Already available in Europe as Pro Evolution Soccer 5 and currently scheduled for North American release in February, World Soccer Winning Eleven 9 is the latest entry in Konami's long-running series of soccer games. One of the strengths of Konami's Winning Eleven series is that every new game manages to improve upon its predecessor quite noticeably, but the games never change so dramatically that they might feel unfamiliar to fans. We recently got our hands on a near-finished North American version of World Soccer Winning Eleven 9, and although we've not yet been able to spend as much time with the game as we'd like, we're pleased to report that Konami's Tokyo-based development team looks to have improved upon its near-perfect soccer game again.
Although its presentation is far more stylish this year, Winning Eleven 9's main menu screen will look pretty familiar if you're a fan of the series. You can opt to play a quick match, manage an up-and-coming team in the "master league" career mode, compete in league and cup competitions, or hone your skills in a series of training exercises. Unfamiliar to North American fans, though, will be the network play option, which lets you take on other Winning Eleven 9 players online. Network play was a feature of the series in other territories last year but was removed from the North American version of Winning Eleven 8 for reasons unknown. Another neat new gameplay option in Winning Eleven 9 is the "memorial match" versus mode, which will let you and your friends keep track of your results against each other across multiple sessions.
What you want to know right now, of course, is how Winning Eleven 9 will differ from the previous game after you step out onto the field with your chosen team. But before we get to that, we really have to tell you about the upcoming game's edit mode. Although Winning Eleven games have always offered realistic and enjoyable soccer, many fans of the sport have been turned off by the fact that the games don't boast nearly as many licensed teams as EA Sports' FIFA offerings. Winning Eleven 9 will not only feature more officially licensed teams than any of its predecessors (including Arsenal, Chelsea, Rangers, and Celtic), but will also boast powerful editing tools that let you customize the appearances and names of players, teams, stadiums, and competitions, and even create custom boot designs using a system not dissimilar to that used for custom team emblems in previous games. Licensed Adidas boots are a feature of the game anyway, but if you'd rather see your players sporting a pair of Umbros, Nikes, or Pumas, for example, you'll need to experiment with the various templates and stencils on offer. As an added incentive to experiment with the edit mode, any custom players and teams that you create can be copied to your PSP for use in the handheld version of the game.
After your chosen team steps out onto the field, you'll immediately notice that the player likenesses in Winning Eleven 9 are by far the most realistic to grace the series to date. Depending on where your match is taking place, you might also recognize one of the world's most famous stadiums, even if its default name is incorrect and it's filled with blocky-looking cardboard spectators who aren't nearly as animated as the game's superb crowd noises suggest. When the game kicks off, those of you who are fans of the series could be forgiven for thinking that very little has changed since Winning Eleven 8, and as far as the gameplay basics are concerned you'd be right. Look a little deeper, though, and you'll find that producer Shingo "Seabass" Takatsuka and his team have been busy.
The game's control setup is largely unchanged, although a few tweaks have been implemented that you'll certainly want to familiarize yourself with. Shots on goal appear to be more difficult to get on target in Winning Eleven 9, for example, but you can improve your chances by holding the R2 button while shooting to unleash a more accurate "controlled shot." It's also possible to adjust the strength of your shots using the X and triangle buttons now, though we've enjoyed little success with this technique thus far. When playing against CPU opposition, you'll also have to get used to a more fast-paced passing game of soccer, because even on the game's easier skill settings the opposing players are quick to apply pressure when they don't have the ball. The intelligence of the players that we weren't controlling directly during our time with the game rarely failed to impress, actually, to the point that we were admiring the opposing team's defensive players rather than cursing our forwards whenever they were caught in an offside position.
Nice-looking snowy weather conditions aside, we've really got very little else to report on Winning Eleven 9 at this point. We'll be spending some more time with the game in the coming weeks, though, so expect further updates as its February release date closes in.