'Pro Evolution Soccer 13': First look

There was a time when it was laughable to even think EA’s “FIFA” series could ever compete with Konami’s “Pro Evolution Soccer.”

Oh, how times have changed.

These days “FIFA” is the juggernaut of sports gaming, boasting more sales and online play than any other sports game on the planet. Meanwhile, the “PES” team has seemed to lose its focus through the years and has been playing catch-up in terms of gameplay and big-ticket features since the debut of “FIFA 09.”

Is this the year Konami finally steps back into the role of contender?

Could be, as judging by what I saw at E3, “Pro Evolution Soccer 2013” is striving for more than just another second-place finish.

That’s because this year’s game is built around a variety of gameplay enhancements that should go a long way in terms of righting the wrongs of “PES” past.

The first of these is PES Full Control. This new upgrade is about bringing soccer back to its core elements -- passing, shooting and first touch -- and delivering these elements in more dynamic fashion. It’s about bringing control back to the players.

Too often in soccer games, you attempt to pass the ball to one player, but for whatever reason, the pass shoots off in a different direction than intended. But with full manual passing, gamers are able to pass the ball in true 360-degree fashion with varying power range. Now you can take a loft pass off your shin or foot, use first touch to control the ball, and keep your progress moving forward as you beat the defender to the spot.

This really helps open up the passing game because players have the option to pass slow and low, fast and low, slow and high or fast and high, as teammates then work to control the ball with their chest, legs or feet while carrying momentum forward. Passing is no longer unpredictable, as gamers now have far more control over where the ball will end up, opening up better movement down the field as they set up their shots.

Manual shooting also has been added to PES Full Control, and while it’s challenging to pull off the exact shot you’re after, the rewards can be spectacular when done right. You’ll see knuckle shots, balls bending around the goalie, chip shots and even squibs across the ground. This really puts the pressure on the goalie, because there is a lot more variety this year in terms of what players can kick toward the net at any given point.

Add to that deft-touch dribbling that enables you to use everything from your heel to your toes to closely control every dribble and you can see how much the game’s control scheme is trying to take “PES” to the next level. Now you can draw defenders in to create space and open up a passing lane, or you can run along the touch lines, flirting ever so dangerously to the line as you dribble around defenders and create angles.

On defense, it’s no longer about jumping into position and slide tackling. Now you can step in and jab at the ball from any direction. Defenders also can put a body on dribblers in order to knock them out of bounds or prevent a shot. Dirty? Yes, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do to hold on to that lead.

In terms of advanced AI, the biggest change is with the game’s goalkeepers. The logic of how they respond to an incoming attack as well as the motions they use to respond have been upgraded this year, so you’ll see everything from deflecting shots with their knees to improved angles of every dive. Whether a goalie runs out toward the shooter or cheats right or left also has been improved, resulting in a more realistic look and feel to every challenge.

But that’s not all: The “PES 13” designers also have added what they’re calling Player ID to help make every character in the game play and look more like their real-life counterparts. This isn’t just about facial features; it’s about mannerisms, how they run, their signature kicks and their dribbles. Now you have Lionel Messi dribbling with the ball close to his body as The Wizard uses his speed to get around defenders. Every player in the game is unique, capturing everything from Kaka’s long strides to the way Neymar taunts.

Throw in a new training mode that helps gamers master all of these new skills and techniques (I’ve already mastered taunting from my couch) and this could be the game that helps “PES” rebound in its grudge match against “FIFA.”

The game ships Nov. 1 for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii and Nintendo 3DS.