Version tested: Xbox 360
It used to be simple. Pro Evolution Soccer was the hardcore football simulation - a world of skill pentagons, nil-nil draws and anoraks for goalposts, with Pierluigi Collina's demonic face beaming at you on the cover - and FIFA was the flashy, three-minute pop-song vision of football, full of perfect, arcing screamers and Robbie Williams menu music.
So EA Sports began plotting, and spent the years between 2007 and 2011 rebuilding FIFA as real football. The result is the wonderful FIFA 12 - tough, physical and precise, with a new defending system that bullies you into marking space rather than haring impatiently out of position every time you lose the ball.
But while FIFA grew up into a simulation, Konami lapsed into turgid and directionless iteration, and before we knew it PES had gone senile - a once-beautiful game tweaked and twisted beyond its capacity for improvement.
Since then, PES has also been rebuilding, and progress has been fast. PES 2011 was divisive, applauded by some - us included - for taking bold steps to reinvent itself as a fast-moving, aggressive new spin on hoofing leather, but criticised by many - er, us included - for tripping over itself a bit in the process and shipping before it was actually finished.
The good news or the bad news, depending on how you look at it, is that PES 2012 continues Konami's march away from pure simulation, and so the action remains fast and frantic, as though the ball is being greased up at every stoppage, with the emphasis firmly on fleet-footed dribbling and violent, spectacular shooting.
Play against another human and the speed of movement, nimble dribbling and imprecise tackling mean that it's very hard to regain possession using the two pressing buttons and near-useless sliding challenge, as the ball can be jinked and redirected in a split-second, and defenders are often left to spectate until the attacker takes a wrong turn into some fortuitous congestion.
It's not quite the attacking bloodbath of an old-days FIFA or ISS, but it's perfectly possible for a skilled player to slalom past several of the opposition team without much difficulty, while highly skilled individuals like Arjen Robben and Leo Messi flood through defences like water through a sieve.
Lengthy shot animations mitigate this orgy of dribbling somewhat, allowing defensive players to get closer to their man at the business end of the pitch. But the balance is firmly towards attack, and the result is that PES is, at worst, a game of fast and whimsical fantasy footwork - easy on the eye and frequently exhilarating, whether you're dishing it out or soaking it up.
Nips and tucks since 2011 see fewer goals scored from crosses, although there are still quite a few and it remains very difficult to defend them, while some of the more glaring problems of last year are fully patched up, so you now rarely watch passes trickling past defenders who could easily intercept them, for example.
The referee is still quite whistle-happy at times, but his decisions all look more reasonable now, so you don't find yourself watching endless replays of fair tackles being blown into fouls. And speaking of matters out of your control, your team-mates are much better at running into space around you, so you rarely get bogged down when you're lancing forward at the spearhead of an attack.
Even better, matters aren't always out of your control now, because the addition of team-mate controls allows you to directly instruct other players to run into space. At dead balls and throw-ins you can flick the right stick to pick a team-mate and then move him around, and during open play you can also direct nearby players to make runs rather than waiting for the AI to catch your drift.
PES is a lot sturdier and more rounded than last year, but it's still not quite the finished article. Ball physics in particular remain rather peculiar, with strange acceleration, unlikely conserved momentum and frequent pinball moments where a volley is smashed into someone's face and rebounds miles in another direction. On the other side of the fence, FIFA 12 is certainly no stranger to deflections, but the aberrations in PES 2012 are rather more offensive to science.
Animation blending isn't quite as refined as we'd like in PES, either, so you frequently see bizarre and impossible acrobatics and contortions, like a volley collected blind over a shoulder and sent flying at an acute new angle.
Tackles and collisions are also rather suspect in places. FIFA 12's new Impact Engine is the source of considerable mirth when it goes awry, bouncing players up and down on the turf like basketballs and breakdancers, but switching back to a game with canned interactions like PES does feel jarring and artificial by comparison.
Player likenesses are at least improved. They're still putting the "dead" in dead ringer with their cold eyes perched atop yapping, guppy mouths, but the face shapes, fine details and lighting mean that Wayne Rooney is just as much Wayne Rooney here as he is in any other game. Licences and player data are still an issue, of course, so Juan Mata's still at Valencia for the moment rather than, ahem, London FC, but we can cope with that by now.
For all its fumbles and skirmishes with degrees of authenticity, there is also something to be said for PES' love of bespoke, hand-carved player animations, whether it's the way Rooney shapes his body to curl the ball into a far corner or the balletic tip-toe sprint of Ronaldo: eye-catching little flourishes that quickly identify players to your senses in a way that FIFA's strict simulation often can't.
It's these little touches - the details and idiosyncrasies of real-life football - that PES is arguably much better at than its flashy rival. The pre-match ritual is a great example, allowing you to fiddle with formations, positions, roles, tactics and team styles until you're Ranieri in the face. You can do similar in FIFA, but the flood of arrows, meters and numbers you're presented with on PES' Game Plan screen are somehow more inviting to the armchair tinkerer.
Elsewhere, the polish that was glaringly absent from last year's instalment is layered thickly across many a screen - and not just the slick, licensed UEFA Champions League and Copa Libertadores tournaments.
Take the Master League - a PES institution - as an example. Once obtuse and impregnable, it's now a relatively slick career mode where your customised avatar sits behind a desk in a suit while the first-team coach talks about morale and squad development and outlines opposition tactics on a whiteboard.
Beneath the varnish, it's still a tough place to prove yourself - rummaging through the youth team and transfer market to spice up your squad of nobodies, and gradually inching your way into the chairman's affection or risking his wrath by ignoring his instructions for the good of the team. But it's now a welcoming, logically organised pursuit.
For all its improvements, though, it's hard to give PES 2012 a complete recommendation. It's still thoroughly rubbish at teaching people to like it, for one thing. The Training Challenges encourage you to practice various disciplines to earn medals, for example, but to a newcomer they just emphasise the game's eccentricities. If you've only ever played FIFA then it's a steep learning curve.
And while the action on the pitch is often the swashbuckling stuff of Roy of the Rovers where no two matches are ever quite the same, there are still gaping faults, like terrible goalkeepers who rarely catch the ball and sometimes let it fly past them when they should not be beaten.
Still, at least we know where we stand again, even if the roles are reversed. If you're looking for the better football simulation, FIFA 12 is now the place to be. EA's latest is quite a stodgy meal in places, slowing things down and asking you to rethink your defensive behaviour. But it is a consistent, balanced game of football that offers great rewards for the patient and thoughtful gamer.
But if you're looking for a more entertaining game of attacking football - and you can laugh about it when one of the game's many remaining rough edges fires a moment of absurdity into a finely poised multiplayer game against a fierce rival - then PES 2012 is well worth investigating.
Konami still hasn't quite finished the job this year, then, but the bigger flaws have been eradicated and the remaining quirks are more like characteristics than calamities. We're a world away from the simple days of old, but PES 2012 is entertaining and rewarding and we can't wait to see where Konami takes it next year - and that's a nice feeling to welcome back.
8 / 10