Konami's answer to FIFA has returned again with some graphical updates and gameplay enhancements, as well as a series-first dive into online play. If you've hit the field with Winning Eleven before, then you know the drill pretty well. This smooth footy sim where the world is your very own stadium-littered playground is a good mix of solid and challenging sports gaming. Some may find their first few runs down the field a bit overbearing, but perseverance pays off once you finally start driving the wins home.
My initial impression, naturally, was based purely on the game's aesthetics. Winning Eleven 9 still looks better from afar than close up, but nice fluid animations extend the graphical illusion and help the game rise above somewhat average visuals. It doesn't hurt that, aside from some repetitive announcing, it sounds great as well. However, after putting in a decent amount of time with this iteration of Winning Eleven, I started to long for a soccer-themed version of Capcom's Steel Battalion controller. The pedals could control the dribbling while the main console chugs with steam-powered intensity to manage the myriad of commands at your disposal. Unfortunately, I'm stuck with a Dual Shock and far too much to memorize.
The control dilemma is heightened by the fact that so many of the commands are circumstance based. A single button has a wealth of uses depending on your position and the current context, and it's a thick, heavy meal to digest. This isn't to say that you won't eventually "get it," but it's a war of attrition at first with a fairly lofty learning curve. This is the type of game that you can't write off after the first handful of matches, because actually getting everything down is, in itself, very rewarding.
Because of this, initial strategy attempts are going to stick to the elementary goal of not letting the other team score. If you can save yourself from an embarrassing blowout, you end up less frustrated with the whole experience. Ideally, this will leave you with the patience necessary to fight the uphill battle of offense. Iron wall defenses make for a delicate and demanding passing game, something you'll have to quickly become clean and efficient at. A lot of work goes into choosing the right kind of pass and mastering the timing involved in getting it close enough to the goal to actually kick it in. Then you're on your own. Have fun getting it past the goalie.
Nonetheless, such drawbacks are no reason to dismiss this game, as the dedication that it takes to become an ace player is a pretty nice justification for purchasing rather than renting. Sure, you could have a weekend of multiplayer fun with friends, but after a few hours of playing, you'll likely be down for digging into the intricacies, like grinding a butter knife into a deep steak. That still doesn't necessarily excuse the itchy trigger finger of the officials. Make a point to get used to the sound of the ref's whistle, because they're gonna be watching your ass like perverts through an oversized keyhole.
Soccer fans will no doubt be pleased at the wealth of options and customizations that help personalize your team, their strategies, and the overall match-to-come. Of course, if there's any reason for aged veterans of Konami's stalwart series to return, it's going to be the new Online mode. Eager competitors can engage in quick matches against one another, or even work the same sides with co-op play. Despite the fact that this mode has been a long time coming, it's definitely better late than never.
Avid soccer purists who know what they're getting into with Winning Eleven 9 probably already have this on their "to buy" list, or stacked neatly on their shelves next to the last edition. Even though the game can be intimidating to new players, the satisfaction of really tearing into it is worth giving it a try over EA's series. Give it a few weeks and you might actually score a point or two!