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.
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.