For those of you new to football sims let me start by giving a quick history lesson. For the best part of eight years Pro Evolution Soccer was the undisputed king of football games, consistently wiping the floor with its main rival - EA Sports' FIFA - year after year, version after version. However, in 2008 the tide finally turned. FIFA did what had seemed impossible and rose to the top of the football gaming charts both critically and commercially.
After so many clear victories it seemed PES had gotten too cocky with their aura of invincibility (why else would they think they could get away with that Football/Soccer soundtrack in the '08 game). The next two years was seen as a rebuilding phase and now, with PES 2011, the company spoke of a return to its former glory. The truth is, we do get something better but the former king is far from back on the throne.
Let's start with the gameplay - the business end of any football sim. First and foremost there is still the same irritating PES trait of things happening in the game that do not make sense, such as a pass going past three players without one of them bothering to stick out a leg. The passing system is generally better than before and there is a need for a cool head and precision when building attacks but all too often it feels your moves are thwarted more by poor game dynamics then classy defending.
For those used to FIFA it has to be pointed out that PES still falls very short in terms of matching it for realism; the feel that you are playing an authentic game of football is often lost. The crowd chants and commentary is plastic and at times feels glitchy - after smashing in a goal with Rooney, Jon Champion exclaims "and Man Utd take the lead", the only problem being that I was now 4-0 up and had been in the lead for the previous 70 minutes.
A major issue that some gamers will have is the eternal PES problem of having to play with unlicensed teams. London FC vs Man Blue will not be acceptable for a lot of people and compares extremely unfavourably with the depth of 'real' teams that FIFA has to offer. The number of licensed teams has risen but the ability to play as Getafe and Lecce won't exactly lead to street parades and knighthoods. Having the official UEFA competitions is good but I'd take real names, kits, badges etc over being able to play the 'official' Super Cup match any day of the week.
In terms of tournaments and competitions, the Master League is upgraded and is still one of the games strongest selling points. You now have the option of being able to play it online which means wheeling and dealing against other players in the transfer market to build the world's greatest team whilst also taking care of business on the pitch.
Visually, the stadiums look stunning and the graphics stay true to what made PES what it was in the glory days. The soundtrack is a lot more questionable and at times you could be forgiven for thinking you're to step inside the octagon for some MMA rather than a football match.
PES 2011 is a better effort and is fun for the most part (it's football after all!) but is probably more of a challenge to last year's FIFA 10 than the current FIFA 11.