I’m what you would call a die-hard Football fan. Yes, I’m fully aware that it’s soccer here in the states, but it just feels so wrong every time I’m forced to say or write the “S” word. I get up at ungodly hours of the morning to watch games live, I relentlessly absorb every tidbit of news I can get my peepers on, and I’m unhealthily invested in the well-being and success of the clubs I support (North London’s Arsenal FC, and The Old Lady herself, Juventus FC of Turin, Italy). So you can imagine my excitement and delight when this part of the year rolls around and my oh-so-generous colleagues in the video game department here at Digital Trends let me, the resident gearhead gamer, take a crack at the latest soccer (*shudder*) franchise to roll out, which just so happens to be developer PES Productions and Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer 2013.

Now, as we continue our march to the eventual release of latest entrant in the PES franchise we can’t help but ask one question: Will the once mighty Pro Evolution Soccer be able to wrest the crown sat firmly atop rival FIFA’s head, or will it be doomed to warm the bench for yet another year?

Having only spent some time with the preview build of PES 2013 the only thing I can say with certainty is that I’m hopeful, very hopeful. So far, PES 2013 is shaping up to be quite the title contender, which is no easy task given EA Sport’s FIFA franchise’s continued yearly dominance, not to mention its robust licensing deals.

Part of that optimism stems from PES 2013’s improved control mechanics, which are the true bread and butter of any soccer-sim. For PES 2013, PES Productions has managed to add a layer of realism by giving players more control over their virtual Ronaldos and Messis. Manual passing helps eliminate confusion over who you are passing to with a dedicated arrow displayed at the feet of your player. Here you can adjust the power, direction, and type of ball you wish to play. Smooth step-overs and an arsenal of tricks are also at your disposal. Indeed, passing and dribbling have been beefed up, so expect more masterclass with subtle touches on the ball and a greater array of moves and tricks that can utilized for beating that last defender.

Dribbling isn’t the only area that’s been given attention, though. So far it seems PES Productions has added some depth to the shooting mechanics as well, with proper weight and balance taken into account for any given situation. For PES 2013, PES Productions has even added the ability to send a screamer of a shot with the laces of your boot by tapping the shoot button right before you make contact with the ball. Similar to the manual passing is the manual shot mode. Skilled players will no doubt be able to make great use of this feature (along with manual passing) for increased accuracy and pin-point net placement. Another small, but awesome, new feature centered on giving you more control and choice in your attacking play is the ability to nutmeg a keeper/defender (passing the ball through an opponent’s legs) during one-on-one scenarios, helping lend a greater degree of realism and depth to the overall gameplay. What’s more, it’s not some canned animation that sees you beating that defender, but instead relies entirely on your input and timing.

From what we can tell so far, graphically, PES 2013 impresses. Player animations are smooth and fluid and a great degree of trouble seems to have been taken to recreate not just the look of the star players, but their attitudes and personalities, too. For example, new cover-boy Cristiano Ronaldo has been meticulously recreated in all his sun-soaked glory. Everything from this perfectly kept hairdo, the way he dribbles the ball, his shuffled sprint, right down to this unique free-kick stance. It’s all here, and it looks great.

Of course, the proverbial monkey on PES’ back has always been its licenses, or lack thereof, when compared to the FIFA franchise, especially for the Barclays’s Premier League. And that doesn’t seem like it will change this year. What PES does include, however, is full league and player licenses for the Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A, and a host of other individual clubs across Europe that Konami has also secured deals with, including: Manchester United (England), Bayern Munich (Germany), FC Porto (Portugal), FC Copenhagen (Denmark), AEK Athens (Greece), Galatasaray (Turkey) , Shakhtar Donetsk(Ukraine), Dynamo Kyiv (Ukraine) , Zenit Saint Petersburg (Russia), CSKA Moscow (Russia), RSC Anderlecht (Belgium), and Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia), among others.

Also, for the first time ever, South America is getting some love and attention. Konami has secured the license for the Copa Santander Libertadores, which pits the continent’s finest teams against one another in order to be crowned king of South America’s most prestigious club competition.

Needless to say, we’re really excited with what we have experience from PES 2013 so far. The last few years have seen FIFA sprint ahead of PES in virtually all categories across the board, but this year is shaping up to be a different story. While we haven’t had a chance to play the final build yet (check back with us for a full review in the coming weeks), we can already tell that choosing between FIFA and PES this year will cause soccer fans a welcome headache. And who knows, perhaps 13 will be Konami’s lucky number?