Like Raul and Real Madrid, Henry and Arsenal, or Liverpool and the most league championships won by any English club, Pro Evolution Soccer's gameplay and graphics are inextricably linked. PES6, due out on PS2, PC and Xbox 360 on 27th October, proves the point better than any version since the series' inception - as we learned during a few hours in its fine company earlier this week.
With each new iteration, gaps are filled in both as one - sharper response from the controls is matched by visibly sharper responses from the players; better shielding controls and a more physical element to holding up the ball are met by finer-tuned collision detection and heightened manoeuvrability in small spaces; more fluid passing falls in step with Cruyff-style heel-passes and deft little flicks to keep the ball moving. Even the fact that the weather can go from sun to rain or vice versa in the course of one match is more than a cosmetic distinction - with playing conditions altered visibly, so too is ball behaviour, while players find less purchase beneath their feet and take longer to turn at speed. It's nice to see. (As it is to feel, obviously.)
Sorry. But you'll forgive us for launching straight into the gritty details - it's hard not to. The period immediately following the release of each new edition of PES or Winning Eleven, its Japanese counterpart, involves extensive dissection, as we bounce around its re-lacquered surfaces working out how and where it's shifted and been added to. To the untrained eye it often appears much the same, and even the trained eye can have difficulty discerning things immediately - but without fail the truth outs once you start trying to play football with it. It's that which distinguishes PES' titular evolution from other sports games like Tiger Woods. To come back to where we came in, it's like a team that appoints a new coach every six months, and suddenly plays entirely differently.
With that come certain foibles. The aforementioned through-the-legs heel passes are unrealistic in their ubiquity, some things never change (like the antiquated throw-ins and corner systems), and graphically things vary in quality (Robbie Fowler, for example, is virtually unrecognisable - unless you're trying to recognise him as Ross Kemp). But we'll ignore those issues for now, since this is preview country, and you know all about them anyway. So: for every Robbie Fowler, there's a Ronaldo, or a Rooney, looking more convincing than ever. The number of licences is much greater too, albeit mostly on the continent - EA maintains a stranglehold over German and English licences, for example, although Manchester United does finally make it in. But, as has often been the case, it's almost moot - with well known players easily identified by their movement and carriage.
But we've seen and played both the PS2 and Xbox 360 versions, and on 360 the graphical story is slightly different. From the menuing inward, it's all been sanded down to a smooth grain, with barely a single rough edge evident anywhere. On the pitch - the San Siro, for example, with its beautifully textured and convincingly sandy playing surface - this can be quite disconcerting. True widescreen narrows the player-models for those of us who've spent the last few versions playing in stretched 4:3. Coupled with that, it makes for a very different aesthetic, with the same negative connotations you might attach to FIFA's next-gen efforts - the closer you get to realism, the more noticeable the gaps are. It'll take getting used to, although the benefits of more extreme clarity are, in PES' case, probably worth it. And at least nobody looks like they stepped straight out of Doom III.
Going back to PS2, collision detection in general has improved, striking an interesting contrast with the lessening of actual player collisions. Some disliked intently the manner in which PES5 penalised players for pressing, and while that still occurs it's in greatly reduced quantities, and circumstances that seem more legitimate. The game's handling of fouls in general improves - they've sorted the problem in WE10 where every attempt to round the goalkeeper seemed to result in your being upended with no foul given. Physical stature plays a larger role now, with Tevez, for example, who has speed and a decent build able to tear through weaker defences, while players like Ronaldinho and Cristiano Ronaldo find it easier to beat players, but harder to remain upright against strong centre-backs, however much they weave. Meanwhile, a well-timed slide tackle is now as useful as in real-life - clinching a block or robbing an attacker of the ball, and often, in the case of head-on slides, allowing you to push through and out the other side of the challenge whilst retaining possession, rather than having the ball simply spin away to another player.
Taking advantage of loose balls and counter-attacks demands more poise and intelligence in passing than ever. To match that, your fellow professionals now work more convincingly off the ball, darting into space. The days of watching a player stand waiting to receive the ball are almost completely gone. To help keep the game moving, you can now use quick free-kicks too; hit L1 and R1 together when fouled, and you can often pass on upfield rather than having to line up with the entire opposing team ahead of you, as used to be the case. Similarly, the advantage rule continues to let you make progress, although this time it's a more traditional interpretation, and there's no icon in the top of the screen to remind you if it's active; here the ref will hold things over for much longer, and go back to book players for quite some time before, with helpful replays to remind you of your sins.
All of which gives you a decent enough grounding in the middle of the park action - or what we experienced of it this week - but improvements are also marked in front of goal. For example, improvements in (er) marking, with a greater emphasis on precision in striker positioning than in past years - particularly important on crosses. Push and pull using the R2 button to shield the ball plays a bigger role, with improved close control, while snap shots are effective again but require more skill to tee up successfully, which feels like a good balance. Similarly, the ball is less prone to blazing into the top tiers of the stand, but more inclined to go wide if you're not careful about your set-up. And when you do hit the target, you may still find that the keeper gets to it, as goalies have been tweaked to do a bit better than they did in WE10, where they were notably calamitous.
Not a criticism you could really direct at PES6 in any shape right now. Review code should be with us in the next couple of weeks, we're told, so it won't be long before we learn more about this year's Master League, the International Challenge mode, unlockables and how the team balance has shifted, and are able to put some of our observations to the longer term test. We're also keen to see how Xbox Live modes have been implemented, with that still off-limits to us in our preview build. One thing we did manage to look at though was achievements; there were 23, with the majority given over to victory in individual leagues (English, French, Spanish, etc.) and a few others for one, 10 and 20 online ranked-match participations. And, well, it might sound like a small thing, but being able to pause the game and see at a glance who's scored is bound to go down well.
In a game where few changes beyond that are instantly tangible, it might be tempting to argue that the new PES rarely improves significantly; it's just that our affection for the old one wanes. Well, that's partly true - in the same sense that we couldn't work out how Man United were ever going to not win the league during the '90s, and we worried that Arsenal's unbeaten run would go on forever. It takes the next best-thing-ever to put the current one into context, and I suppose the point is best illustrated by the fact that we were happily playing PES5 until a few weeks ago, but that upon heading home after an afternoon in PES6's company, it felt stilted, arthritic, awkward and unrealistic. And yes, we'll probably be saying the same thing about this in 12 months' time - but for now, we really couldn't care less. Bring on the 27th.
Pro Evolution Soccer 6 is due out on PS2, Xbox 360 and PC this 27th October in Europe, with DS and PSP versions to follow later this year.