Picture the scene. Two people are playing a new version of Pro Evolution Soccer. (Actually, given the protagonists, it's probably best not to picture the exact scene.) They've watched the intro, remarking that it looks like a cheesy unimaginative rip-off of the ad-type favoured by Nike, they've skipped to the two-player area, picked their teams, and assembled on the pitch. The ref blows the whistle. The chap with the ball lurches forward, while the other races toward him, immediately pressing and jostling for the ball. Tumble. Whistle. Foul. Repeat.
For those of us who've come to rely on holding X and square to press the player in possession, PES5 is going to prove frustrating to begin with. Konami's decided that since every footballer now falls over like an elephant straddling a house of cards whenever they feel the touch of another man's flesh, pressing ought to be anathema. This is annoying. It's also one of the best possible illustrations of why PES continually picks up high marks each year.
It changes, shifting toward certain extremes as dramatically as a player's stats-pentagon expands toward brilliance whenever he's bought up by a big club. It may have its flaws and quirks, its consistently alright graphics engine whose true strength is in depth of animation, its peculiar affection for the anybody connected with the English national team, and so on, but it always responds differently to your touch. You already know what the buttons do, but you don't necessarily know how to use them to best effect any more.
Today's isn't a question of how many marks out of ten it's worth, but it's worth outlining immediately that it's still a high number, and it's still a high number for a quantifiable reason. This isn't like Tiger Woods PGA Tour, to name something that's doing the opposite. You have to rate games within the context of their peers and predecessors; PES withstands that comparison. So yes, the review's coming next week, when I've had a chance to take the game online against various opponents, investigate the Master League, see what that PS2/PSP link-up's all about, and run rings around the AI. But, since you're all so impatient, I've been ordered to tell you where it's shifted this year. (Mainly because they found out that I spent longer playing it this week than anything else. Bloody spies everywhere.)
Pressing, then. It's a foul more or less automatically. This is annoying (sorry, annoying), but you do get over it. S'useful too, because it forces you to take more direct control of defensive players rather than lazily clamping face buttons. It'll break the game up initially, but you'll wise up to it and learn to use other approaches. Tackling more directly, for example - slide-tackling is more effective, and taking control of a player and then lurching toward 50-50 balls has an almost Sensible Soccer-like air of pre-emption about it. Get the line right and you can block advances quite effectively. Realistic? Not especially. But it works.
Of course you can avoid losing the ball to cheeky slides by passing it around, and one-touch passing plays a bigger role as a result - with an increase in the number of animations to match. You're frequently able to stick a boot in quickly - where previously you wouldn't have been able to interrupt the animation - and first-time volleyed crosses, for example, are tangibly more useful. As ever, it's the extra sharpness here and there that presents the most attractive new football - a volleyed cross converted with a first-time side-footed volley is, to say the least, beguiling.
Attacking in general is probably artificially easy to begin with as players learn not to press the same way they used to, and it also seems as though the midfield is artificially standoffish at times to ease the flow, although that might just be the way we were. It's certainly a game that wants you to move upfield though - passes in general are more like through-balls, fed in front of the player, while the through-balls themselves, while less effective than they used to be (hardly a bad thing), are more pronounced. Actually, I had most of my luck with them - passing it back and forth into the final third and then waiting to carve up the defence.
And, actually, I had rather more luck than usual. Traditionally, my sparring partner and I share victory around but he comes out on top. This version seems to be catered more to my natural game - which is to say, I suppose, that I like running around kicking, screaming and flapping. Another illustration of how PES shifts.
Speaking of flapping, I've got some question marks lingering next to AI and ball movement. Movement off the ball from AI players is typically awful - they always run too late - but there are goalkeeping quirks now too. Keepers have been given a bit more attention than usual - they're still mostly automated, but they can toss the ball Schmeichel-esque distances now and kick it in a couple of new ways - but they also have a tendency to, erm, chuck the ball in their own nets. Maybe not a tendency, but it's happened to me twice - the first time, a clearance pinballed off an attacker's head and his mate nodded it toward the empty net. Rushing back, the keeper managed to get to it and push it into the net - just as it was about to spin wide. Oops. Just hours later, a similar goalmouth scramble ended in similar embarrassment.
In general, PES remains one of the best ball simulators in the genre. The way it moves from players' feet and reacts to control and direction is one of the most captivating elements of the game. But equally PES's remains one of the quirkiest balls in the bag, pinballing off legs and running loose. Satisfying and exciting when it tumbles loose in your favour; maddening when it goes against you.
As ever, the changes in presentation have been trumpeted to an inexplicable degree of fanfare, being as they are just animation tweaks and a few more layers of polygons (although the new snowy pitch with orange ball is quite pretty), and it'd be really nice if Konami took a closer interest in throw-ins, free kicks and corners, rather than simply tweaking them. Creating an artificial bubble around the nearest receiving player on throw-ins doesn't fix anything; it just renders the process even more tedious. But whether those complaints will weigh against it in any meaningful way is something best left for the review. I'd say PES5 leaves a strong first impression. As ever, there'll be those who feel it meddles too much. Whatever the grander truth, what's obvious is it's not the same. And that's a good thing.
Pro Evolution Soccer 5 is due out on PS2 and Xbox next Friday, October 21st. Full review next week.