Pro Evolution Soccer 2011
We all know how it works by now. Successful sports titles settle on a blueprint, then eke out teeny-tiny changes year after year while trying to convince you they've re-invented the wheel. It's just the way the world works.
As such, it's usually pretty difficult for the champion of a particular virtual sport to fall from grace. For every incremental improvement the underdog makes, the title-holder is always one step ahead. Unless something dramatic happens, the status quo remains.
In the case of football games, Pro Evolution Soccer was that champion. For around a decade, the Konami-developed title trumped arch-rival FIFA in the gameplay stakes. Always the more sophisticated choice, PES' substance continually outgunned FIFA's style.
Then something dramatic happened. In 2008 FIFA stormed to the top of the league, leaving PES to stagnate in mid-table respectability. Indeed, the reversal of fates has been so profound you wonder if PES can ever regain its crown.
By now all this is a familiar story. But it bears repeating. The two series have long been defined in relation to each other, and PES' fall from grace is remarkable. With such a rich heritage, and such expectation, Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 arrives with a lot of baggage.
So, is this latest PES a FIFA beater? Well, no, not yet. But aware of their recent immobility, Konami have ripped up the past and started all over again. The result is a refreshed offering that provides a glimpse of potential future glories. Maybe, just maybe, a comeback is on the cards.
At the heart of the game's rejuvenation is the passing. Thanks to a nicely implemented 360 degree system, coupled with a workable power bar, the smoothness with which you move the ball around the pitch can be immensely satisfying.
While the physics of the ball itself are a little weightless, being able to accurately and deftly thread passes to the precise spot you intended, with the force you intended, is a massive improvement. Especially as your teammates' movement towards the ball works surprisingly well.
It may seem like a minor victory, but it compares favourably with the alternatives. Neither manhandling your pass in the direction of the nearest player, nor allowing the ball to roll past teammates as they stroll on oblivious, it provides a nice bridge between the two.
So, with the right application, you can slip the ball around in nippy Barca-esque triangles until your heart is content. Just don't go expecting to craft many goals out of it. That's because as you venture into the final third, the opposition's defenders do a decent job of closing you down, harrying you and impeding that beautifully crafted wonder goal. You can set up a customisable series of feints to the right stick in order to shrug them off, but scoring is no easy task.
This is accentuated by some frustrating shooting. Despite the 360 degree control offered in passing, the same doesn't seem to apply to shooting. You'll be sticking shots wide, or ballooning them over the bar when you'll (loudly) swear you had it just right. Annoying.
What all this amounts to is a free-flowing game of football for the most part, but one that is marked by low-scoring games. Every goal is a treasured prize. Fitting yes, but perhaps for the wrong reasons.
Framing the on-pitch action is a solid set of options, modes and fiddly bits. As ever, Master League is the pick of the bunch, allowing you to create and manage your own team according to an engaging mix of transfer shenanigans and Football Manager-lite player development. You can either chose an existing squad or make one from scratch, crafting your own stadiums and drafting in past masters alongside your own Be A Legend players, with the ultimate aim being to rise to pinnacle of world football.
PES 2011 builds on this with the addition of online Master League play, pitting you against real world players. Breathing new life into the mode, it's a much overdue addition.
Be A Legend is the other familiar flagship mode, though one that you will perhaps be less happy to devote your time to. Placing you in control of a single player over the course of his career, such is your reliance on the slightly shonky AI of your teammates, you can find yourself frustrated by them when you don't have the ball, then equally frustrated by their movement when you do.
License-wise, PES has has and will always remain FIFA's poor relative, though a smattering of teams and players have been added from around the world, as well the Copa Libertadores and the UEFA Super Cup tournaments. Joining the Champions League and the Europa League licenses are Spurs and Bayern Munich, for instance, but elsewhere it's business as usual with the likes of Obafemi Mayukins (Martins) and London FC (Chelsea).
Player likenesses, meanwhile, have received a significant bump in quality. In the more star-studded leagues, at least. Top stars such as Rooney and cover-star Messi measure up to anything FIFA can offer, though in truth, as with many sports titles, there is a touch of the grotesque about some of the models.
With this in mind it's a shame that the animation is so poor. Kicks resulting in either soft or hard shots often appear the same, throw-ins look a little odd and the transitions are rough. Perhaps a by-product of Konami rebuilding from the ground up, the signs are that this aspect of the game was rushed to completion. We expect better next year.
Which is pretty much a sentiment you could extend to the entire package. We expect better next year. But rather than being a statement born from frustration at a game unwilling to address its deficiencies, as in recent iterations, this time around it's something we say with real hope.
Because above all that's what PES 2011 leaves us with. There is the core of a great game here, the spine of a title-challenging team. And, to extend the tired analogy, all Konami have to do is make a couple of star signings, ship out the dead wood, and soon, maybe, glory could be theirs once more. Pro Evolution's narrative may yet have another twist.