Pro Evo has been in a state of flux these past three seasons. And when we say 'flux', we mean it's been arrogantly wallowing in its past glories, slipping ever further into disrepair while FIFA sneaks up behind it and throat-punches it.
Not that legendary producer Seabass Takatsuka seems to be too worried. After all, we've all been weaned on a diet of PES for who knows how long, snapping up each fresh instalment with zombie-like compliance. Except (and especially as far as some PS3 owners were concerned) last term's scrappy iteration was the straw that tore Fernando Torres' hamstring... so to speak. Indeed, Pro Evo 2008 echoed many of the worries we've been voicing in general about many 'next gen' Japanese games; that is, they're not so much pushing gameplay boundaries as simply whacking a tin of pretty paint all over the screen and yodelling 'ta da!'.
Alas, and it positively hurts us to tell you this, when it comes to the crunch PES 2009 - far from being a proper next gen kickabout - is largely same old, same old. Much like this season's FIFA, while it's still a great game it's also a massive disappointment. The engine is the same, some of the old flaws have been ironed out (they've been replaced with new ones, mind), the AI is still as occasionally daft as ever (despite all those promises) and it all feels... utterly anti-climactic. Much like watching Aussie could-have-been Harry Kewell, you just know the talent is there, if only he could be arsed showing it. It's just so frustrating.
On the field, things pretty much look the same as ever. It still doesn't match up to its EA rival in the prettiness stakes, but a few new animations certainly bump the level of fluidity up a notch. Gameplay is what you're all dying to know about though, and it's in this area where PES 2009 is... well, intriguing, at least.
First of all, the ball feels slightly heavier, making passing crisper and speedier than ever - though bear in mind your players have a fraction of a second longer to get the ball under control than before, meaning you'll initially be robbed of possession all the time. Secondly, shooting is nowhere near as arcadey as last year, meaning balance, preferred foot and the proximity of defenders has wreaked havoc on your ability to bang in 25-yard screamers. Finally, the lofted through-pass is finally a deadly weapon in the right hands, which leads to some breathtaking breakaways.
Summing up, we'd say this: after an hour you'll be swearing your head off, convinced Konami have actually taken a step backwards gameplay wise. Our advice: go and get some fresh air, come back and play it again - it'll win you over in the end.
Crucially though, these 'improvements' simply aren't enough to guarantee a 90%-plus score. Not any more. Take heed Konami: all this laurel resting is finally beginning to catch up with you...
It's tricky. On one foot, PES is a crushing disappointment, yet another tentative toe in the next gen waters that favours consolidation over innovation. On the other, it's still the best kickabout you'll find anywhere outside, well, real life. Whether it's doing anywhere near enough to convince you to buy yet another update masquerading as a full game is one for XBW's Dubious Footy Games Panel to decide next month. But in the meantime we'll keep on taking to the field every lunchtime. Er, just to be sure.