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.
Winning Eleven Pro Soccer Evolution 2007 keeps all that was solid from last year, with the Master League making a desperately needed return.
Well, normally they are. Last year’s debut for the series, titled World Soccer Winning Eleven 9 was a dynamic title that had everything a fan of the series would want – except, for some reason, the Master League. That’s almost like someone handing you the keys to a Lexus after they’ve removed the stereo system. Sure, it still drives great and looks nice on the outside, but after an hour or two you’ll realize that no sound equals a less-than-satisfying experience. Thankfully, this season its follow up (and better named) Winning Eleven Pro Soccer Evolution 2007 keeps all that was solid from last year, with the Master League making a desperately needed return.
Exhale, Winning Eleven fans. Your addiction has returned.
If you’ve never played a game in the series on any console, WEPES 2007 on the PSP is literally the best starting point I could ever recommend. 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.
However, the PSP version is eminently playable, even to a goofball such as myself. As a longtime sports nut, I know my way around the world soccer tables at a high level (Manchester United, Barcelona, AC Milan, and Bayern Munich tend to be pretty good, for example) but can’t rattle off the names of more than a dozen or so famous footballers. However, set at the default difficulty level, I can score a goal or two in most of my games and even win a few. This doesn’t happen because my skill levels have increased (ha!), but because the players behave so smartly by putting themselves in good position on offense and defense. It’s also amazing to see on the small screen how lifelike many of the players appear; Rooney, Ronaldo, and the like all look sharp and crisp on the PSP.
The real gem, as you’ve guessed by now, is the Master League, which 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 only blatantly painful aspect of the game is the shooting mechanic – namely, it’s impossible when using the analog nub. This is somewhat remedied by quickly switching to the directional pad when taking the shot, and although it’s a little clunky to execute at first, you’ll come to learn to do it well soon enough. You also have to be extremely judicious when holding the shooting button down – anything more than a millisecond will cause your shot to soar wildly over the net. I must have lost dozens of goals in my first Master League season because of overanxiousness and that damn button. On the rare occasions when I was able to work myself into decent scoring position, remembering to barely mash the square button proved tough as nails. Of course, if it were easy to score, it wouldn’t be too realistic now, would it?
There are only a few other quirks, none of which really take away from the overall excellence of the game. For one, there’s no commentary at all, save for an out-of-nowhere few words that get spouted when a goal is scored. It’s a strange experience, and frankly I’d prefer that there be no spoken words rather than just a few. There are also numerous in-game advertisements around the field that I could do without, even if they do add to a “real-world” look to the goings-on.
The bottom line, though, is that Winning Eleven Pro Soccer Evolution 2007 is an absolute gem. 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 the game. Even better, it invites newcomers and longtime fans to the table. While FIFA may rule with the licenses, WE owns on the pitch.