Until now, EA Sports' FIFA franchise has had the monopoly on the PSP soccer games market. FIFA Soccer was released for Sony's handheld in April of last year, and less than six months after that the superior FIFA 06 arrived in stores. This week that all changed when Konami unleashed a PSP version of World Soccer Winning Eleven 9 alongside the PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions of the game. The PSP game lacks a lot of its console counterparts' features, but on the field of play it's still the most realistic soccer game ever made.
If you're a fan of the Winning Eleven series, you're almost certainly a fan of its engrossing "master league" career mode, which we're sorry to report is absent from the PSP game. You'll find quick match, league, and training gameplay options on the main menu, though, as well as Ad Hoc wireless support for two players. The match and league options should be self-explanatory, but we'll point out that the game's training mode lacks the enjoyable set-piece challenges and such that have almost become a trademark of the console game--it simply gives you an opportunity to kick a ball around on the field without any opposition.
The remaining option on the main menu is the all-important edit mode, which lets you customize the names, appearances, and attributes of every player and team in the game. This option has always been a key feature of Winning Eleven games, simply because the vast majority of that information is incorrect by default as a result of Konami lacking the necessary licenses to use real-world information. That situation is slowly improving, though, and so in addition to the licenses that Konami acquired for the Dutch, Italian, and Spanish leagues last year, there are now a number of other licensed club teams in the game, including the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Rangers, Celtic, Dynamo Kiev, and Galatasaray. It's unfortunate that there are still a large number of high-profile teams in Winning Eleven 9 whose names and uniforms are generic, but you'll find that the game's editing tools are more powerful than ever before if you don't mind spending some time with them. If you own the PS2 version of Winning Eleven 9, it's also possible for you to transfer your edited information from that game to your PSP.
What sets Winning Eleven 9 apart from the competition once a match gets underway can be difficult to put a finger on, but it's clear that Konami's development team has once again taken a near-perfect soccer game and improved upon it in more ways than we dared hope. More impressive still is the fact that, visuals aside, the PSP game is almost impossible to distinguish from the PS2 version. Perhaps the most dramatic improvement this year is the way that your players handle when you're controlling them, but you'll also notice that the other players on the field behave and are animated far more realistically now.
When you're in control of a player with the ball, for example, it's very simple to perform quick sidesteps and turns because you don't have to use anything but your analog stick to do so. You still have the option to perform more showy turns and tricks using the left shoulder button, but it's unlikely that you'll ever become dependent on them because, now more than ever, it's your ability to pass the ball that will win you matches. Passing is important not only because your CPU opponents are very quick to close you down whenever you get the ball, but also because the CPU players on your team will be making intelligent runs forward and expecting you to pick them out any time you have possession.
Since passing the ball is even more important in Winning Eleven 9 than it has been in previous Winning Eleven games, it's also important that you're able to intercept the opposing team's passes when you're on defense. The bad news is that the tackles your players will perform automatically when you hold down the "pressure" button are a little clumsier than in previous games, often resulting in mistimed challenges. The opposite is true for sliding tackles, however, which are relatively easy to time correctly, and are far more likely to result in you coming away with the ball than has been the case in previous games. The upshot of this subtle but noticeable change is that you can no longer rely on just holding down the pressure button to win the ball back. With that said, having a second CPU player apply pressure to the opponent with the ball while you concentrate on marking the player you think he's looking to pass to is definitely one that you'll want to master, particularly if you're planning to play against friends.
Intelligent CPU players are all well and good, of course, but there's really no substitute for playing against a human opponent, which the PSP version of Winning Eleven 9 lets you do using the handheld's Ad Hoc wireless functionality. The lack of online play is definitely a little disappointing, as is the fact that the game supports only two players (FIFA 06 supports four), but neither of these things is reason enough to dismiss what is otherwise a superb soccer game. Nor is Winning Eleven 9's lack of any match commentary a cause for concern, even if it's the most noticeable difference between the PSP and PS2 games on the field.
Off the field, you'll notice that the PSP version of Winning Eleven 9 is actually easier on the eyes than its home-console counterparts, partly thanks to the handheld's gorgeous screen, but also because many of the menus have benefited from minor facelifts and palette changes. The console game's disappointing and repetitive soundtrack, on the other hand, is unchanged on the PSP.
The PSP version of Winning Eleven 9 is, quite simply, a great achievement on the part of Konami's Tokyo-based development team. It's almost a given nowadays that PSP versions of PS2 games are often every bit as good, but that doesn't make being able to play a game like Winning Eleven 9 while sitting on the bus any less remarkable.