Already available in Europe as Pro Evolution Soccer 4, Winning Eleven 8 International is the latest soccer game to come out of Konami's Tokyo-based KCET studio. We recently had an opportunity to spend some time with work-in-progress versions of Winning Eleven 8 International for both the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox, and although we're still very disappointed not to be getting the Xbox Live support currently enjoyed by European players, we've found the game still offers some quite significant improvements over last year's iteration.
The "master league" career mode in Winning Eleven 8 International, for example, boasts a number of new options that will make it even more appealing to fans of the series, as well as much more accessible to newcomers. When starting a career in previous Winning Eleven games, your team would always be composed of the same fictional (and not terribly good) players. In Winning Eleven 8 International, you have the option to start your career with a squad composed of your chosen team's real players. This certainly makes the master league mode more realistic, but it also makes it less challenging, because your first goal when playing a career in previous Winning Eleven titles was always to assemble a strong team with the limited resources at your disposal. We suspect the majority of longtime Winning Eleven fans will want to stick with the fictional squad option, but KCET certainly can't be criticized for augmenting the existing options.
Another all-new option in the master league mode concerns player development. Now you're allowed to access a "development sheet" for every player on your team, which compares his current attributes to those he had on the day he joined your team. We've not spent enough time with the game to comment on how noticeably you can expect your players to change over the course of a career, but having players whose skills aren't set in stone should certainly make your role as a manager more interesting. Depending on how seriously you take that role, you might also be interested in checking out the new match analysis screen after every game you play. The match analysis screen features diagrams that chart your team's shooting, attack, and defense patterns. We've found the screen to be particularly useful for identifying the offensive tactics that have proved most successful for us in terms of goals scored.
Perhaps the most welcome addition to the master league mode in Winning Eleven 8 International, though, is the powerful new player search engine that you'll use when you're looking to augment your squad with a new player or two. There are a number of different search options available to you with which you'll be able to find players using their names, teams, playing styles, or specific attribute ratings. The advanced search, which allows you to search for players according to their attributes, basically works the same way as searches in most soccer management titles, so it's a really easy way to filter out huge numbers of players that you have no interest in signing. The talent search option is more unusual in that it lets you search for players according to their special skills and playing styles using 14 different filters. The filters are as follows: post player, dribbler, ace striker, winger, play maker, shadow striker, defensive midfielder, stopper, defense leader, offensive sideback, dogfighter, stronghold guardian, speed demon, and free kicker. Some of the filters are obviously more self-explanatory than others, so it's good that you'll see a brief description of each filter when you move your cursor over it.
Winning Eleven 8 International doesn't just boast improvements off the pitch, of course, because KCET has clearly risen to the challenge of improving upon the best soccer game on the market yet again. For starters, Winning Eleven 8 International is the first game in the series to feature licensed teams with authentic uniforms, sponsor logos, and such. The officially licensed teams are limited to club sides from the Italian, Spanish, and Dutch leagues, but it's definitely a step in the right direction as far as realism (and being able to compete with EA's FIFA franchise purely on gameplay rather than licensing terms) is concerned. The rest of the teams in the game (there are almost 200 total) feature the same generic-looking uniforms and ridiculous names the series has become notorious for, but dedicated fans can easily correct all that stuff using the game's editing tools.
Once a match gets under way, fans of the series will quickly start to notice some of the numerous tweaks and improvements KCET has implemented in Winning Eleven 8 International. The first major new feature we noticed on the pitch, for example, involved a slightly injured player being taken off the field on a stretcher so that he could receive treatment before returning to the game a few minutes later. Given how often this happens in real soccer, it's an obvious addition, but it's one that has never been fully implemented before now. We've also noticed that the players in Winning Eleven 8 International play a much more physical game of soccer than their Winning Eleven 7 counterparts. You'll often see players pushing and shoving one another, knocking one another over, and even blatantly obstructing opponents who are about to pass them. This sometimes resulted in a few more stoppages than we liked, but since KCET has removed the seemingly random (and definitely irritating) hand-ball offenses that proved unpopular in last year's game, it's a small price to pay.
Most of the other changes we noticed during matches thus far will come as no surprises to fans of the ever-improving series. The goalkeepers are less prone to errors when you bring them out of the goalmouth manually, the outfield players make more intelligent runs off the ball than ever, and the ball physics are, as always, completely believable. You'll rarely see unrealistically large score lines when playing against similarly skilled opponents, you'll rarely score the same goal twice, and we're confident that the odds of you scoring a goal that you consider unrealistic in any way are practically zero. Adding to the great sense of realism in Winning Eleven 8 International are player-specific details that, while not numerous, are sure to bring knowing smiles to the faces of soccer fans everywhere. David Beckham, for example, adopts a posture when taking free kicks that, as in real life, is unlike that employed by any other player. Beckham's Real Madrid teammate Roberto Carlos takes a run-up that's almost twice as long as anybody else's whenever he takes a free kick, and if you score a goal with Tottenham Hotspur's Robbie Keane, you'll get to see his trademark celebration.
In short, Winning Eleven 8 International is a great-looking soccer game that, had it been released around the same time as FIFA 2005, would certainly have given EA Sports' latest offering a run for its money. The lack of online play is certainly disappointing, but the best way to play Winning Eleven titles has always been two-on-two, and you only need one screen for that. Expect a full review of Winning Eleven 8 International next month.