It’s common knowledge amongst football fans (and yes, I intend of using the correct term – football, for the duration of this review) that the battle between EA’s FIFA franchise and Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer has PES in front all the way.

It’s known as the footballer’s football game, the one you play if you want to experience the finer intricacies of ‘the beautiful game’.

While FIFA might have the full player, team and stadium licenses, PES has been chipping away and have managed to procure the Liverpool and Man United licenses with this release. Small consolation if you’re an Everton fan – but then again, why would you be an Everton fan in the first place? PES also has the exclusive rights to the UEFA Champions League and also includes Ligue 1 Orange, Eredivese, Serie A and most of La Liga.

The unlicensed clubs have all the real player names, but alternative club names, badges and kits. These can all be edited by the user however, if you have some time on your hands.

FIFA 09 has taken a huge step forward in the realism stakes while still remaining accessible to newcomers, that is not the case with PES 2009. If anything it has rested on its laurels yet remains the football sim for the purist.

Visually, the game is everything you would expect from a current generation sports game. Player movement is fluid, the likeness to their real-life counterparts is incredible and the stadiums and crowd animations are first rate as always. The menu presentation and introduction leaves a lot to be desired though. I’m sure some of you will like the style, but I found it to be out of place. Rather than show off some flashy FMV and how you can see the sweat dripping off the nose hair of Ronaldo, we are presented with some black and white gameplay with splashes of colour, changing to an arty, sketchy look every so often. Kudos for doing something a little different, but it didn't impress me much.

Entering into the game itself, the first thing you’ll notice from the last instalment is the slower gameplay, more in line with an actual game of football. Gone is the arcade-like speeds of old, this is a more deliberate style of gameplay. No longer can you sprint away from your marker while controlling the ball – markers will either catch up or match you, as we all know running with the ball is never as fast as running without the ball. This forces you to think about your plays more and look earlier for layoff passes rather than go alone or hit and hope.

Players will demonstrate skills relevant to their onfield positions too. Midfielders will bring a ball to feet, turn and pass to an open man with ease, where a bigger defender might perform it with less finesse. Speedy forwards will execute twists and turns, confusing hapless defenders while trying the same with another player might result in losing possession. This brings a sense of individualism to the game and make you feel like your playing with ten other players, each with their own traits rather than ten clones of each other.

Passing can be made by the traditional button presses, or if you’re feeling the game and want more of a challenge then you can also use the right thumbstick. A firm flick of the stick will result in a rocket pass in the chosen direction, while a more gentle touch will produce the opposite result. It’s a nice option and gives a sense of freedom, but I found myself reverting to the buttons more often than not.

Perhaps one of the biggest improvements in PES 2009 is the true-to-life ball physics. As any footballer will testify, despite the ball being round, it can be an unpredictable beast at the best of times. They take huge bounces and run away from you on hard ground, skid as if on ice when there’s a light covering of rain and hold up completely if the pitch is waterlogged. The ball will react properly if it takes a deflection by spinning unpredictably or ballooning over the keeper with topspin. New to the series too is the ability to chip a through-pass for your forwards to run on to. The new ball physics apply accurate backspin to the ball allowing it to lob over the defence and hold up upon landing for your striker to hammer into the goal. Mastering this play will result in many attempts on goal.

Notice I said “attempts” on goal rather than “goals”? That’s because it’s ridiculously difficult to put the ball in the net in PES 2009. The shooting system is too complicated and takes a lot of the fun out of the game. Shots from distance will usually fly like a Dan Carter conversion and shooting from any slightly acute angle provides equal frustration. FIFA 09 walks all over PES 2009 in user-friendly shooting dynamics. This alone makes up my mind when I walk to my games and choose to play FIFA over PES. Sure, spending time on the practice field will improve your shooting, but to be perfectly honest I’d rather it was just made easier to make the game more fun. FIFA has nailed this with the pre-game one-on-one arena where you can muck around while the game loads, and shooting at goal is a more forgiving exercise.

If I set up a game between Brazil and Wales with opposition AI at it’s lowest level I would expect to finish the game at least 6 goals in front despite my level of experience. But although I would carve up in the outfield, scoring goals is another kettle of fish. All too often a game like this would result in a 0-0 scoreline.

The play modes are all much the same as in previous outings - competent, thorough, yet lacking any fresh inspiration. Even the Be A Legend mode is identical to EA’s Be A Pro. In Be A Legend, levelling up your player though can only be done by playing training games - and lots of them. It’s quite time consuming and I would have preferred to see progression made through perfecting certain skills or achievements on the training field rather than just playing game after game.

The commentary is once again supplied by Champion and Laurenson and their witty one-liners are in abundance. But most of the time they’ll leave you scratching your head with their random remarks and this is yet another area where FIFA has come out on top.

Putting aside the disappointments of PES 2009, on the pitch, the game is still the most realistic football sim on the market. I don’t believe the PES franchise is getting any worse, rather that EA’s FIFA franchise is barking at its heels and surpassing it in some areas. The time has come for Konami to take the series to the next level and that could mean “dumbing” some things down a little (eg. the shooting) to make it less anal and more accessible to the casual gamer.

I really look forward to what PES 2010 has to offer.