The Winning Eleven series has a short-lived history here in the United States, but has a grander reputation worldwide where it has sold more than 7 million copies on the Playstation 2 alone. The reason for the cult following overseas is simple: soccer, or futbol, is insanely more popular there. As a result, the fans in Europe and Asia are more attune to what good soccer is – but more importantly, those fans also know what a good soccer game is as well. Here in the United States, EA Sports’ FIFA series has reigned supreme for the last 10 years because of its pretty graphics and the ease of scoring goals. While FIFA has a niche market here, Winning Eleven (or Pro Evolution Soccer as it’s called internationally) has been a much stronger game, not necessarily in the graphics or special feature, but rather in the authentic portrayal of the game. The series, released by Konami, finally came to the United States for a 2003 Playstation 2 release. A version of the Pro Evolution soccer series was released in the United States in the mid-1990s on the original Playstation, but the title had a limited distribution, and an even lower amount of publicity. In February, Konami released the series’ seventh edition with the promise of another strong game. Noticeably absent from this game was online capability, which was something rumored to be included.
Presentation/Graphics : 85
In terms of soccer games, Winning Eleven might better even FIFA as the level of detail in the uniforms and faces outpace the competition. I’m pretty sure FIFA has a higher polygon count, but Winning Eleven has every sock stripe and shirt logo. But, when compared to other sports games (especially the newest round of PS2 baseball games), Winning Eleven looks less stunning. True, a game dripping with visual stimulation would probably only bog down the frame rate required to have a game where as many as 20 players are running around the screen. Graphics in soccer games are sort of like adding car seat warmers in a jeep; by that, I mean the optimal camera angles used in soccer games – ones panned far enough back to see charging forwards for lead passes – don’t focus much on the player models’ details. If Beckham’s golden locks aren’t sitting quite the right way you probably won’t notice. This differs from basketball games where you quite often see the sweat glimmering off of a forehead. If Allen Iverson looks like John Stockton you have a serious problem. The stadiums actually are crafted quite well. The crowd predominantly is 2-dimensional, but the little details of these large cavernous stadiums are very impressive looking. From top to bottom, the stadiums pack a lot of details from the large replay screens to the ads plastered along the field. Flags, many games, of the home team wave from the crowd. Unfortunately, the camera view rarely shows you the entire view.
During some load-up screens, the names of leagues, teams and players pop up while action screenshots scroll through. The graphical presentation, while not as flashy as others, still is adequate. The substitution screen was improved this edition as you can compare the starters with the back-ups via a pentagon shaped object that stretches based on the talent in a particular area. For example, if you compare Ronaldo with AC Milan’s Martin Laursen, the two shapes would be one large and one small. It’s a nice visual way to show how much, or little, you are losing with a substitute.
Presentation/Audio : 74
Like golf, soccer is not a sport that will have the hip hop appeal of the NFL or NBA. But, come on! The play-by-play and music sounds like an evening playing shuttle board on the cruise ship. Sure, the announcers will get excited for a millisecond, or when they yell: “Goaaaaaaalllllllll!!!!” Other than that, the announcers will occasionally blurt out a “this looks promising” when you advance a ball up the field. I don’t mind the lack of rah-rah, as Dick Vitale’s jubilance becomes old quickly in EA’s March Madness, but the announcers need to state more than the obvious. Too often, I would only hear action commentary that would only repeat something I had just done: “A kick … to the far left post,” one announcer would say. I don’t recall ever hearing something specific about a player or team. Everything seems formatted and universal. It’s one thing to be bland in Year 7 or 8 of a dynasty, but in year one that is way behind the sports gaming trend. The crowds, which can be tuned to neutral or home/away bias, actually aren’t as passionate as the fans in real life. People beat each other up in real life; they bite each other; riots sometimes break out. You never get a taste of that passion. The menu music essentially is techno music, but it honestly sounds more Final Fantasy XI than a sports game.
Interface/Options : 90
The interface does require some getting used to, especially in the Master League mode where you must juggle player salaries and team costs. The loading times have actually slowed from WE:6. The same game modes return: Match Mode; League Mode; Cup Mode and Master League. Match is essentially the exhibition mode, league is a round robin-style tournament, cup is another tournament mode and Master League is the multiple-season mode. The Master League is supposed to have 40 percent more features, and while I’m not counting, the mode has certainly become bolstered. For soccer junkies, the Master League is the best soccer gaming has to offer. Some of the menu screens within the Master League mode, however, confuse me immensely. Thankfully, the game has help screens that break down the financial system and terminology.
