PRO EVOLUTION SOCCER 2. Publisher: Konami. Format: PS2. Price: £44.99/ FIFA 2003. Publisher: EA Sports. Formats: PS2, PC CD-ROM. Prices from: £34.99

FOR the first time in a very long time, Electronic Art's sporting colossus FIFA was not the best selling PS2 football game during 2001.

FIFA's crown was taken by its much-admired rival Pro Evolution Soccer, a game lauded by critics and hardcore gamers but previously ignored by the mainstream.

Clearly changes were needed if FIFA were to regain its previously unassailable position as market leader.

Electronic Arts, the world's biggest and most successful games publisher, wasn't about to take defeat lying down. So FIFA is back this season with new features, better gameplay, a new look and even more polish.

But Konami has been hard at work on a sequel of its own.

In terms of its silky presentational skills, this year's Pro Evo is closer to FIFA than ever before.

Fans will be relieved to know that all the other things that made Konami's game so good are unchanged.

Unlike so many rivals you always feel in total control of your team. Subtle changes to the control system give greater scope for tricks and little feints; the character animations have been refined; and the opposition artificial intelligence is tremendous.

In a nod to the FIFA games this version is slightly easier to get to grips with and you can score some truly outrageous goals.

Despite the ludicrous names attributed to your team-mates (which is the legacy of Konami's unwillingness to pay for a license to use the real thing) they all look uncannily life-like so it's perfectly possible to pick out Ryan Giggs (or Gigsi as the game calls him) with a pin-point pass from David Beckham or slot a perfect through ball into Michael Owen's path.

Practise makes perfect and you'll soon be tearing down the wings, pinging in deadly crosses for your strikers to lash into the net.

The gameplay has been subtly speeded up but Pro Evo is still a long way from an arcade football game.

Sadly Konami hasn't taken this opportunity to junk the comical commentary (Anyone remember the oft repeated phrase "It's off his boot!" from the original ISS on PlayStation?). It's better but the FIFA version is still leagues ahead.

The exciting Master League mode (whereby you take a club through a season), has been completely overhauled and now features three divisions and a wonderful transfer system, which takes into account transfer windows, players decisions and the ability to loan players. Newbies can also hone their skills in the training mode.

Visually it remains reasonable rather than inspired but then if ever it could be said of a game that "Gameplay is king" then this is it.

So what of FIFA? Can it truly hold a candle to the sublime skills of Pro Evo 2? Surprisingly enough it can.

EA has made major control alterations that bring its premier footie title up to the lofty standards set by its Konami rival. The biggest change has to be the improved animation system that finally dispenses with the maddening time delay between pressing a button and something actually happening making for a much more responsive - and skillful - game of football.

The dead ball situations are also far, far better than anything Pro Evo has to offer and the computer intelligence has been beefed up. Your team-mates now make intelligent runs and try to find space whereas before they just used to stand around like lemons.

And unlike Konami's challenger this game has the official license so all the teams and players are present. In fact, there are 10,000 of them playing in 350 official teams in 16 of the world's top leagues.

As you'd expect of a FIFA title, the build up is sublime and the in-game cut scenes look terrific.

EA should also be congratulated for making FIFA compatible with every major PC operating system since Windows 95 and capable of running even on relatively puny hardware, although you'll need a decent graphics card to really get the most out of it.

So which to buy?

If money is tight then Pro Evo 2 probably shades it but the truly committed footie fan has no choice - you've just got to buy them both. leisure/byte

Published: 08/11/2002