It has only ever been a two-horse race, but Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer series has recently seemed like it was on the cusp of completely bowing out of it. With EA’s FIFA franchise having spent the past three years going from strength to strength, and landing this year at something that feels almost definitive, Pro Evo’s continual desire to cling to the fundamentals of its last-gen heyday made less sense than ever. PES 2009 and 2010 were perfectly enjoyable and had terrific online functionality, but all of their innovations were simultaneously shrewd and minor, turning a game of Pro Evo into something that felt like a terribly antiquated pursuit.

Cynics may have suggested that it’d take a miracle, but as it turns out a fresh perspective and some totally unselfconscious retooling was all that was required. Pro Evo 2011 is the real deal – a full-bodied reboot that feels as if it could only have emerged during the current console generation. It looks tremendous, but those razor-sharp visuals are by far the least impressive aspects of it. Once upon a time, Pro Evo was always the discerning connoisseur’s first port of call because it was far closer to being a full-tilt simulation than an arcade game; a fact that recent iterations appeared to have entirely forgotten.

Fully getting to grips with this year’s game is going to involve both time and graft. Perhaps the first things you’ll notice are the curvaceous, colourful new power bars, which are everywhere. You’ll clock these immediately after kick-off because they now pop up alongside almost every action, including long and short passes. The fresh nature of this new ‘Precision Passing’ means that at first it’s incredibly easy to over or under hit every pass that you make, but getting used to the delicacy of the mechanic will probably only take a couple of offline matches at most. After that, it’s all about modifying your game to make the most of all available open spaces.

The outright lack of assistance of any kind is extremely refreshing. You’ll curse the screen frequently during your first few hours, but whatever inspires your grief will only ever have been your own stupid fault. Even simply keeping possession involves precision and timing, and if your concentration dips you’ll instantly lose your mojo. Watching two top-level players going head-to-head at this is probably destined to be as tense and exciting as watching two pros take eachother on at Street Fighter IV. As the battleground for a post-pub battle of wits, PES 2011 is looking like something of a hardcore classic.  

The menus are once again elegant and uncluttered (a department in which Pro Evo has always outdone FIFA) and the much derided ‘ping-pong passing’ that is now a thing of the past in FIFA, is also resigned to the bin here. The tone of play is generally much more measured, and Konami seem to have realised that Pro Evo’s previous desire to be the most relentlessly fast-paced football game on the market, often sacrificed a great deal of gameplay depth. And whilst Pro Evo continues to soldier on without the wall-to-wall licenses that FIFA has, this still only serves to make everything more charming, and should only be considered a deal breaker to those few people who are dangerously obsessed with the real-world sport.  

The ever-popular Master League mode returns in rude health, now fully online, and as furiously compelling as ever. The new ability to customise your own set of tricks and feints is inspired, and pulling them off is a whole lot easier to do than it is in FIFA, even though many of them involve the use of both thumbsticks instead of just one. Become a Legend is back too, and the rock-solid online component – so often the primary reason for many people investing in Pro Evo every year – is as sturdy and well-pitched as it always has been. And there is something organic and oddly noble about its attitude to the game; bereft of FIFA’s uber-trendy soundtrack and sexed up viewpoint (inspired by contemporary advertising as much as anything else) Pro Evo is much more about grass-roots classicism. The goal posts aren’t jumpers and oranges don’t appear at half time, but the appearance of such things wouldn’t surprise.

And if you’re looking for the kind of experience that has the power to make you simultaneously leap from your seat and hurl one fist into the air, then Pro Evolution Soccer still, even after all these years, has no equal. The 2011 iteration may be best described as a rethink, but everything that made you fall in love with it in the first place is still here. The last two iterations of Pro Evo may not have come off too well when placed beside the might of FIFA, but PES 2011 considerably shortens that qualitative gap; so much so that is isn’t hard to envisage its complete non-existence in a couple of short years time.

This never-ending battle for supremacy between FIFA and Pro Evo is finally bringing the very best out of both franchises, and you’re a winner regardless of which one you plump for. Both series’ are steadily taking things in commendably varied directions, and both can be picked up and instantly understood (and enjoyed) by anyone; but mastering each title brings its own unique strain of invigorating rewards. The contest is sure to get even more interesting over the next couple of years, but make no mistake – it’s plenty interesting already.

Watch the Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 trailer here:

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