Nine long years ago, back when the playing field for football videogames was flat, the annual battle for marketplace supremacy was entirely one-sided. EA’s FIFA series, which hadn’t been truly match-fit since its faultless SNES iteration back in 1995, had the funds, it had the licences, and until just previously it had the sales figures to match. But when Pro Evolution Soccer entered the fray in late 2001, itself an expansion of the International Superstar Soccer series which began on the SNES (but made its first truly indelible impression on the N64) everything changed.

That first Pro Evolution Soccer title heralded a monumental shift in tone and outlook, in how football games played and were received, and in 2003 (after two years of shrewd and plentiful refinement) those endeavours finally paid off with Pro Evolution Soccer 3, and the off-radar underdog finally shook off its anonymity and the series had its breakthrough; an all-encompassing word-of-mouth smash. To the hardcore justice had been done; and to the developers behind competitor EA’s competition, war had well and truly been waged.

Pro Evolution Soccer 2010 and its two immediate predecessors were stellar episodes to be sure, but the template, the formula that had been serving it so well for more than a decade, was faltering. FIFA wasn’t merely trying to be the best football videogame in the world, it also wanted to be the finest representation of the game as it existed in the real world, and in comparison Pro Evo was beginning to look somewhat fatigued. FIFA even worked as a spectator sport for non-devotees with its stunning visuals and 360-degree ball control, and for all its overall excellence, Pro Evo was never capable of making a similar claim.

Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 heralds the biggest transformation in the franchise’s history, and aims to offer what Konami are referring to as ‘Total Control’. The game now boasts 360-degree control over both the ball and your passing of it, so you can do things like pass to the right side of a right-footed player, to allow him to pick the ball up with his preferred foot. You can also play the ball into space with the pass button, and though the old through-ball command still exists, with the standard pass button you can now pick a specific spot on the pitch and deliberately over-hit it.

And whereas in previous instalments they only appeared when you were making a long pass or going in for a header, now power gauges are absolutely everywhere, giving you an unprecedented degree of distance and power control in every conceivable situation. Jostling has also been re-vamped, and whilst previously there was some contact involved that didn’t really affect the possessor’s run, if you go in hard in the 2011 iteration you’re capable of precipitating a stumble in your opponent; a situation that you are then free to use to your advantage.

Feint and trick skills now also form a large part of your attacking arsenal, in comparison with previous versions in which tricks were largely included to show off the fact that you were capable of pulling them off in the first place. They’re all simple and mostly involve pressing one shoulder button (on a 360 pad or DualShock) in conjunction with another button or direction on the right thumbstick. You are also able to set a preset of up to three saved feints, that you are able to pull off in rapid succession if you so wish.

Despite the fact that over 90% of the new player animations are completely new, this all still feels quintessentially Pro Evo. The visuals look incredibly slick and with a few months of development time still in the pipeline, in all probability they’ll be tweaked even further. The drag-and-drop simplicity of the new menu scheme will invite the previously apathetic to try their luck at hands-on team management, the ability to change the game’s running speed (from a possible five settings) can add an arcadey frisson if you want it, and one of Pro Evo’s inarguable, indefinable trademarks makes a glorious return: namely the thunderous rush you’ll endure when you a score a near-impossible 40 yard screamer which, for all their grandeur, the FIFA titles have never really managed to nail.

Hardened FIFA converts definitely shouldn’t underestimate the weight of Konami’s aspirations, and the zealots amongst them shouldn’t underestimate the deep well of goodwill that still exists for the franchise that brought realistic football and gaming together in harmony for arguably the very first time. This isn’t the Pro Evolution of old, and if you thought that it wasn’t broke then these mammoth fixes are only going to upset you. But for those of you who continue to search for the ultimate football videogame, don’t bet against the possibility of this one setting the closest landmark yet. It may come down to penalties come the end of the year, but the smart money should definitely not be placed elsewhere.

Watch the Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 trailer here…

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