Do you know football? Konami knows football. Pro Evolution Soccer 3 is the ultimate fan's game. With a proper appreciation of the controls and the right players, PES3 makes it possible to sculpt opportunities out of opposing defences like the finest strikers in the world, without enduring the years of hard graft and rubbish hairstyles.
You won't just play "a bit" like them, either, with beaming photomapped faces and flapping, ape-like limbs. No. PES3 challenges you to pay attention to movement, just like a real footballer, and mix individual flair - like Zidane's 360-degree spin, or little flicks and feints - with an ability to capitalise on your team-mates' creative thinking.
You'll have to try and remember all of the things your mate's Dad told you when he managed your role in the local under-12s. Pass and move. Don't bunch. Look up. Hold the line. Get goal side. You simply won't keep the ball, let alone break down defences and trouble the goalkeeper, if you can't get your head round the fundamental tactics of the sport - particularly on the higher skill levels, where every mistimed tackle or vacuum in midfield is likely to work against you.
Even if you reckon you know the game like a well-chewed orange, you won't find it easy. Don't expect to run up ten-nothing scorelines in PES3 - ever. This isn't FIFA. Victories are hard fought, the team is more important than the individual, and anything is possible [except 10-0 scorelines, presumably -pedantic Ed]
A precocious talent
Take the following situation for an example. Earlier this evening, I was playing a game against Villa. Not too tough, Villa, you'd think, particularly playing as Arsenal, whose combined players represent the toughest team in the game - according to the finely tuned stats. But having decided to give Ashley Cole a run down the wing, the faster but less controllable of the two sprint buttons (R1) clutched firmly, a well-timed challenge from fan favourite Alpay meant that Vassell was able to ghost in on the left side of my defence and slide the ball past the onrushing (triangle) keeper. 1-0 down. Bollocks.
Glory-hunting. It's a tactic you can get away with in other football games, but PES3 will often penalise you for it. In fact, it took a string of passes following a botched Villa free kick to put Thierry Henry on the end of a through ball (triangle), culminating in a lofted (L1) shot (square) which arced into the back of the net.
Like a real football player, my success kept the momentum going. Instead of rushing up the field with the ball and thumping it comfortably along an invisible rail into the top corner, my brown-shirted opposition were rattled, losing it before they could get out of their own half and having to put a lot of men deep to reduce Pires' efforts down the right wing to a corner. By switching to an attacking stance, I was able to push them even harder, and they were in no state to exploit my back line playing halfway up the field.
Then another situation alien to other football titles erupted - a frantic, believable goalmouth scramble. Having played a short corner ("We never score from short ones!"), Arsenal lost the ball, but an attempted clearance merely rebounded off a flinching Wiltord, and bobbled around in the box for a few seconds as a myriad bodies piled in trying to plant a decisive toe-end. Seconds later, it was over - the ball, having cannoned off Bergkamp as the goalkeeper hoofed at it desperately, sat up invitingly for Henry, who sent it skipping off the crossbar like a stone with a scorching volley.
Dual Shocks for goalposts
It is fast-paced. It is engaging. It is (mostly) realistic. The ball is its own object, played to footballers on the move, connecting with shins; sliding out of play on the end of a well-timed (and only a well-timed) slide tackle, or being kept in by a sliding, sweeping left foot; bending in the air; ricocheting this way and that, and maintaining its momentum. To harness it, you'll have to remember your player's preferred foot, as he'll try and use it to the point of fudging a perfectly good opportunity, and master an array of buttons used to add height, remove pace, turn fluently and shoot on the move.
One new addition is the expanded role of the R3 button. The aforementioned 360-degree spin is possible by rotating the stick in a circle as you move. Assuming you're not controlling a total dunderhead clutz (and no, I'm not going to make an Emile Heskey joke - he'd be good if they'd learn how to use him) with rubbish stats, then you'll probably manage to pull this audacious move and, with a bit of practice, use it to slide past defences. There are all sorts of other moves to master on R3, including some useful short-range chips and other skills.
But although you will have to learn all manner of button combinations to thrive - to play crosses into the near or far post, to play a looping rather than a swooping chip, to dink the ball when the keeper is committed, to have a pair of defenders charge down an attacker, or to master the game's hundreds of other subtleties - the rewards are definitely worth it, and each skill becomes a vital aspect of your game.
Take free kicks for example. You can (and I do) spend hours practicing these - working out how much power to give a shot based on the distance, how to hold the analogue stick or D-pad to give a shot the best shape in the air, how to bend it with aftertouch, or add that final squirt of venom just before the strike. Developing a knack for scoring free kicks won't get net you a Spice Girl, millions of pounds and kids named after famous cities, but you'll have something that a lot of players don't.
[Shopping? Do a 'Footballer's Wives' joke! -Ed]
Of course, much of this could be said of last year's outing, but although it looks very similar, PES3 has been vastly expanded, on and off the pitch, in gameplay and structure. The PES-Shop, for example, where you can spend points earned by winning matches (even those "let's stick it on for a 10-minute exhibition before going out" matches) on extra players, teams, custom challenge options, high speed modes, or exotic stadia (or not so exotic, if you'd like to play on the fern-lined training pitch).
