then switching to some home-grown YouTube station with PES - it's not bad, but when FIFA is in motion (or LocoMotion as EA would have it), it's hard not to think of PES as the uglier sister when animation is concerned. It's hard not to think of Kylie dancing when the word LocoMotion is banded around, too... I was definitely seduced by that.
Tom Bramwell: Right, well, couple of immediate points. I suspect "Gears of War" is more of an analogy in the sense that the camera gets tight and rumbly; we're not dealing with a steadicam mounted on Ronaldinho's thigh, thankfully. Second, you did a LocoMotion joke, and it involved Kylie. People probably just X'd the browser window. Nobody's reading any more. Are you happy? Are you? Anyway, I think the interesting thing about animation has to do with the transition from current- to next-gen in football games: Konami chose simply to spruce their existing engine while working quietly behind the scenes on a new one (or so the buzz indicates, and EA Canada declares), whereas FIFA is already into its first cycle of refinement. That could be crucial - certainly on the player likenesses front, where EA has struggled at times, but now seems to be making solid progress. It's been a long time since I've been able to accuse them of throwing a "gunge shower" over anyone, and our beloved, much-missed Sven, if they did him now, undoubtedly wouldn't look like the mad scientist out of Doom III. The success of PES' likenesses was mainly founded in the Uncanny Valley principles we discussed with Joe Booth: PES 1-5 were a distance away from reality, so the rough angles and curious necks were forgivable. We didn't even think to declare them dreadful. But now the gap's closing and EA's got practice and tough lessons under its belt, so there's a greater danger of PES hitting that revulsion zone than FIFA returning to it. How did you think they were doing based on what we saw?
Rich Melville: The camera is mounted approximately six feet away from Ronaldinho's arse, rather than his thigh. And now you've got me talking about man-bottom. Anyway, he looks very realistic to me but this isn't a great surprise given that EA HQ houses enough artists, tech staff and motion capture-mentalists to make most Hollywood CG studios look like a Soho production company. I peaked in a door I wasn't supposed to at EA and saw over 100 people being lectured on the kind of stuff that makes Ronaldinho's mouth move. It was like a NASA training camp. When you look at the EA resources and the player models in, say, Fight Night, you can't imagine Konami having the same amount of staff or that frighteningly huge motion-capture studio. It will be interesting to see what Konami can produce on PS3 as EA up the art ante once again.
Tom Bramwell: One thing that's come up since we returned is EA's plans for online. They were quite coy while we were actually there, but now we know to expect Interactive Leagues again, as well as (presumably) the traditional mixture of ranked and unranked matches ala Xbox Live. PES, meanwhile, has learned some tough lessons about next-gen online gaming after its rubbish attempts on Xbox 360, and the subsequent patch. It's tempting to say that both games go into this generation on their surest footing ever when it comes to online. FIFA has statistical depth, which we'll get to in a bit, but PES has four-versus-four online on PS2, and we have to expect that to come back. Then you can disconnect and play Master League. As they say on the Internet, "for the win", surely?
Rich Melville: PES online has always suffered on 360, what with the lag, the patch and the awkward way of setting up matches with 'real' friends as opposed to pretend ones who you only know via their scary Gamer Card photo. I'd expect Konami to treat the next version as PES as a complete revolution, as it's their first chance to get a grip on both Live and PlayStation Network. The same goes for EA - it's a level playing field for me at the moment where online is concerned. Come September, however, I want to be able to save and edit complete matches and be a video pundit via EyeToy or the Vision camera... and download new kits, trainers and balls with Ronaldo's smug face mapped onto them. Online needs innovation beyond just multiplayer options.
Tom Bramwell: But they've got podcasts, Rich! Podcasts! MP3s with people talking on them! Anyway we're drifting into vagaries so let's get back to specifics with the big one: artificial intelligence. Long gone are the days where players stood around in PES watching the ball roll past them, or when they moved along a pre-ordained trajectory to receive it. Whatever's still rough, they hide most of it well. Playing five (or six) star PES is an epic challenge, where getting pulled out of position is punished and lazy auto-defending is next to impossible. Even the goalies seem to know what they're doing. And the system of star player ratings - things like the propensity to shoot, the way Zidane's possession would influence those on his team to surge forward with him, the defensive star line improving your offside trap... There's an almost endless list of subtle influences mounting logically for and against you, and it's key to the illusion of football. What did you make of EA's "Threat Map" approach, which seemed the main retort?
Rich Melville: The Threat Map stuff sounded good, but until you see it in action, over time, it's hard to see how effective it will be in practice. Given the EA pledge to make every player on the pitch act and move realistically (rather than just the ones nearest the ball that seems to happen in PES), I'm hopeful that FIFA 08 will have accomplished AI, especially if they've paid as much attention to the player AI as the ball physics...
Tom Bramwell: And licensing. We don't know what the situation is with stats in PES7 for obvious reasons, but PES6 had four licensed leagues, 15 licensed clubs, 11 licensed national teams, some Reebok advertising and EOS logo placement. I believe the FIFA numbers are "a bit higher".
Rich Melville: 15,000 players and growing all the time. You can't argue with the EA bank balance and that FIFA tag. It's a battle Konami can never win - if we were marketing men, I'd be telling you that FIFA 08 represented the pinnacle of contra-brand game content and a constantly evolving, mutually sustaining affiliation with all major leagues, teams, players and tournaments, creating the most realistic soccer experience ever. If I was a marketing man, that whole sentence would be a day's work, and I'd also have to work in the words 'official' and 'tm' somewhere and invent a snappy abbreviation for that contra-brand thing. CBGC? That would look cool on a t-shirt, like CBGB?
Tom Bramwell: Tum te tum. Oh, you're finished. Last thing on my list of talking points is the current-gen version. We don't know what Konami's plans are with regard to the existing PS2 fanbase, although we have to assume they'll continue to support them. But we did see a lot of the PS2 version of FIFA 08, and got to play it. And it's interesting to watch how EA's chosen to innovate and diversify in different ways, rather than simply doing a dumbed-down version of whatever's on next-gen. Joe Booth was telling us that EA uses it to help bed in development talent; he of course himself worked on the current-gen version for 07. You previewed based off what we played in Canada, and I know you were keen on the co-operative "Be A Pro" mode single-footballer stuff. Do you think that'll catch on? Are you surprised they haven't positioned it more centrally on next-gen?
Rich Melville: The Be A Pro mode is an added extra. If it is met with a good reception, then it can move to other systems. But yes, I think it works really well once you get the hang of it - it teaches good football and it's definitely grooming gamers for the future event of 11 v 11 player matches. You have to understand that the fanbase looking for tech innovation etc will have moved on to PS3 or Xbox 360 and be online. If you own a PS2, you've probably played a billion different football games over the years and I think it's a great thing to make a real effort with multiplayer via the multi-tap as well as online.
Tom Bramwell: And of course there's the theory of the hand-me-down console, as PSones became, and how younger brothers and sisters are - I suppose - better subjects for testing things on, but equally tend to group together more around one console. Anyway, that's it for this silly "conversational piece". I'm sure it'll persist long into the comments. And I'm abandoning our idea of closing out with a reader running onto the page and assaulting the thumbnail viewer leading to the feature being abandoned. I doubt we have enough Swedish or Danish readers to make that funny. As if that were the main impediment. Last word, Rich?
Rich Melville: Word.
FIFA 08 is due out on PS3, Xbox 360, PC, PS2, Wii and handhelds later this year. The idiots who wrote this drivel will be lucky if they still have jobs then. Surely you can do better? Speak your brain.