For many years the undisputed global champion of the football gaming world, Pro Evolution Soccer slumped somewhat in 2007 and has scrambled to catch bitter rival FIFA ever since. The story plays out the same way every year, with a serious-minded PES receiving a critical nod with a few (or in the case of PES 2011, many) qualifications, and the pick-up-and-play FIFA welcomed by a parade of unadulterated adulation.

In a bid to reverse this trend, PES Productions has apparently decided that the only thing left to do is require players to learn numerous tricky ball control button combinations should they wish to simply compete on the game’s normal difficulty, but unlike many schemes borne of madness and desperation, this one actually pays off in the long run. After nearly half a dozen hours of being the most frustrating soccer title yet released, PES 2013 switches from sadistic master to purveyor of glee, a title that provides players with unparalleled control and captures the nuance of the beautiful game better than anything yet seen.

The bewildering array of new moves falls under the umbrella term of PES Full Control, which also incorporates a number of new and refined features. The new Dynamic First Touch system has the biggest impact, and allows many subtle variations of feints, traps, and flicks to be executed just as the ball reaches the player. Everything from insta-juggles, pinpoint-accurate redirects, momentum-killing traps, and even shot fakes are possible. The animations are great, but these moves are not just for show – if timed correctly they can quickly open holes in the defence and put attackers in the clear.

Full manual shooting also makes its debut, giving players a more accurate but harder-to-master shooting option, where the proficient will be able to dial in exact trajectories and directions. Rewarded not only with precision but a bit of extra pace on the strike, manual shooting also affords players the opportunity to look like a chump by sending an absolute sitter high, wide, and probably backwards too.

In the same vein, manual passing returns, and with it brings delights such as long, pitch-skimming low passes into space. Completely manual one-twos are also now possible, and are initiated by holding LB and pressing A to pass. Control is then transferred to the ball receiver in the usual way, only the right stick independently controls the runner to whom the ball will return. The left stick aims the return pass, and LB + Y actually passes it back, provided that combo is managed before the ball reaches the pivot player. Initially it’s like listening to one song while trying to remember the lyrics to another, but practice turns it into a flexible and necessary weapon needed to penetrate flat defensive lines. What amounts to aim assist for passing is tweakable in the game’s options menu and with this completely off, only manual passes are possible. The results are both humbling and hilarious, and players are urged to never try this. In fact, even with assists, the game’s full control system isn’t for the faint-hearted. Fortunately this year’s PES is noticeably slower than in the past, so there is time for such combos to be unleashed.

Deft Touch Dribbling is easier to get the hang of, and has been enhanced from last year’s effort so now the ball may be cushioned, pushed forward or shielded. The ball is rolled underboot while sidestepping, and smaller touches and adjustments are possible, before that next burst of speed.

What hasn’t returned is the overpowered attack of PES 2011. The new Response Defending finally allows defenders to contain the ball controller and tackle when they wish, which means more control and fewer fouls. Recently a bugbear for the series, goalkeepers in PES 2013 have obviously had an AI revamp – gone are the days of throwing the ball to opposition strikers or herding it into the net. Faster distribution and a power bar when the ball is thrown are also welcome additions. Other teammates play smarter this year as well. Pro Active AI means that off-the-ball players make much better use of the space around them, and look to create opportunities by pushing forward and focussing on the ball’s location rather than steadfastly guarding a patch of pitch.

As always, how well any player on the field performs a particular task on the pitch is influenced by a plethora of statistics, from tackling to passing to changing direction, although the controlling player’s timing and dexterity are still king. Furthering this concept, Player ID is the name Komani has given to the performance capture of around 50 well-known players, but it’s not just about unique animations – these impact the game. Xavi can perform a sharper-than normal 180-degree turn, for example.

All of these tweaks, tucks, and modifications have made PES 2013 a game that admirably captures the smaller moments of football that can make all the difference in the larger scheme of things. One-on-one breakdown skills have never been more important or devastating, but a firm understanding of player positioning and teammate behaviour, as well as the ability to send precision passes into space are also extremely important. With all assists off and a practiced player at the helm, PES resembles the fluid, subtle, chaotic nature of real-world football more closely than any game before it. It’s an astonishingly deep title that rewards practice and patience.

It’s too bad, then, that Konami have imbued PES 2013 with a learning curve that – to newcomers at least – resembles a fence topped with razor wire. The game’s tutorial is a slow, crotchety, and sickeningly unhelpful beast that shuts much of its knowledge behind challenges that players may never know why they are failing. It’s a tremendous gaffe on the developer’s part, and sadly will be enough for many to conclude that PES is not a product worthy of their time, because much of what is learned here is not just the cream but is rather crucial to being able to compete on normal difficulty.

With EA hanging on to most exclusive licences, the rosters are typically wonky as well, particularly with only one Premier League team (Man United) officially endorsing the game. However the UFEA Champions League and Copa Libertadores are again present as standalone competitions for up to 32 players, and more teams are present than in previous years. Sure, the surprisingly deep player editor will allow a facsimile of a player’s favourite team to be assembled, but this is a time-consuming process. Play modes outside the usual competitions such as the managing simulation are equally tedious.

A handful of smaller gripes such as the awful soundtrack, lacklustre menu and pre-game presentations, and – in the review build we received – constant replays that couldn’t be switched off don’t really diminish the experience too much. Fans squabble over the best football title with the passion they usually reserve for supporting their respective teams, but there is room for both PES and FIFA in the marketplace, as both serve very different audiences. That said, this is undoubtedly the best PES yet, but Konami’s big problem will be getting people to give it an honest try.