And how about the Master League, now split into four regions, with a Champions League-style competition, an expanded transfer system and a greater emphasis on training up young players? You can even pick one of two completely made-up teams (WE and PES United) to customise to your own tastes. PES3 clearly needs Brighton & Hove Albion - pre-relegation and managerial desertion, obviously, with Bobby Zamora still on our side, sniff. And with options for altering kits, faces, skills and just about anything else, this year it's eminently doable - with no need to sacrifice an existing team! PES3 even has eight-player double multi-tap support, and fixes some interface issues - like letting you switch sides mid-game, or change teams without exiting out and starting over.
But of course the key to PES' success over the stat-heavier FIFA is what happens on the field, and particular the exquisitely rendered and animated players. At ECTS in 2002, the legendary Dino Dini told me that he didn't much care for games that 'fill the gaps' between button presses with an approximation of what the players would actually do, but PES gets it so right it's difficult to envisage a superior alternative. You may not be in absolute control of every limb, shoulder, haircut or curl of foot, but when you sweep the ball in to Raul on the edge of the box, charge up a shot and watch him fire it into the top corner of the net, or tug the R2 button and pull your player back towards the action as he reaches a bouncing ball, only to see him flick it over his shoulder and take off in the other direction, it is what you wanted.
It's the little details in the animation that really make it stand out from the crowd, like the way the striker arches his neck to one side and thrusts it goalwards to drive the ball past the keeper, the way the midfielder opens his body to put in a curling delivery, or the way the keeper gets behind a drive and sprawls his legs out to absorb the pace. Unlike other football games which are driven by the spectacular, PES3's visuals are driven by realism. This is what football - and footballers - genuinely look like, albeit with a bit more detail on close-ups. Sensible Soccer or Kick-Off may have been fun, but this is the actual sport.
Don't poke me in the nose!
Elsewhere on the field, referees are allegedly improved for PES3, playing the advantage rule (even if they don't generally pull the play back, ever, and the addition of handball is arbitrary to the point of frustration), volleys are much more dynamic and dangerous, players don't stand around as much, and - perhaps the most important improvement over PES2 - the ball doesn't pinball around the midfield when legs are flying, thanks in part to the expansive range of abilities available to each player.
R2 has always been a useful tool for PES fans, allowing a clever player to dart left or right of a defender and outrun them to the penalty box, but, having dumped RenderWare and moved over to a proprietary engine, Konami is in the mood for showing off its animation skills, and R2 proves just the vehicle, opening the door to backheels, cunning little jigs and the sort of first-touch control that distinguishes top flight teams. By studying the manual, you'll quickly discover even more tricks, like the various dribbling options, and seven different individual stopovers and kick feints.
Beyond the tricks, the animation at large captures the essence of the players so perfectly that even their limbs seem to move distinctively. Henry seems to float over the turf with a delicate grace, Damien Duff almost staggers past defenders where other men would snap like matchsticks, whilst Beckham's characteristic acceleration and aggression are clear to see, as is the way he opens his body and leans a long way over to achieve all that curl. More than just vacuous automatons, each player has a style and temperament of his own, too. Gerrard, for example, will lash in with furiously speedy challenges, even if some of them don't connect in quite the right place...
And unlike a lot of other footy titles, you'll know when you've fouled someone, or when you've been fouled, and you'll feel rightfully aggrieved if the game gets it wrong - penalising you as the ball is cleanly swept away, or allowing play to go on as your star striker falls over an outstretched leg and lands flat on his face. Because the range of animations for every aspect of the game is so good, it seems to paint a more accurate picture than even the referee. It doesn't hurt that they've managed to bag virtually all the actual player names, either, except for a few (the Welsh and Dutch seem to have gone for some odd approximations), although we often recognised players by their style and movement alone in the Japanese versions. A few more club names wouldn't have gone amiss though - we're pleased to see some Italian clubs given the proper treatment, but we definitely want more next time. And how about some up-to-date info, beyond Beckham moving to Madrid? Why is Seaman still keeping for Arsenal? Etc.
Ultimately, whether or not you buy PES3 comes down to just one question: do you like football? If the answer is 'yes', then you need this. You need it more than you need oxygen. You need it more than you need us to win next year in Portugal (or, depending on where you're from, more than you need the Dutch or Russians to spontaneously renounce football). Obviously there is still room for improvement; we long to be able to stand still in PES and do something audacious to get the game going again, to bunny hop between a pair of defenders with the ball between our feet, to hold the ball up at the corner flag or shield it out for a goal kick, to charge down a free kick, to stick the boot in after being shown a red card, to take a penalty without cursing the randomness, to play it online - but until PES4 comes around, we don't think anything is going to come closer to the beautiful game as the fans know it than this.
The only clarification necessary is for people who own the Japanese Winning Eleven 7. Unlike last year's transition from WE6 to PES2, which was like watching a fast-paced but largely goalless cartoon morph into a serious but sodding boring pinball table, there is no massive change to note here - just the ability to read the text, and a bit of European commentary. On the latter, we still went to turn it off after a couple of hours, but they're getting there. Basically, fans of Beckham eager to slot him into the Madrid setup will want this, as will those of us without a decent working knowledge of the Japanese language, but the rest of you might want to pick up a demo to try and pick out the changes.
Pro Evolution Soccer 3 is the beautiful game. No other videogame has ever captured the framework of the sport so completely, and ground its subtlest qualities between the vector units of Darth Vader's toaster, as this season's edition of the game. Anyone with an appreciation of football simply must own this.