Version tested Xbox 360
For a football game that once lived or died on the pitch, it's surprising to discover that PES 2010's most dramatic changes are to be found in the menus. Or at least it would be surprising, except nowadays we live in a world where dogs and cats play together, the FIFA games are recognised for their football simulation, and Robinho may be surplus to requirements because of Craig Bellamy.
Between them, Team Style, Player Cards, and a change in the way player skills are represented on the line-up screen, sound about as exciting as Wayne Rooney's haircut. But they rip the lid off a lot of PES voodoo. Back in the old days, squeezing the most out of 11 players meant studying endless statistics and being able to decipher skills pentagons at a glance. Withdrawing the pentagons in favour of numbers may seem regressive (and it would be nice to see the former brought back as an optional extra), but it does mean you can spot tactical errors and players out of position in a split second while surveying the whole team.
Player Cards, meanwhile, let you burrow down and uncover a particular player's unique attributes, like pinpoint passing, or poaching, and you can even toggle certain behaviours, expanding your range of tactical options considerably. Team Style, for its part, lets you adjust the team as a whole, most helpfully in how much it keeps its shape and its response to common situations. For people who have played PES forever, it's a useful trio of changes, which makes it easier to perform complex surgery on your team quickly and at very little cost to the game as a whole. For inquisitive newcomers, it's a warm embrace.
It's not the only welcome sign in a game that looked like it might be on its last legs this time last year. The UEFA Champions League is back, but the presentation is much more impressive (slicker than the main game's, actually), and it and the Europa League are now integrated in the Master League, which remains the superior option to FIFA's rival Manager Mode (unless they fix it, anyway). There's also a new "Community" area, where you can keep track of local games between you and your friends, rather than just bouncing off Exhibition mode all the time, although the latter is tempting anyway since it's quicker to start a match, with a much simpler interface.
On the pitch, PES 2010 still feels like it's running on rails rather than flowing freely in any direction, but there are more rails and the degrees of separation are smaller, allowing you to run around and turn with the ball in ways that provide greater versatility, and make it less likely your opponent will simply be able to guess what you're doing. The graphics engine has received a big boost too, with much-improved player likenesses (some, like People's Hero Steven Gerrard, are now more uncanny than Uncanny Valley). Nobody would struggle to spot the common genes by staring at PES 2009 and 2010 side by side, but in many respects the transition is as night to day (although they didn't have to take that quite so literally by saturating the right-hand penalty area in glare during daytime matches).