In Europe, where soccer games are plentiful, Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer series is widely regarded as the very best the genre has to offer. EA Sports' FIFA series has always boasted superior visuals, better match commentary, and a slicker presentation, but over time more and more European gamers have come to realize that when it comes to gameplay, the soccer games developed by KCET really are in a league of their own. The latest KCET-developed soccer game, Pro Evolution Soccer 2, was released in Europe on the same day as FIFA 2003 last year, and, much to everyone's surprise, it topped the sales chart and went on to sell more than a million units across Europe in just 40 days. Winning Eleven 6 International is the North American name for Pro Evolution Soccer 2, and you've probably already guessed that the game is better than FIFA 2003--all we need to do now is explain why.
Playing Winning Eleven 6 International for the first time can be an intimidating experience. Not only are the in-game menus poorly presented, but once you find your way into a match, there's a very good chance that you won't manage to score a single goal. This isn't because scoring goals in the game is unnecessarily difficult, or because the controls are particularly tricky to get a handle on--it's simply because the kinds of attacks you might be used to scoring with in other soccer games simply won't work in Winning Eleven. The reason? Because they normally wouldn't work in real life.
Realism has always been key in the Winning Eleven series, and despite the fact that Konami's license doesn't allow it to feature real team and player names, the game re-creates the sport of soccer so well that it's easy to see past this failing. For anyone uncomfortable with the idea of pitting soundalike teams against each other, Winning Eleven 6 International also features a fairly powerful editing tool that can be used to customize not only the names, appearances, and attributes of teams and their players, but also the flags that will be waved by the teams' supporters during matches. The process of entering all the correct information is time-consuming, but the option to do so is an important inclusion for soccer fans keen to take control of their favorite team. Before taking to the pitch, you also have the option to fully customize your team's formation, playing style, and player lineup. It's also possible to select up to four different tactics for your team, which can then be easily activated mid-game using the shoulder buttons.
Once you get your team out onto the pitch, it's hard not to be impressed by the game's near-FIFA-quality visuals, and when the game kicks off, it quickly becomes apparent that Winning Eleven 6 International is by far the most realistic soccer game for any platform to date. The ball physics in the game are completely believable, and the animations as the players interact with it are not only great to look at, but they also seem infinitely varied, so no matter where the ball is in relation to a player, his actions never look out of place. The range of moves available to a player in possession of the ball is also impressive, and it is accessed via a control scheme that both intelligent and intuitive. Straightforward passes, through balls, long balls, and shots are all accessed via a single button, but depressing the L1 button when in possession of the ball opens up a whole new set of moves, including one-two passes, lofted through balls, early crosses, and lob shots. When in possession of the ball, there are also three different running speeds with varying levels of ball control, a few occasionally effective trick moves, and some really intelligent control assists, such as the way that the shoot button performs an almighty clearance if you're in your own half, or the way that pressing the long ball button when you're out wide alongside your opponent's penalty area will automatically send a probing cross ball in.
The gameplay is equally sublime when you're not in possession of the ball, and rather than forcing you to chase the ball manually, Winning Eleven 6 allows you to automatically send your nearest player after it simply by pressing the X button, send him after it more quickly by also depressing the R1 button, and if necessary add a second player to the pursuit with the square button. It all sounds terribly complicated at first, but it soon becomes second nature, and it undoubtedly offers a greater degree of control over multiple players than any other soccer game. The thinking behind this particular feature is, of course, not to make retrieving the ball from opponents easy, but to free your own player for performing other duties such as looking to intercept passes or manually marking a dangerous member of the opposition.
When on the defensive in any soccer game, the player who comes under the most scrutiny is undoubtedly the goalkeeper. Thankfully, the keepers in Winning Eleven 6 are very realistic, and although you'll occasionally curse them for failing to make what looks like an easy save, the believable match scores in the game speak volumes for their abilities, and since you have the option to bring your keeper out for the ball manually at any point, you'll often be just as much to blame for conceded goals as your keeper.
Once you've mastered the basic game controls, checked out the game's excellent training mode, and perhaps unlocked a few of the classic international squads by winning leagues and cup tournaments, the best way to play Winning Eleven 6--particularly when you're on your own--is in the master league mode. Starting out with a relatively unskilled team in the third division, you'll take your team all the way to the top by spending points earned during every match on signing valuable players for your squad. This, in turn, makes winning subsequent matches a little easier, which is a good thing, because the wage demands of the top players can put a real strain on your finances if you lose too many matches. Perhaps the coolest feature of the master league mode is the ability to pit your team against those of your friends. And because of the way the transfer market works, it's highly unlikely that you'll have many of the same players on your squad--even if you both believe your personal selection has very little room for improvement.
Like most sports games nowadays, Winning Eleven 6 features multiplayer support for more than two players--eight in fact, though filling two Multitaps can become a little confusing, and playing two-on-two is perhaps as good as it gets. The great thing about teaming up with a friend is that while one of you has the ball, the other can make runs to draw away defenders or get into space--playing a great ball that allows your teammate to score is every bit as rewarding as scoring one yourself, and since the game rarely allows you to move the ball from one end of the pitch to the other without passing it around, there's very little chance of one player hogging the ball.
Winning Eleven 6 International is, without a doubt, the finest soccer game available for any game platform right now. KCET has managed to develop a game that achieves a near-perfect balance between realism and gameplay, and the drastic changes that have been made to the FIFA games in recent years are undoubtedly EA's attempt to catch up in light of the Konami series' increasing popularity. If you're a fan of the sport, or of sports games in general, you'd be doing yourself a disservice if you didn't take a look at Winning Eleven 6 International--friends who see you playing it might not be overly impressed by the presentation or the commentary, but if you can persuade them to play a few matches against you, you'll be guaranteed a playing partner for life.