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PES 2012

Form is temporary, class is permanent.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

Once upon a time, before EA Sports hired the Top Men who masterminded FIFA's revival in the late 2000s, our football-gaming lives were all about Pro Evolution Soccer, and the arrival of each new instalment was the equivalent of what cracking the seal on the tomb of Tutankhamen would have been to archaeologists - except we got to do it annually. Twice annually, if we had chipped PS2s and imported versions of Japanese sister-series Winning Eleven, which of course we did.

Thanks in part to the Konami development team's remoteness and the huge language barrier, new instalments - even of PES, which was made pretty much exclusively for the series' large European audience - often arrived with only ambiguous fanfare, and it was left to gamers to decipher the hieroglyphic subtleties encoded beneath the sands of physics tweaks and improved visuals.

Since FIFA has been top dog, all that has changed. New instalments of EA's series are preceded by detailed descriptions of every new feature, usually badged up by buzz-phrases like "Personality Plus".

I haven't played FIFA 12 yet - although Martin and Nick have both had a crack on it - but I feel like I know it already. The spine of the game is very similar to the robust but slightly soulless FIFA 11, but with a much greater emphasis on the physicality of the players and their interactions, plus "precision dribbling" and "tactical defending", all of which are quite easy to visualise based on the descriptions.

In stark contrast, picking up PES 2012 has been like going back to a more innocent time. It's unpredictable, experimental, and just when you think you've got your head around everything the Konami PR pops up in your email inbox with a PDF of new controls from Japan that you might not have noticed buried in the menus - like the ability to direct off-the-ball runs and burst-run in different directions by holding combinations of the shoulder buttons and bumpers.

Visually the character models are coming on nicely and the moody lighting gives the game a distinctive appearance.

The first thing you notice though is the absence of problems you didn't want to notice last time. At a basic level PES 2012 is a much better rounded and more finished game than last year's first stab at a proper reboot for the series.

Last year, the ball seemed able to travel halfway across the pitch without anyone bothering to stick out a leg to intercept it, even when they were clearly within reach. This year you seldom find yourself questioning the AI of computer-controlled teammates or opponents in the same situation - if the ball wasn't good enough to reach the man it was sent to, it will generally be intercepted.

Similarly, while ball physics remain a little rough around the edges, you feel much more in control when you're dribbling – at least to the extent that you would expect to be in control. A great example of this is in one of the training challenges (of which more later), where you have to navigate between cone gates: it's hard to move at speed and master the constant changes of direction because the ball is permanently on the edge of your ability to control it, just as it should be.

Schneider does his best Voldemort impression.

Passing and movement in general is fast and precarious compared to FIFA's precise and almost contemplative build-up play - especially if you like playing with the game speed settings - although it's a lot harder to simply race down the wings and score from a ball crossed onto a header.

Squeezing a dramatic shot out of a tight situation feels like a feat of clever passing and close control, and while those situations seem slightly more likely to occur in Konami's game than they do in FIFA, that's partly because you feel like you're always stretching a leg out to remain in control, playing close to the edge of your abilities – rather than just being shut down by defensive harrying and the indiscriminate collision detection from the physics engine blocking your every punt.