The annual soccer head-to-head battle is on once again, given that nobody else has come forward to try and bring a new entrant into the fight. Konami are making the step up to the new generation properly – last year’s effort can hardly be counted – with Pro Evolution Soccer 2015 and the early demo-fuelled hype suggests that the game can match up to EA’s retail behemoth, FIFA 15.

In practice, it looks that way too for large portions of the on-pitch action. A much more technical game than FIFA’s ping-pong and sometimes arcade-leaning representation of the sport, Pro Evolution Soccer 2015 has a heck of a lot going for it. The main thing would be the difficulty level. Of course, the franchise’s Master League mode has been the perfect thing for those that find other games too easy over the years, pitching you into a full player/manager career with barely any money and a ragtag bunch of players to be going on with. That challenge is still here and will appear to be largely unchanged to all but the most die-hard of PES fans, although with the exception of the new “myClub” mode, the same can be said of practically everything else that occurs off the pitch. Sadly, barely anything else has significantly changed, barring a distinct tilt at emulating FIFA 15’s main menu system. The Master League’s menus are still overly complex and needlessly slow to get around, and that’s only exacerbated by the fact that full-screen animations now needlessly play in the background and can slow things down to the point that your button inputs aren’t accepted.

Before we get on to the pitch, we should really mention the myClub mode in more depth. Definitely taking its cues from FIFA Ultimate Team, the mode gives you the ability to create your own team, starting with a random group of players and building them up into a world beating squad by signing new players as and when you can. As opposed to FIFA’s “collector card” approach that allows for trading and auctions, myClub allows you to gain players via the use of “agents.” Playing matches and doing other things will reward you with agents that specialise in finding and signing different types of players. Each agent can be used a limited number of times and will be of a different quality. A meter on the right of the screen shows you the percentage chance of finding a player that is rated 75 or better, and you can combine three agents at once to improve your chances. The player that you're awarded is a random one, so there’s no way to definitely sign Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, for example. You can go to a permanently available “Top Agent” and sign players for GP (Pro Evolution Soccer’s in-game currency, which is awarded both inside and outside of myClub mode for completing tasks) or for myClub Coins which are both collectible inside myClub and also purchasable via microtransactions. We can’t comment on prices, as even though the game is now available at retail, the bundles aren’t available to purchase yet. We also can’t comment on myClub’s built-in “Competition” system either – which we assume is similar to Ultimate Team’s tournament system - as again, even though the game is on the shelves, no competitions have been made available. You can participate in two separate “Divisions” systems which are all but identical to the ones found in FIFA, though. One Divisions mode is for traditional live play, and the other sees the CPU take over your team and pit them against a live player. This is a nice touch, as it means that you can enjoy the management and coaching side of things without the frustration of getting crushed by players that do nothing but play the game all day, every day.

On the pitch, Pro Evolution Soccer 2015 displays moments of real brilliance. A generally solid game that really harks back to the glory days of the series, the emphasis on skilful play and mastering the tactics that you’ve selected is genuinely refreshing. You can play the ball around the back four until the cows come home but if you try to pass a ball into a gap that doesn’t exist, you’re going to find your hopes dashed. It’s much more difficult to actually retrieve the ball once you’ve lost it too, as AI players make nice supporting runs so that the ball carrier often has more than one potential outball. Picking the wrong one to cover could see you giving away a foul or being caught flat-footed.

Speaking of fouls, we should make mention of the CPU AIs absolute refusal to give away free kicks. After thirty or so games against the AI, we didn’t see a single yellow card given to the opposition. Our estimation is that the CPU gives away a free kick at the rate of about one every two matches. Even when they’re losing by a single goal with minutes to go and are panicking to rob you of the ball and pump it back upfield, they seem to be able to avoid getting penalised. It isn’t that they don’t tackle. Rather, it’s that they don’t get called for things that really and truly do look like fouls. You’ll be clattered, hacked, sandwiched, and tripped, and the referee will just allow play to go on as if he’s nursing a bribe-filled manila envelope. Also of note is the way that CPU players are very, very reluctant to cross the ball. They’ll get it on the wing and have three players in the box waiting for the cross to come in, but will decide to turn in and run directly into two defenders rather than sling it into the mixer.

Again, if they’re behind with only limited time to go, they’ll start firing crosses in, but it just doesn’t feel right to see representations of the world’s top players not being able to do something as basic as spot a free man and try to get the ball to him.

