You have to feel for Konami. Even when it was the critics' favourite football game, Pro Evolution Soccer was still the plucky underdog - the Havant and Waterlooville of the games industry's FA Cup third round, scoring a couple of goals in front of the Kop and leaving with its head held high, even after getting pasted in the salesy second half. But things change, and they certainly have. PES 2009 was by no means a bad game, but its angular, sped-up one-dimensionality felt like a throwback next to the increased realism of EA's improving FIFA series, and the world gave it the hairdryer treatment. Back to the drawing board?
Our first, brief hands-on may not have suggested as much on the surface, but by the typically conservative standards of the PES series, the new Team Style and Player Card systems, not to mention the expanded range of directional control, were and are blue-sky, helicopter thinking. They've even removed the forcefield around throw-ins, allowing you to jostle and compete in a more natural manner. Imagine! Extended play on near-finished builds of the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions suggests these changes make a big difference. But all the same, the boys at EA Canada are anything but complacent. Will it be enough?
We won't be able to answer that for a while, but in the meantime we can give you a better sense of how Konami's revisions stack up. On the pitch, the developer is touting something akin to FIFA 10's 360-degree directional control, which would be about 45 times better than PES 2009's (or whatever 360 divided by eight actually is). In practice it doesn't feel as though you get that many degrees of response from the analogue stick when dribbling or playing the ball, but there's no denying that it's a dramatic departure from the fixed lines and diagonals of the past, and much closer to the effect achieved by EA Canada with last year's FIFA.
The vastly improved graphics engine helps here too, restoring humanity to the faces of the players thanks to something as simple as realistic lighting, and expanding the diversity and nature of animations considerably to accommodate the freer range of movement. There are still some work-in-progress horror shows (stand up Adebayor - actually, better sit back down again), but most players are suitably recognisable, and animations continue to reflect distinctive running and movement styles - one of PES' historical strengths. Overall the improvement is considerable, and 2009 is almost unrecognisable in contrast.
With the pace more measured, PES has crept back up from an abstract game derived from football to something more directly resembling what we see on TV. A lot of the little flicks and feints that used to require complex contortions of various sticks and button combos are now performed in-line too, and prove easier to commit to muscle memory. The result is a strong footballing foundation that respects intelligent use of space and tactical imagination on the pitch, and makes for a more deliberate, precarious feeling in control, punishing slips and spillages swiftly but seldom falling into predictable patterns.
Elsewhere Konami has tightened the AI, particularly goalkeepers, who can't be rounded so easily, with manual control returning for them as well. Keepers can also be unsighted, which helps you make more of free kicks and players with an aptitude for long-range drives. The overall first impression is that PES 2010 plays out like FIFA 09 without the bias towards pacy attackers, making for tight, competitive multiplayer matches.
Potentially just as worthy of applause is the increased transparency off the pitch, with a number of structural changes that allow you to understand and adjust players, positions and tactics without the need for laborious trial-and-error. Player Cards are individual characteristics, some of which highlight strengths such as reactions, touch and particular types of turn, while active cards can be switched on or off, or between several settings. Every player has a card for changing their attitude between defence-minded, attack-minded and balanced, but some of the better ones have adjustable specialties. Frank Lampard has a long-range shot toggle, for instance, which sees him moving into better positions to line himself up, while Luca Toni has a fox-in-the-box card and others can be encouraged to poach and set themselves for eye-of-a-needle passes. You ultimately need to step up to take advantage of their skills, but the cards work to help you.
Player Cards may be the most eye-catching element of the new PES - the kind of trademarkable bullet-point concept more typically associated with the old EA Sports - but Team Style is arguably the more broadly impactful, allowing you to fine-tune things like a team's compactness, how much support the team provides players advancing into the opposition half, the style of your defensive line and whether players will instinctively swap positions to mix it up. Superficially similar to FIFA's Custom Tactics, Team Style allows you to transform a team's behaviour in concert with the Player Cards, and this is likely to ease progress considerably when you're forced to withstand assaults from tougher teams by pressing harder and holding your ground in possession, for instance.
One of the quirks of our preview version is that a lot of the line-ups and formations have yet to be calibrated for release, so you fire up almost any team and discover players wildly out of position. This will be fixed by the time you can buy the game, but in the meantime it helps to highlight another significant change - the loss of the occasionally ambiguous skill pentagon in favour of a 1-100 player rating more akin, again, to FIFA. Individual players have a peak potential rating - Buffon is 95, for instance - but if you put them in a role they're not comfortable with, that drops off, so it's important to keep an eye on their preferred positions, highlighted on the same screen.
All of this is likely to help you back into the revitalised Master League, where there's a new Youth Team section for managing younger players and fast-tracking the best. Konami reckons the new menus should be easier for players to deal with, despite the volume of new options for things like sponsorship negotiations. Veterans of the Master League system may also be pleased to hear that you can qualify for and take part in the Europa League and Champions League, forcing you to deal with fixture congestion and other issues, although we didn't get that far during a week of testing (mostly because of my bitter, ongoing feud with the Eurogamer Expo's Tom Champion).
For all the game's seeming improvements, however, Konami must know that it has work to do to win back the core fans who finally took the plunge on FIFA last year, and PES 2010 will struggle to do so in one swoop no matter how much it reduces the quality gap. After a week at the controls, PES 2010 appears to play a game much closer to FIFA 09, with less of the latter's polish but a more quantifiable relationship between decisions on and off the pitch. However it stacks up in the final reckoning though, there's no question Konami has turned sharply away from the cul-de-sac into which the series appeared to be disappearing last year, and if nothing else PES 2010 looks like it will serve as a decent manifesto for the Japanese developer's future plans. The difficult question is whether it will be enough to see off EA Canada's own efforts, which we'll be considering in a thorough hands-on with a near-finished build tomorrow.
Pro Evolution Soccer 2010 is due out for PC, PS2, PS3, PSP, Wii and Xbox 360 this autumn.