After the disappointing Pro Evolution Soccer 2009 (360 and PS3) gave us a grazing kick to the ball bags, we've been hoping that the Wii translation would finally give us something to smile about, especially after last year's version proved to be the only genuinely innovative offering from the otherwise ailing series.
Kicking things off are some much-needed improvements to defending. If you played last year's version you'll recall that pilfering the ball from an opponent was about as easy as tackling Ronaldo with your left ankle taped to your forehead, resulting in the kind of bloated scorelines usually reserved for an under-7's football tournament.
That's all changed. When an opposition player has the ball, your nearest player automatically closes in, though you're still able to fine-tune their approach with the control stick. Once your player is close enough you can suck them towards the ball and begin jostling for possession by holding down 'Z'. You can also drag a second defender into the action in order to double up on an opponent. These additions make tight marking and combative defending far easier than they were twelve months ago.
Another nifty skill is the ability to intercept passes. By first man-marking an opponent and then pressing the desired direction on the d-pad, you can make your defender run forward and cut out a pass to a front man. It's certainly a useful trick, though the necessity to shift your grip up the Wiimote with perfect timing to jab the d-pad, coupled with the necessity for a near-precognitive anticipation of the opposition's pass suggests that this is one feature still in need of refinement before release. Pressing the d-pad even a split second after the pass has been made currently results in your player failing to intercept the ball.
For any Wii PES virgins, a word of warning: you're going to need to spend some time learning how the controls work before you can start playing in earnest, because this is a very different experience to 360 and PS3. While you can navigate individual players with the control stick, you can also use the Wiimote to point to the team-mate or area of the pitch you want to pass to. You can also control off-the-ball runs of other players in a similar manner. Thankfully newcomers will be able to turn to the five excellent training camps, which teach you the majority of tricks and skills you need to master if you're to stand any chance of outfoxing the AI, which itself is looking slightly sharper. Players on both sides also seem to embark on more intelligent runs without requiring as much direct prompting from your darting Wiimote.
Another change is PES 2009's refined shooting system. Once you see the whites of a keeper's eyes you now have two options: use a five-knuckle nunchuk shuffle to make your player fire in on goal, or pick a spot with the Wiimote and then hold down 'B' to determine the power of the shot, which is far more satisfying. Showboaters will be happy to know that you can also draw out the goalkeeper and then attempt to dink the ball over his flailing limbs.
Complementing the improved defensive and attacking controls are several other neat tricks, including the ability to give and go and play one-twos. Admittedly, mastering these took some practice, though perseverance eventually led to pinging the ball around with impressive accuracy. Executing a give-and-go involves point dribbling with the player in possession and then pointing the Wiimote at another player while holding down B and Z. By releasing the B button, you can take this manoeuvre one step further as the receiving player passes the ball back into the original player's path in one fluid movement.
Free-kicks are also worth mentioning. By pressing up or down on the control stick you can define whether to shoot to the left or right corner of the goal. This is followed by a nunchuk swing to make the shooter's boot connect with the ball. Granted, it's a simplistic system, with player stats dictating shot success rather than your own skill, but with goals and shots-on-target far more commonplace than with the frustratingly oversensitive dead-ball shooting mechanisms of the 360 and PS3 versions, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. When defending free-kicks, you also get a chance to position your goalkeeper before the kick is taken, which again is simplistic but fun. Corners are more of a problem, as placing pinpoint crosses onto a player's noggin is currently far too easy, resulting in a torrent of headed goals from corner kicks. Here's hoping this is sorted before release.
While PES 2009 is still being refined, the game is clearly on course to deliver on many of the developer's promises, with a more realistic rendition of the beautiful game seemingly in store. And with the addition of a second control system for co-op play, which allows one player to drag players into space with the Wiimote while a second controls individuals players, the scope for multiplayer entertainment also has the potential to exceed its predecessor.
There's also plenty to look forward to off the pitch, such as the welcome addition of Master League, which is looking much the same as its PS3 and 360 cousins: pick a team, improve your existing players, earn points, buy new players and gun for promotion. Also debuting is the UEFA Champions League, which takes the format you'd expect (group stage followed by two-leg knockout ties) and comes replete with the obligatory official theme tune, rolling ball of stars logo and crap ITV-style intro. And if you enjoyed it last year, you'll no doubt be pleased that Champions Road has renewed its Wii PES membership. Player likenesses appear to be as hit-and-miss as ever: for every lifelike Messi there's a popcorn-haired Kuyt, while in true PES tradition, commentary remains as irritatingly inaccurate as ever.
Despite a smattering of problems, there's plenty of promise here, with numerous new features combining to good effect. If the few remaining bugbears can be ironed out before release then PES fans the world over may finally have something to smile about again.