TOKYO--The Winning Eleven series of football games (Pro Evolution Soccer in Europe) may be about to change names internationally, but the evolution of the franchise continues on in its quest for perfection. Gone are the days when whole sections of the game would be stripped out and recoded, for nowadays we're down to a gentle sanding down of the rough edges.
As a result, there's nothing that feels revolutionary about the Japanese version of Winning Eleven: Pro Evolution Soccer 2007 for the PlayStation 2, but a decent number of those little frustrations you may have gotten used to after months of Master League action have been amended.
The first of those is the passing game, which has been tweaked to give attacking players slightly more of an edge. Previously the ball has tended to go directly to a player's feet, unless you selected the riskier and often-intercepted through ball option. This was fine in the final third, provided somebody had made a decent run, but when starting out on a counterattack, passing to a fullback who was just beginning to get up steam but was still behind play could stall the move enough for it to lose all momentum.
Now, in such situations, passes may be made ahead of a player into a space that he's running into, meaning that an opponent's team can be opened up far more efficiently with a bit of quick thinking. There's still a decent chance that passes which are too ambitious may fail, and in truth it's a subtle change, but one which over the course of a few games does seem to pay dividends.
Another adjustment that's been made lies around fouls committed. Rather than stumble and pause for a few moments, players who are the victim of an unsuccessful tackle will now recover more quickly and run on with the ball. Defenders will need to be more accurate from now on, and won't be able to rely on the rather random jostling that used to always seem to resolve itself in either a foul, or the defender's possession.
Goalkeepers seem to have been tweaked as well, and they no longer seem invulnerable against aerial challenges. Playing as Real Madrid--with an up-to-date roster that included Van Nistelrooy and Reyes--against several other teams including Barcelona and Koshima Antlers, we scored one goal by directly challenging the goalkeeper. Rather than perform an autocatch, as before, the keeper fumbled it down to another of my strikers, who nodded in from the edge of the six-yard box.
Running with the ball also seems to have been made a little easier, though we never really succeeded in passing more than one defender at a time. Rather, a quick turn and dash resulted in success more often than in previous versions of the game, and this is especially helpful when combined with tweaks to crossed passes as well. In both double- and triple-tap crosses, there's more a feeling of aiming for a specific player--even if that player's making a run--rather than a random lump into the box, although we suspect this may depend on how good a particular player is at crossing. Beckham seemed to be able to pick out players better than most, for example.
Running onto crosses and through balls has also been tightened as far as we could tell, and though it's a minor tweak, players seem to be able to take first-time shots more effectively now than they once did. What's more, decent strikers feel stronger in the air, and we powered in a couple of nice headered goals from high, accurate crosses.
Overall, although the Japanese version of the game we played contained J-League 1, J-League 2, and a couple of European leagues, the international version will more than likely play in a very similar way. If that's the case, Winning Eleven and Pro Evolution fans will have something to cheer, although those new to the franchise might take some time to learn the game's finer points. We'll have more as the European and US ship dates approach.