I was sitting in my lounge last Thursday playing Pro Evolution Soccer 6 with a friend, and halfway through our second nil-nil - as Brazil and France bounced off each other's stubborn, powerful defences - a third friend, who had been patiently waiting for something to happen, started to chant quietly under his breath: "Allez! Allez! Allez!"
This, he insisted, after being beaten up with a cushion, was Pro Evolution Soccer: Liverpool Under Gerard Houllier Edition, closer to real football than ever in terms of its grittiness and its physicality, but not exactly fiery and explosive to behold - unless of course you're referring to our third game of the evening, when my opponent's patience ran out and was replaced by exasperated use of the slide-tackle button. 11 versus 8, that finished, and I only won one-nil.
Individual players' pace is much less of a defining factor now, with acceleration in short supply. Players like Ronaldinho struggle to break through on pace alone, and even when Robben and Cristiano Ronaldo receive the ball out wide in line with the centre circle, they're much better off making for the byline than trying to cut inside. There are fewer "godly" players here in general, and with the top sprint speed now reduced, it's also a more physical game. Stature is incredibly important. Pick a heavy-set back line and you can deal with a lot of threats before anything develops, because they will do a surprisingly effective job of closing down nippy forwards even if their legs are older than Maldini's. Cesare Maldini's. Meanwhile in attack, finding composure on the ball is simultaneously more necessary and much harder, with a lot of shots ballooning away unhelpfully unless you're perfectly set to strike, or your attacking stat point is breaking through the top of the skills pentagon.
Fortunately off-the-ball movement has improved, and it's possible to do more with the ball in close confines using the shielding button, holding it up and pivoting away from defenders. You can do a clever little dragback turn to create space, too, and in each case it's just as well given that PES6 relies so heavily on patient build-up play. Where once you could get away with surging forward and playing a quick one-two to reach the edge of the penalty area, here you'll only be using that through-ball button during moments of supreme vision and excellence, and even then you'll probably find the defence has tracked you back by the time you approach the penalty area.
There are at least some things that improve on the balance and flow of the last major Western release, PES5, like the less twitchy referees, who can now thankfully stomach the odd bit of argy-bargy from the defensive 'pressing' buttons, and the ability to keep the ball when sliding in with a tackle, which does more than anything to keep the turnover rate within reasonable bounds, and certainly helps to discourage profligate use of the dash button in central midfield. Meanwhile, the addition of a quick free-kick function, activated when it's possible by pressing the two shoulder buttons closest to you at the same time, allows you to continue without having the entire opposition team standing ahead of the ball, as was the case in the past, and the advantage rule is better-handled, with players being punished even if play has subsequently taken quite a while to stop.
But equally it's hard to escape the feeling that this shift in balance has led to a more frustrating game overall. Konami wants us to be excellent before we can dance through teams, and it's a noble goal more ably realised than in previous versions, but is it actually fun?
The answer is that that probably depends on what you want out of it. If all you want to do is take Ronaldinho on a whistle-stop tour of every blade of grass, pirouetting with the right-analogue-twirl through a lead-footed defence on the way to smashing the ball past the goalkeeper, you can achieve that by notching the difficulty down to the first or second levels. (In the Xbox 360 version's case, that's certainly the best way to mine it for gamerpoints - with most of them available for winning leagues and cups, which can be done on any difficulty level.