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Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 gameplay preview

What do Konami's promises of 'total freedom' really mean?

Uncertainty. That's the bittersweet magic of football, and why Pro Evo 2011 is the most tantalising, but hard-to-assess, entry in the series' recent history, based on several hours play. Our hands-on time left an air of uncertainty - but one tinged with optimism - and the nagging belief that this might be the year Pro Evo gets back on track.

The big change, on paper, is 'total freedom' 360 passing, with full power control. In theory, it's as possible to mishit a five-yard pass, as loft a diagonal through ball 40m onto your striker's toes. Mercifully, the former is less likely than the latter, and we rarely misplaced a short pass to a colleague, allowing a familiar ping-ping passing game - you instinctively press the right direction by force of habit.

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More effective, is redirecting play with a sweeping cross-field pass. On a few occasions, we spotted a runner on the opposite touchline, spinning our winger (Di Maria) 180, and launching a soaring reverse diagonal pass for, say, Messi to run onto was hugely satisfying, though timing and power is critical. You can deliberately over-hit ground passes to act as through balls, but the option to do so automatically remains. The passing game felt familiar, if less 'boggy' than PES 2010. The crux will rest on the AI's ability to make meaningful runs, and your ability to pick out the pass. Sadly, there's no 'run prompt' button, as in FIFA, which would amplify the potential of manual passing.

The key change - though one it's possible to ignore if you stick to a strict passing game - is the focus on 'duels' between attackers and
defenders. Attackers have a wide variety of right stick feints and tricks, split into two camps. Hold L2 and right stick (or just right stick), to perform subtle, but effective, upper
body feints and step overs - using familiar motion taps, like left, diagonal-right for a Matthews Feint, or left,right, for an Inside Bounce (the 'long step' from PES 2010). There's also a full range of stationary L2 and right stick moves, so you can shimmy, or quickly shift the ball to buy a yard when stood still - deadly with players like Schneider.

OLD DOG, NEW TRICKS
Holding L1 and tapping a right stick direction performs high speed dribble tricks, like Flips Flaps, the Marseille Roulette and new 'hold and scoop' direction changes, reminiscent of Man U's Nani, plus others. Tricks can be user-defi ned to suit your playing style, or players. They're easy to perform, but relative to the player's skill, and your timing/position. They
almost always buy a yard or beat a man, and feel slightly automated (but more precise than FIFA's right stick system). The idea is to 'link' feints and tricks, effectively chaining combos.

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Superstars like Messi and Ronaldo(only 15 or so players in total) have the 'Speed Star' attribute, allowing them to change direction and 'slalom' while dribbling more effectively, sharply cutting in and out on their left/right feet. You can hold R2 to Mid Step dribble, allowing finer close control and direction changes, while R1 is sprint. Currently, dribbling still feels much less fluid and 360 than FIFA - though we suspect it's deliberate, and tied to the precise trick system. Bottom line, it's not as smooth as FIFA fans might expect, with direction changes tied to 16-way (the number of dribble directions in PES 2010, Konami revealed), or possibly 32-way angles. In the early code, it occasionally felt like you were wrestling with the invisible will of (improved) animations.

To maintain balance, defenders can now 'jockey' players, closing off their angles, without committing to a tackle - so you can jog side by side with a winger to stop a cross, without risking stepping in. Hold X and use the right stick to push toward your goal (away from striker), to stand off; and push the stick toward the player when you want to step in. Player strength and balance is critical, especially with new animations where players jostle and interlock arms. Defenders like Vidic should easily out-muscle Aaron Lennon, despite the winger's new array of dribble options.

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