At least for me, Winning Eleven 7 has a steep learning curve, especially in the most difficult four- and five-star levels. Accurate, precise passing is a must. Luckily, the game has a wonderful training mode similar to Madden’s Training Camp feature where you practice basic skills. For example, there are tests for dribbling, short and long passes and free kicks. Not only do these training modes help you become accustomed with the game, they also are quite addicting! You get to choose what player or players to use, which only adds to the fun. One gripe, however: you can’t quickly restart if you fail to hit the mandated score, but rather you have to return to the menu screen then wait for a few loading screens.
What the game lacks in options is a fun, mini-game like a three-point contest in a basketball game. The tutorial modes are addicting, yes, but they are drills. I would have loved to have seen a “shootout” mode.
Gameplay : 97
Unlike the other soccer games on the market, Winning Eleven isn’t a glorified version of kickball. Thank God for that.
The other soccer games on the market – FIFA, 989 Sports’ World Tour Soccer, and a handful of random games – employ a gameplay engine where a talented, streaking dribbler can consistently score goals. This occurs because of a lack of detail and sophistication in the defensive game engine where CPU players apply the “if I don’t see it, I ain’t guarding it” theory. This, of course, changes with Winning Eleven where all the computer players always seem to be thinking and moving. You’ll notice players adjusting their positions on the field panning back the camera. There’s no spectacular, defining moment, but Winning Eleven players are just … smarter. I have yet to come across a sports game that makes you, the gamer, think so much. I’m sure the level of concentration will decrease as my skill level improves, but I can’t help but draw the parallel to chess. You always have to think one or two passes ahead.
On a more micro level, the game has little quirks, be it a heel pass or the deflection of a header, spice up the game’s experience. Often times, I would stop after a seemingly inconsequential play and think: “Yeah! That’s how that happens.” It sounds cheesy, but as Robin Williams put it in the movie “Good Will Hunting” you remember the little things. Williams missed his wife’s farting habits; I remember the “thud” made by the ball when a offensive player crosses the ball.
Technically speaking, Winning Eleven 7 is a huge leap from the previous game and the competition, as a new gameplay engine was implemented. Aesthetically, you don’t notice the difference much, but the gameplay has a different feel. Speedier players will actually burst past slower defenders, and the long animations of turning and accelerating are now gone. The response time has fastened, which only enriches the true breakneck feeling of soccer. Offensive players are jittery, but so, too, is the defense that swarms you when you enter their side of the field.
The only problems come within the 20-yard box. Closer freekicks are tough to place with any accuracy. The same goes for corner kicks. Shooting, also, is cumbersome as you can’t really gauge power other than by slowing or quickening your momentum.
The game has a steep learning curve. Unless you spend some time with the game’s training modes, you’ll struggle to score and defend goals.
Replay Value : 95
The only gripe here is the lack of an online mode. The game plays great with a friend (the game has multiplayer ability up to 8 gamers), but the CPU is very challenging. Even on the three-star difficulty (five is the hardest), I have strong troubles scoring goals. The Master League is as in-depth as any multiple season mode, Madden, NCAA Football or World Series Baseball included.
Overall : 94
In terms of soccer games, Winning Eleven is by far the strongest game on the market. It’s interesting, however, to cross compare the game with other successful sports games. The game certainly lacks the all inclusiveness of Madden, which has bells and whistles to attract the hardcore gamer and the weekend warrior. Winning Eleven certainly tailors only to a diehard soccer fan, which is probably why sales are sluggish here. That said, the gameplay engine is brilliant, not only for its attention to detail, but also for its perpetual challenge. I don’t think I can categorize the gameplay as “easy to pick up, but difficult to master” but I never think I’m being cheated by the CPU. When I screw up and allow a goal or biff a breakaway shot the blame falls on me. EA Sports is notorious for essentially cheating on their hardest difficult levels, making slower players faster, making dumber players smarter, and making your great players not so great. When you lose in those games, you think: “I hate this game! It cheats!” That omission in Winning Eleven only demonstrates the depth and sophistication of the gameplay engine. For that reason alone, Winning Eleven should be considered as one of the best sports game in the last year with Madden 2004 and NCAA Football 2004.