There are soccer video games, and then there is Winning Eleven. Far from being just another sports franchise, it has created something resembling a worldwide cult following among football fans. Despite a distinct lack of the licenses that Electronic Arts' FIFA series owns (and exploits with numerous releases per year, with World Cup and UEFA Champions League titles supplementing annual FIFA games), aficionados by the millions salivate over the release of the newest Konami soccer title every year. No other franchise seems to garner the global respect and admiration that WE enjoys among gamers, journalists, and industry analysts.
What is it about the series that generates such love? It's that most elusive of qualities – gameplay, gameplay, gameplay. It may not feature the best graphics, the most teams (real or imagined), or the largest amount of modes. However, it's universally regarded as the best representation of how real soccer plays, including the nuances of player interaction, offensive and defensive tactics, and realistic ball physics. It also features the most addictive mode available in any soccer game, the vaunted Master League. This starts you off with a team of scrubs, scratching and clawing your way from the depths of the third division to ultimately achieve a championship in the top league. Managing player development, the transfer market, team dynamics, and strategy has engrossed many a player into spending hundreds of hours in pursuit of virtual soccer dreams.
Yes, the games are that good.
No matter how you look at it, though, the bottom line is that Winning Eleven Pro Soccer Evolution 2007 is a winner.
Making its debut on a next-generation console, Winning Eleven Pro Soccer Evolution 2007 finally arrives to give the Xbox 360 some competition on the pitch. Sure, EA's FIFA games have been solid enough, but there's no doubt that there has been a clamoring for a WE representative to show itself. With it comes (almost) everything you'd expect – terrific player smarts, the Master League, and a solid online implementation. With all of that, though, players are left with a little bit of a feeling that instead of a built-for-the-360 game, they're really playing with a souped-up port of the Playstation 2 title. Is that the worst thing in the world? Heck no, since you're talking about one of the better sports games on the market (and at $50 it's $10 less than most games for the console). On the other hand, while I like substance over style, it would have been nice to see a bit more eye candy and a slicker presentation.
If you've never played a game in the series on any console, WEPES 2007 on the 360 is a fine place to start. I have admittedly been intimidated in the past PS2 versions of the game because of the no-holds-barred skill level that the game demands in order to be successful. Unlike the much more user-friendly FIFA series, scoring goals and winning games takes practice, patience, practice, more patience, followed up by some more practice. In other words, it's pretty much like the real game played by top-division clubs – and anxious American gamers who haven't played the series annually a la Madden aren't always the best group to learn the subtle nuances available deep within the engine. Luckily, there's an eminently playable training mode that will let you tool around the pitch and learn all of the ins and outs. You can put your squad out there against nobody up to a full team and every number in between until you're ready to play for keeps.
The Master League mode continues as a pure gem, and forces you to really learn the game's fundamentals by starting you off with a bunch of chumps facing similarly desultory competition. What better way to really start to see how different formations, player positions, and attack/defense styles affect the gameplay than to boil the game down to its foundations? Stripping out the Ronaldhinos, Beckhams, and Keanes for eleven guys named Joe will allow you to learn how to properly pass, shoot, set up, and otherwise understand the deep fundamentals of the game engine.
The Master League rocks hard, but the absolute best way to enjoy any WE game is multiplayer, and the online mode is implemented very well on the Xbox 360. Finding someone who's on or around your level will ultimately prove to be about as enjoyable of an experience as you can have – but if you're a newcomer to the game, you'd better find a suitable match. Longtime Winning Eleven players can and will run roughshod over you, even if the teams aren't paired up in their favor. It's easy to tell who really understands the game. Generally speaking, unless you're a vet, you'd better stick to the minor leagues for awhile.
The only blatantly strange aspect of the game is the fact that there is no way to edit any of the teams. Due to the aforementioned lack of most team licenses, many of the clubs have somewhat generic names such as, for example, "Merseyside Red" (which is really Liverpool). Other than a handful of sides such as Bayern Munich, Manchester United, and a few others, all of the teams have "fake" names. In years past, you could easily go in and modify the names, kits, and assorted data to plug in the "real world" info. This year? No such luck, at least on the 360. Strange indeed.
No matter how you look at it, though, the bottom line is that Winning Eleven Pro Soccer Evolution 2007 is a winner. It looks and plays beautifully, and between the Master League and multiplayer options you could easily play hundreds of games and still keep going without tiring of it. The Achievements are kind to newcomers, with the ability to capture most of them without putting in gobs of hours (except for the online ones – they'll make you work pretty hard for those). With all of that said, however, I'll make one thing clear - next year, we're all going to expect even more.