They say the same thing every year. Pro Evolution Soccer is reborn! We've learned our lesson! We're not just slapping more lippy on the last PS2 version! So it's been quite painful to struggle through the last few releases. Last year's PES 2010 felt like a step in the right direction, but it was more tentative than it let on, building new layers of tactical customisation and a slightly improved range of movement onto what was fundamentally still the same creaky old game we loved five years ago.
PES 2011 is genuinely different and it's evident from the first kick-off. The new player models and animations aren't just an impressive iteration on last year's - they're a complete change. Players now move naturally in the majority of instances, and coupled with a greater range of directional movement the game is crisp and realistic.
Even the likenesses - the one area you'd perhaps cut Konami slack as it tries to revamp everything in the space of 12 months - are believable. Okay, Stephen Ireland looks like Jason Voorhees, but Fernando Torres looks like Fernando Torres and Wayne Rooney looks like Wayne Rooney, which must be a morale boost for the Konami team given that he's usually FIFA's cover athlete.
Development is clearly ongoing in some cases, as tackling still looks clumsy in places and the ball sometimes appears to be tied to sprinting players' boots by a short length of string, but it's fair to say that even at this early stage PES' graphical overhaul closes much more of the gap to the mature FIFA engine than we expected. It looks really good.
It's the same story in gameplay, although it's more of a work in progress. The power bar for passes and through balls creates a greater sense of control than in recent instalments, although there are still occasions when you feel the game is misjudging your intentions by passing to the wrong player.
The option to hold L2 and pass manually in any direction may be PES 2011's secret weapon, however, as once you get your head around it you find you are less reliant on the game to think for you. Why put yourself in the hands of the through-ball game logic when you can measure your own trajectory and pace of delivery?
Defending is another area that has seen studied change. Typically in PES (or FIFA) we hold the pressure button, or mash the secondary pressure button so that an AI player runs over to the ball carrier while you manually try to second-guess your opponent with the player under your direct control. There's also the jockey feature for holding attackers at bay. But in PES 2011, the direction you hold the left stick determines the kind of pressure you exert on the ball - holding it up, standing tall, or sticking a foot in.
To begin with it feels a little awkward to be pushing the stick toward your own goal while you're advancing up the pitch, but it becomes more natural with practice and feels like a simpler vocabulary of defending options in tight situations, allowing you to tailor your interventions to be cautious or aggressive as you want.
Ball physics are perhaps less finalised. At times on the default speed setting it feels like you're firing a beach ball around the ground, such are the sudden bursts of deceleration or ballooning effects of an overpowered shot. But it's most of the way there, and there's still time for Konami to play around with this. It certainly doesn't bobble around the way it has done in recent instalments.
There are other areas that still need work too - you still see rather a lot of successful diving headers on the end of hopeful crosses, for example, and the AI in particular is incomplete, with players ignoring the ball too often, allowing long, slow passes to reach their destination when they would be easy to intercept, or simply not noticing a ball bouncing loose nearby when they should.
But Konami was obviously keen for people to play the new PES early this year - in fact, this is the earliest we've ever been sent a copy of the game to hang onto, rather than having it brought down for an afternoon then removed again - and you do feel that's because the team is proud of these first steps toward reinvention. Rightly so, because while FIFA remains a slick and addictive juggernaut, PES 2011 is certainly back playing the same sport when some, myself included, had questioned whether Konami had the muscle to recover the deficit against its mammoth competitor.
PES 2011 isn't just an attempt to grab a handful of FIFA's shirt in the run-up to the next Christmas set-piece, however, and has a few tricks of its own as well. One of the more impressive could be this year's evolution of the pre-match planning screens, where players can customise formations to suit key players, design tactics that come into play in certain situations and bind their favourite feints and tricks to specific button combos.
Whereas FIFA's menus have become something of a quagmire in recent years, the learning curve for tweaking your team in PES is smoothing out. This year's mixture of drag-and-drop positioning and slider bars won't exactly have Don Norman revising his interface tome The Psychology of Everyday Things, but it is powerful and quite well thought out. Player stats increase considerably when you can accommodate individuals into their best positions, and the Team Style menu returns so you can change team behaviour in key situations.
For example, when a player retains the ball in midfield you can set your team to move up swiftly in support or hold their ground, and this year these slider tweaks are handily illustrated by movements on the top-down image of your line-up so you know what you're getting for your fiddling. Also, when you move players around on the little diagram of the pitch the game automatically adjusts their role - from DMF to CMF, for example - rather than expecting you to rummage around yourself.
Less subtle is the option to select tricks from long lists and map them to right stick movements. If you like the rainbow flick, for example, you can tell PES to use it whenever you hold L1 and push up on the right stick. You can even map four tricks to each stick direction so you can pull off actual combos.
When we discussed Konami's customisable trick system with the FIFA 11 team shortly after it was announced, FIFA producer David Rutter contested that showboating isn't something you want to make too big a deal out of, because it simply isn't present in tight professional games. It's more the sort of thing you see in kickabouts - hence its prevalence in FIFA Street.
It will take longer than a couple of days' play to discover whether he's right, of course, but early impressions are that the feint system is a little out of balance, allowing players to reproduce fancy manoeuvres all over the pitch with little prospect of losing the ball. Konami may need to adjust the timing so that it's more of a challenge to successfully complete these feints and dummies before release, although it remains an interesting tool to have in your arsenal.
Star Players, meanwhile, are lethal weapons. There are 15 such players in the game - Leo Messi being the most obvious one, while Ronaldo appears to be another - who are simply electric, darting through defence at high speed and turning quickly and magically even while you have the dash button pasted down.
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Commentators remarked when Ronaldo left Manchester United that manager Sir Alex Ferguson would need to field two new players in the Portuguese winger's position to make up the deficit, and the superhuman level of control and composure they were praising is evident in these top players in a way that alters the match. You find yourself seeking them out constantly and building strategies around them, while defending teams are forced to plan around them as well - exactly what would happen in real life, although it remains to be seen how it affects competitive multiplayer games over the long haul, especially online.
The feature that has left the greatest impression in our early match-ups though has been one of the simplest: the return of the Game Speed option. There are five speed settings in PES 2011, from the lumbering -2 to the zippy, frenetic +2, and they make a world of difference. Opportunities are much harder to fashion at slower pace, as players are given longer to dwell on the ball and marshal defences, while turnover is faster and tactics more aggressive at the other end of the spectrum. Top speed is our favourite; PES 2011 at top speed is more exciting than it has been since the end of the last console generation.
Granted, this build of PES 2011 is very rough around the edges, and in its present state it isn't going to knock FIFA off its perch immediately - even if the Online Master League, which we sadly couldn't test at the time of writing, turns out to be an online masterstroke. But given where we were even nine months ago, it's nice to walk away from our first forays into PES 2011 feeling optimistic about its prospects once Konami has massaged some polish into it.
It may not change the guard again this year, but the game is already fun and, for the first time in a long time, there are signs that Pro Evolution Soccer could be seriously competitive again within this generation.
Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 is due out for PC, PS2, PS3, PSP, Wii and Xbox 360 this autumn.