Owning a copy of Winning Eleven is a bit like the secret handshake in the Masons. If you chat to someone about footie games, the chances are that you've both played Pro Evo - but the bigger man, the one who proves he's hardcore and 'in the know' is the one that owns the 'modified' PS2 hardware to play Japanese games and uses it to play the latest Winning Eleven. These fans import Konami's Japanese episodes in the long months before the next PES arrives. And like us, it's these people that notice the finer details within minutes of kicking off, be it 'oh, look the players eyes move during replays' or 'wow, that lobbed through ball feels much better than last time'. They'll even be able to flick through confusing Japanese text menus in the blink of an eye. This is the next PES... now! But although there are bags of new features and tweaks to sing about, the latest instalment feels a bit like the round-up part of Match Of The Day 2 - you've seen most of it before.
Now don't get us wrong, Winning Eleven 10 is a damn fine footie game, but compared to the way the gameplay has evolved over previous episodes, this doesn't have the same steep learning curve. You don't get the same satisfaction, for example, as you did perfecting a halfway line lob in Winning Eleven 8 - instead WE10 enhances the skills you've already learned by booting out flaws from past seasons. How so? Well, Konami have dulled the trajectory of chip shots, which makes it easier to dink the ball over stranded keepers (hooray!) and they've honed the dribbling to allow tricky players like Ronaldinho and Henry to hotstep through defences - which you'll agree is long overdue. They've even tweaked the passing system to allow you much more varied passage to goal. So now, Gerrard can fire laser-guided long balls around the pitch without that helium balloon loftiness of old, and defence-splitting through passes are as cutting as robot surgeon. Even the compulsory new tricks - although they work fine - feel as though we've used them before. Take the Matthew's Feint - if you remove the sleight of foot, it's essentially the shoulder drop of old with some fancy legwork added on. It looks nice, but it's not really adding anything except style. Then there's the 'new' drag-back (inspired by the world's ugliest footballer, Ronaldinho), it's actually just a normal drag-back, but with more fl air in the execution. OK, we're nit-picking, but maybe concentrating on the fumbling keepers - who often struggle with shots that come straight at them - may have been time better spent?
Grumbles and cosmetic enhancements aside (oh, did we mention some of the most scarily realistic player models we've ever seen?) WE10 has all the thrills of real football - but you knew that already. But at first it does feel tricky. The number of times we've hit the post and bar is frustratingly high (a record eight times in one match, would you believe?) but this can happen in football so we'll let that slide. Soon you'll be powering home headers (complete with new leaping animations),curling pinpoint accurate drives into the top corner and unleashing staggering volleys as the ball drops over your player's shoulder. And now it doesn't seem so likely to always try a daft header from 30 yards out when you're gearing up for a rocket shot and you'll be gasping in awe as your little fellas shape up for dazzling scissor kicks from audacious angles. Whether it goes in is another question entirely, mind.
The aforementioned passing game requires even more precise judgement and positioning than earlier games. Try to play a pass while off-balance and your intended recipient will have to backpedal to get anywhere near it - desperately lunging for the ball and heightening their risk of being hospitalised by a tough tackle. And while we're on the subject, you'll need to be precise with tackles as one slip could leave you as stranded as the cast of Lost. But once you master the passing game - which won't take long - you'll be stroking it around like Arsenal at their most fluid. It really is that good, although pinball-esque scrimmages are commonplace in congested areas, thanks to the ball physics being more lifelike than ever.