Pro Evolution Soccer 4 is due out this autumn. That alone is about as likely to surprise fans of the series as another set of title graphics, but another aspect of today's announcement from Konami of Europe is something rather more exciting - it's due out on PS2, PC... and Xbox. Although Konami had previously announced plans to release PES on Xbox, the publisher has been cautious up to now not to associate the Microsoft version with the ongoing PS2 series.
Similarly, Konami is being cautious about online play - something that it simply will not comment on for now. The inclusion of PS2 Online or Xbox Live support would seem to be the next obvious step to take on the road to improving the Tokyo development team's footballing opus, but for the moment at least your guess is as good as ours.
That said, today's official announcement of the game is far more than confirmation of formats. It also goes into some detail as to the sorts of areas the Tokyo dev team is focusing its efforts on improving, and pleasingly there are changes all over the park. To begin with, the players themselves will be more individualised. The statistics that fuel everything will now govern a larger number of aspects, including a player's ability to control high or fast balls, to hit it first time to beat an encroaching defender, or to flick it onto a team-mate. In other words, if you want to make progress, you'll want someone like Nedved on the receiving end rather than Phil Neville.
Fortunately, it should be even more obvious who's who this time out. There will be more individuality in the way players run and move on and off the ball, and indeed the way they control it. Anybody who has ever been mesmerised by the bizarre flapping toes of Robert Pires should have no difficulty picking him out, for example - and close-ups will reveal improved likenesses to back it all up. And although we can't see much evidence of it in the screenshots, kits should also get dirtier as games wear on - so you'll always be able to pick out the likes of Beckham who spend more time sprawled on their fronts angling for a free kick than anything else.
KCET has also taken steps to boost the referee's presence, too, so there will at least be someone to answer to in those situations. Not only will the ref be seen running around following the play, but he will also move in to calm things down in person, hopefully eliminating some of those needless and time-consuming Yellow Card cutaways that we always seem to hammer the X button to escape from. The ref will also visibly react to minor infringements, and we understand his interpretation of the advantage rule has been refined - something that the recent Japanese release Winning Eleven 7 International also expanded upon.
Dead balls will also finally see some improvements. Although many have now mastered the complexities of the free kick system, it's never been completely brilliant, and penalties are still pretty basic and unchanged after several iterations. Both will be updated for Pro Evolution Soccer 4, and KCET is even working in indirect free kicks for the first time, which ought to add some variety. It would certainly be nice to evolve some of our set plays beyond the odd feint and pass.
Crosses and cutbacks will also benefit from refinement, and Konami is also promising an improved dribbling system that offers more control in one-on-one encounters. PES3 and WE7I both included some skill moves on the right analogue stick, but it's debatable as to just how useful these proved for any but the most advanced player in general play. Hopefully changes in this area improve the fluidity of this sort of thing.
Finally, it remains to say that there will be more club and international teams (presumably including more licensed inclusions, something which PES3 began doing last year), extra formation screens, and more changes to the ever-popular Master League. A "My Best Eleven" option allows players to save their greatest line-ups for prosperity, and players can also now be forced to retire through severe injury during a Master League season.
And that's all we have for now. PES4 is out this autumn on PS2, Xbox and PC, but we probably won't have to wait that long to see some of its ideas at work. Knowing KCET, a certain amount of PES4's functionality will also make it in to Winning Eleven 8, which is due out in Japan this August, and you can bet we'll be importing that to have a look when it does come out. Until then, here's the first batch of official Pro Evolution Soccer 4 screenshots to enjoy...