But if you can live with that, PES 2015 is a truly challenging game that will take a long time to master. There’s no mashing the skill stick and expecting to just glide around entire defences here. No, you’ll need to actually create gaps in the defensive lines and learn the best ways to exploit them. In multiplayer, things become more stretched of course, depending on each player’s skill level, but the AI-controlled players tend to do a decent job of tracking and supporting you. The one major flaw – and it is a major flaw - is with defenders being entirely unable to stay goal-side against even the most average of strikers. There are way too many times where your defender will have lost his position without your input and now be behind the striker, despite starting yards in front of him. This bleeds through into online play too. Even on full manual switching, the defender tends to lock his feet or take a step out when the striker is sprinting at goal, so the opposition player often has an unfair advantage. On top of that, goalkeepers often fail to narrow angles properly, meaning that more often than not the goals that you concede come from a pass, pass, pass, through ball, soft-side-foot-shot-into-the-bottom-corner-that-somehow-beats-the-keeper combination. We really hope that these behaviours are patched, as they genuinely affect the game negatively. If we gave a rough estimation, it would be that around 70% of the goals that we conceded in our debut Master League season have been the result of weak curling shots from unmarked strikers.

But, when we say that you’ll need to work to create space, we mean that you’ll need to really work. It’s rewarding work though, which is easily enough to keep you coming back for more. A truly well-crafted goal in PES is as rewarding as winning a championship can be in FIFA, depending on the difficulty level that you’re playing at. Part of the enjoyment of the Master League comes from getting absolutely whupped, and doing a little bit better each time until you get your first nil-nil draw, then your first goal, and then your first win. The mode, despite desperately needing an overhaul and a little bit of streamlining in places, is still as addictive as ever simply because of this. If you aren’t into single player, take the game online as – we’re happy to report - we haven’t had a single disconnection or dropout, and the community seems to be more interested in having a good game of football than doing trick after trick after trick until you put your controller through your screen. Indeed, PES still tries to replicate the beautiful game as a beautiful game, rather than a wrestling match featuring crowd pleasing high spots such as 90th minute equalisers in every other contest.

Some new innovations are in place, as well. The most notable of which is the ability to assign differing formations based on whether or not you have the ball. You can set a number of formations to choose from on the fly during a match, and each one can have a branching "with the ball" and "without the ball" setting. You could start with a 4-1-3-2, dropping a midfielder back to make it a 5-3-2 when you're on the back foot, and pushing forward into an old-fashioned 4-4-2 when you're on the attack and looking for more width. This is a real boon to budding master tacticians, even if the game's aging UI makes it all massively confusing when you first check it out.

We should touch on the false names that are used in game and which are becoming more and more of a joke each year though, as Konami seeks to make them more and more unpronounceable. Playing against “East Dorsetshire” is bad enough, but trying to beat a defence featuring players called Willnother, Tzettiboch, Cerkusnyder and Dearlagon is sort of ridiculous. It’s as if the developers have just thrown a bag of Scrabble letters in the air and gone with whatever has landed, at times. At least one team name could be considered to be incredibly offensive to most English speakers. We won’t replicate it here, but we’ll go as far as to say that it wouldn’t pass Microsoft’s swear test as a valid Gamertag.

That aside, it’s almost worse to see a mix of real and false teams. A big, officially-licenced UEFA Champions League match between Manchester United (complete with the correct kit, sponsors, and a wonderful representation of Old Trafford) and “Merseyside Red” who are wearing some sponsor-free red school team kit just doesn’t sit well, even if both teams do feature the correct players. If you head into the game’s Edit mode, there are commentary names for tons of English and German cities which don’t have teams in the game. You can genuinely make a team from small places like Weston-super-Mare or Southend-on-sea (or Exeter!) and have commentator Jon Champion call them exactly that, which is pretty nice if you’re from one of the represented places. But, it isn’t enough. We say Konami should abandon the “trying to be FIFA” thing and make a full league of entirely false teams from scratch, with false stadiums, too. Failing that, how about a trip back to the International Superstar Soccer days? Ditch the league teams and just have every international side on the planet. They could play in a grand 10-division World Master League or the like. Rather than fighting FIFA and losing every year, PES could become an entirely different game. That would encourage people to buy both rather than making a choice, potentially.

We can but dream.

So, does PES 2015 “beat” FIFA 15 in the gameplay stakes?

Well, we can’t say. Anybody that tells you that they can is roundly mistaken, too. The two games, despite portraying the same thing, are very different and always have been. For a number of years, FIFA tried to carve its own path, forever reinventing itself “from the ground up” until it finally managed to get the job done a few years ago, creating a very definite separation between the two franchises. PES has played much the same game since the series did away with the International Superstar Soccer name back in the days of the PSOne, with minor changes each year. A die-hard FIFA fan will tell you that every FIFA game is better than every PES game for a number of reasons, and a die-hard PES fan will tell you that PES wins as FIFA is for kids who cry if they don’t win every time they play. It’s going to come down to personal preference this year though, rather than being a default win for FIFA, and to be able to say that means that Konami are at least on the right track once again.

Conclusion

Pro Evolution Soccer 2015 is a massive improvement on last year’s edition of the game. The general off-pitch interface is still pretty amateurish and clunky in places and desperately needs a full overhaul. A patch to sort out some niggling AI issues that do become annoying quite quickly would see this gain another point, but even with those annoyances, the quality of the experience generally shines through. There’s a lot to like here and the game definitely has the potential to hook you, as it has us.