Once upon a time, before EA Sports hired the Top Men who masterminded FIFA's revival in the late 2000s, our football-gaming lives were all about Pro Evolution Soccer, and the arrival of each new instalment was the equivalent of what cracking the seal on the tomb of Tutankhamen would have been to archaeologists - except we got to do it annually. Twice annually, if we had chipped PS2s and imported versions of Japanese sister-series Winning Eleven, which of course we did.
Thanks in part to the Konami development team's remoteness and the huge language barrier, new instalments - even of PES, which was made pretty much exclusively for the series' large European audience - often arrived with only ambiguous fanfare, and it was left to gamers to decipher the hieroglyphic subtleties encoded beneath the sands of physics tweaks and improved visuals.
Since FIFA has been top dog, all that has changed. New instalments of EA's series are preceded by detailed descriptions of every new feature, usually badged up by buzz-phrases like "Personality Plus".
I haven't played FIFA 12 yet - although Martin and Nick have both had a crack on it - but I feel like I know it already. The spine of the game is very similar to the robust but slightly soulless FIFA 11, but with a much greater emphasis on the physicality of the players and their interactions, plus "precision dribbling" and "tactical defending", all of which are quite easy to visualise based on the descriptions.
In stark contrast, picking up PES 2012 has been like going back to a more innocent time. It's unpredictable, experimental, and just when you think you've got your head around everything the Konami PR pops up in your email inbox with a PDF of new controls from Japan that you might not have noticed buried in the menus - like the ability to direct off-the-ball runs and burst-run in different directions by holding combinations of the shoulder buttons and bumpers.
The first thing you notice though is the absence of problems you didn't want to notice last time. At a basic level PES 2012 is a much better rounded and more finished game than last year's first stab at a proper reboot for the series.
Last year, the ball seemed able to travel halfway across the pitch without anyone bothering to stick out a leg to intercept it, even when they were clearly within reach. This year you seldom find yourself questioning the AI of computer-controlled teammates or opponents in the same situation - if the ball wasn't good enough to reach the man it was sent to, it will generally be intercepted.
Similarly, while ball physics remain a little rough around the edges, you feel much more in control when you're dribbling – at least to the extent that you would expect to be in control. A great example of this is in one of the training challenges (of which more later), where you have to navigate between cone gates: it's hard to move at speed and master the constant changes of direction because the ball is permanently on the edge of your ability to control it, just as it should be.
Passing and movement in general is fast and precarious compared to FIFA's precise and almost contemplative build-up play - especially if you like playing with the game speed settings - although it's a lot harder to simply race down the wings and score from a ball crossed onto a header.
Squeezing a dramatic shot out of a tight situation feels like a feat of clever passing and close control, and while those situations seem slightly more likely to occur in Konami's game than they do in FIFA, that's partly because you feel like you're always stretching a leg out to remain in control, playing close to the edge of your abilities – rather than just being shut down by defensive harrying and the indiscriminate collision detection from the physics engine blocking your every punt.
It's also partly because the defensive system in PES is slightly different to what FIFA does [or did - it's worth noting that this year's FIFA takes a dramatically different approach to defending - Ed.] You can still direct two players to press the guy in possession, but you have to be more artful in when you stab the button to intervene or you won't get anywhere. It's not enough to just be standing in the way. Using defensive pressing is also punished harshly by the opposition, who attack the space you vacate.
PES does a good job of encouraging a patient approach, where you use the right-trigger defensive modifier to hold up play - what FIFA calls jockeying - instead. Slide-tackling is also very perilous - although this is actually one area where the game still needs work, as replays often suggest you went to ground fairly even though the referee called a foul and took down your name.
You'll learn a lot of this the hard way, of course, getting smacked around online or by your housemates or friends, but the return of training challenges means you can at least spend a bit of time familiarising yourself away from the shop floor. These fun, testing little sequences of play ask you to take penalties and free kicks, and complete attacking and defensive scenarios, scoring you based on speed and accuracy. The only annoying thing is that there aren't more of them in our preview build.
One thing you will certainly linger on among the training challenges is the new off-the-ball controls. These allow you to seize control of a teammate during throw-in and dead-ball situations, creating space by dragging defenders out of position and generally making mischief. What's interesting though is that you can even do this during open play - by pushing the right stick toward the player you want to control and clicking it, you can direct attackers to make runs and precisely select the defender you wish to control at that moment, rather than cycling through nearby players with the left bumper.
This approach isn't entirely new of course - it's there to some extent in FIFA and Konami made great use of it in the Wii versions of PES, the god games of sports simulation - but it will be interesting to see how effective it proves and how it evolves, as it has the potential to grant the player too much influence and unbalance proceedings. We're still getting the hang of it, but right now it looks like you have lots of control of the receiving player's movement but less control of the player taking the kick. In other words, it's easy to direct an onrushing attacker, but quite difficult to pinpoint the cross.
You can also now choose either the left analogue stick or d-pad control for movement, and whichever you don't use is reserved for tactical adjustments (it's still possible to play with both as just movement, but you lose a degree of immediate tactical flexibility.) With a much greater range of movement directions programmed into the game than the eight available on the d-pad, we imagine a lot of people have already upgraded to the analogue stick, but at least purists still have the choice.
Off the pitch, Konami's game is still very enjoyable for the tinkering manager too, inviting you to try to coax better stat totals out of your charges by finding more agreeable positions for them within your tweaked formations. Plus you can still fiddle with variables for support play, and arrange the tactical presets you can switch between using d-pad or analogue stick directions.
There's still a lot to see - online modes, including the Master League, aren't currently active in our preview code - but this is already an interesting update to the promising refit Konami unveiled 18 months ago. It's a lot sturdier than last year's game - we've had a couple of goalkeeping howlers but none of the daisy-chained bicycle kicks of PES 2011 - and that doesn't seem to have come at the expense of the charm and character that we most admired about the last instalment.
FIFA is still out there and we have no reason to expect it won't be a fantastic experience, and probably a game we will continue to play every lunchtime in the office until the next one comes out. But PES 2012 feels different and edgy, and playing it isn't just competition, it's exploration of the unknown - just like it was in the good old days. If last year's PES was a promise of what's to come, this year's is starting to feel more like a credible alternative.