The sun is beating down, and the wind is shooting through the stadium. We're at the pristine and imaginatively titled Il Nuovo Stadio Della Juventus, and the home side's slender 1-0 lead - courtesy of a free-kick from the talismanic Alessandro Del Piero - is in the balance. Napoli's Uruguayan Adonis, Edinson Cavani, is sprinting toward goal when he is felled by an industrial challenge from big-beaked clogger Giorgio Chiellini. With the ref waving play on, veteran midfielder Andrea Pirlo picks up the loose ball, and insouciantly strokes a long crossfield ball to team-mate Claudio Marchisio, who dinks a delicate chipped pass towards his club captain in the box. It's a little short, though, and Del Piero's attempted overhead kick at the near post sails harmlessly over the bar.
Such moments of mundanity are often the ones where you learn most about a football game, and so it proves with PES 2012. A tight, defence-dominated 1-0 victory in Serie A might not seem particularly exciting after a rollicking end-to-end encounter in the Premier League, but the very fact that the difference is so stark is an important one. Play several matches against AI opponents in a football game and it often feels like you're playing the same side reskinned. Not here.
The next game sees me torn apart by the near-robotic efficiency of Bayern Munich's counter-attacking style, with Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery rampant. As the third goal slaps into the back of the Arsenal net, the Bayern players celebrate in the time-honoured fashion - by unhinging their lower jaws in a faintly terrifying communal yelling session. Then Ribery plunges his hand through Mario Gomez's ribcage, apparently to thank him for the assist. Some things never change, then.
Indeed, PES's presentation still needs a good deal of work. While it still comfortably trumps FIFA in the replay stakes (memo to EA: more than three seconds of build-up would be nice next time), elsewhere it still lags behind its glitzier rival. Your next game is always two or three too many button-presses away, and the music is, as always, abysmal. Likenesses are a mixed bag - the most famous names have had plenty of attention lavished on their faces (if not their oversized cake-holes) but weaker teams and lesser players are, at times, barely recognisable. And that we're still playing against Middlebrook in this day and age when the Spanish and Italian leagues are so authentically represented is a bit embarrassing, really.
Animation can be a tad choppy in places, although if this is the price we have to pay for better control then so be it. Player movement still doesn't quite match up to the fluidity of FIFA's 360-degree manoeuvrability, but the gap is clearly closing. Canned stumbles from standing tackles and other fixed reactions are disappointing, though at least the hilarious physics-based flubs of EA's game are absent. And PES's lighting remains superior, its naturalistic tones more appealing than FIFA's oddly artificial look. It's like watching a match on Sky rather than ITV, or at least it would be without John Champion and Jim Beglin in the commentary box. While Beglin sounds bored to tears, Champion gets quite unreasonably excited at times, bellowing "CHANCE HERE!" with the urgency of someone warning of an imminent terrorist attack.
Konami mightn't have FIFA's inventive new approach to defensive play, but this year's signature features are more than just hollow words on the back of the box. Instead, the raft of improvements proves Seabass and crew have identified key areas of weakness and are aiming to strengthen them. The Active AI is noticeable mere seconds into your first game. No longer will you be screaming at your wingers, imploring them to sodding well make a bloody run. Intelligent team-mates will hunt for space, weave between defenders, sprint past you on the overlap, and pull away at the back post. And if they're still not doing what you want them to, you can guide them into position with the right stick. That you won't need to do it too often is testament to how well the AI responds without any prompting.
These nuances extend to your opponents, too. A Champions League match against Rangers sees them play an aggressive pressing game to earn possession, before thumping dangerous long balls forward with half my players committed to attack. Other minor details impress: on one attack, a defender forces David Silva onto his right foot, the resultant shot slicing well wide of the goal. Two minutes later, the mercurial Spaniard wriggles free and makes space for a swing with his much stronger left peg, the ball fizzing into the top corner.
Other improvements are less significant. There's some pointless frippery surrounding the still-unparalleled Master League mode, as matches are interspersed with scenes where the coach casually informs you that your star midfielder is out for 26 weeks, or your new Japanese wunderkind moans about not wearing the number 10 shirt. There's something crushingly banal about it all, with music gently burbling away over otherwise silent dialogue sequences in grey, featureless rooms. At least the sloppily translated dialogue provides moments of unintentional hilarity, as your number two informs you that "all eyes will be on you and your tactical nous."
The same goes for Become A Legend, which rather lazily seems to reskin entire scenes from the Master League, merely replacing your ill-fitting suit with a football kit. The feedback during this mode is familiarly feeble - it's impossible to tell whether your efforts will be rewarded with a fair score, as even seemingly immaculate displays can result in a sniffy 6/10 rating and a spell on the sidelines.
Konami has, at least, made strides in the online arena - even if starting a game is a little sluggish. The matches I've played so far have featured no noticeable lag, though that could change as the servers fill up after launch. By the same token, it took several attempts to connect to other opponents at times, the game occasionally kicking me out after a few minutes if no match could be found. There are options for pre- and post-match text chat, and whenever the ball goes out of play, you can input a context-sensitive snippet of conversation, praising an opponent for good play, bemoaning a tame strike, or even rubbing it in by pointedly celebrating a goal.
Complete a match and you can give your opponent a thumbs-up for fair play, a nice bit of old-fashioned sportsmanship that was reciprocated in every online match I finished. Sadly, it appears there's a flaw with Konami's approach to cheaters. After scoring a late goal in an early online encounter, my opponent promptly quit, though my own match completion stat then stood at 0% after one game. I was then warned that, if after ten matches our completion rate was less than 70%, I'd be suspended from competition matches, removed from all ranks, and would more likely be paired with similarly cheaty types in future. Most upsettingly of all, my 'courtesy' icon would now display a deflated football. Charming.
There's also an attempt at Facebook integration with the MyPES app, which is still in beta, and thus impossible to test fully. Once connected with your PES game, it should allow you to check stats, create tournaments with friends who own the game, earn experience points and unlock special badges.
If the feature set pales in comparison with FIFA's comprehensive setup, on the pitch the two rivals are surprisingly well-matched, the two disparate styles making for the most intriguing battle between the two for years. As a long-term PES acolyte who has favoured FIFA for the last four seasons, I'm heartened to see Konami's series finally approaching something close to its best form - even if it's not the domineering force it was in its glory days of 2004/5. EA's game might be the more authentic representation of the sport, but this year Konami's cultured approach offers a genuinely worthwhile and distinct alternative - enough, perhaps, to cause some to switch allegiances.