When Konami released World Soccer Winning Eleven 8 International early in 2005, we described it as the best soccer game ever made. Then, toward the end of that year, EA Sports released FIFA 06, which was not only the best game in that series to date, but played such an enjoyable version of the beautiful game that even the most passionate Winning Eleven fans were compelled to take notice. In short, 2005 was a great year to play soccer games, and as we predicted earlier this year when World Soccer Winning Eleven 9 arrived on the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox, 2006 is even better. The PC version of Konami's latest soccer offering has arrived in North American stores, and it plays every bit as well as its console counterparts and offers a much-improved online experience.
Like previous games in Konami's long-running series, Winning Eleven 9 does a great job of improving upon its predecessor, and it does so not through the introduction of any revolutionary new features or controls, but simply by making everything that the previous game offered noticeably better. The PC version of Winning Eleven 8 was the first game in the series to feature online play, but its implementation was awful since the only ways to connect to opponents were by exchanging IP addresses or by downloading a third-party program. Winning Eleven 9, on the other hand, features a lobby system that, although dated, makes getting those lag-free (in our experience, anyway) matches underway much less painful.
The moment you arrive at Winning Eleven 9's main menu screen, those of you who have played a Winning Eleven game in recent years will feel right at home. The gameplay options available to you include a quick match, the "master league" career mode, custom league and cup competitions, online play, training, and the all-important edit mode. The option to edit the names and appearances of players and teams 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.
Where you'll really want to spend the bulk of your time, though, is in Winning Eleven 9's master league career mode, which basically plays out in exactly the same way as it did in last year's game. You can choose to manage any of the game's 140 or so club teams for the duration of your career, and you also have the option to start the game either with your chosen team's real roster or with a relatively unskilled squad of fictional players. Choosing to use real players for your master league will invariably make it much easier for you to win matches, but you'll have a much larger wage bill to worry about, and you'll likely find that your players' abilities deteriorate over time because they're already at or slightly past their best when your career gets underway.
Wage bills and other financial matters aren't something that you'll have to concern yourself with too much in Winning Eleven 9, but it's worth pointing out that one of only two ways that your career can come to an abrupt end in the game is if you don't have enough points to pay your team's salary at the end of a season. The other, incidentally, is if you ever have fewer than 16 players on your roster. You'll be awarded points (which are currency, essentially) at the end of each match based on your results and on the number of goals you scored, and you'll find that lengthy losing streaks can quite quickly put your management career in jeopardy if you're not careful.
Without bogging its career mode down in realism, Winning Eleven 9 does a great job of forcing you to make the same kinds of decisions, and experience the same kind of emotions, that a real manager would. Having your job be at risk if you lose too many games is perhaps the best example of this, but it's also true of many other situations that you'll find yourself in. Having players miss matches because they're injured can be a headache, but things become much more complicated if a star player is simply fatigued or not at his best. Should you put your star player in the starting lineup, or should you replace him with an up-and-coming youngster who is hungry for match experience? You'll face similar decisions to this one ahead of every single match that you play, because while many young players have the potential to gain experience points and improve their skills as a result of time spent on the field, your more experienced players will eventually start to show their age and go into a steady decline. Do you field the best team that you possibly can for every single match, or do you plan for the future and give your youngsters a chance to improve? Welcome to the world of sports management.
Regardless of which players you decide to start a match with, you can't help but notice that the bulk of the improvements made to this year's Winning Eleven are evident only between kickoff and the final whistle. The game's menu screens and overall presentation still aren't nearly as polished as those in EA Sports' offerings, for example, but the somewhat unwieldy menu system and repetitive elevator music is easy to forgive because shortly after you step out onto the field, you'll realize that you're playing what is undoubtedly the most realistic soccer game ever made.
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. 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 now far easier to perform quick sidesteps and turns because you don't have to use anything but your chosen controller's left analog stick to do so. It's possible to play the game using your keyboard, of course, but certainly not recommended. You still have the option to perform more showy turns and tricks using shoulder buttons and the right analog stick, 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 now 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 now clumsier than in previous games, often resulting in mistimed challenges. The opposite is true for sliding tackles, however, which are now a little easier to time correctly and are far more likely to result in you coming away with the ball than it was previously. 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, one of the popular tactics online right now is to have 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. This isn't a new feature for Winning Eleven 9 by any means, but the additional emphasis on the passing game makes it a much more valuable technique to master now.
Another important lesson you'll want to learn, especially if you're planning to play Winning Eleven 9 online, is not to taunt your opponent after scoring a goal until you're absolutely 100 percent certain that it's a goal. Why would there be any doubt? Because in Winning Eleven 9, just like in real soccer, players occasionally score and celebrate goals before anyone notices the linesman holding his flag up to indicate an offside decision. This might sound like a very minor and perhaps irritating addition to the game, but the fact is that it's one of many such features that make Winning Eleven 9 feel more like real soccer than any game that has gone before.
Intelligent CPU players are all well and good, of course, but there's really no substitute for playing against a human opponent, which is easier than ever in Winning Eleven 9 thanks to the inclusion of online play. Your choices when logging on with Winning Eleven 9 include setting up or attempting to join a quick match against a random opponent, or connecting to the game's lobby system, where it's possible to scout potential opponents by checking their online statistics, connection speeds, and such. Your communication with other players at this point--as well as during matches--is achieved via a text-based system that employs preset phrases and keyboard support. The system can be a little unwieldy, but its preset phrases such as "Goal!" "Nice shot!" and "Good game" make for a very agreeable online experience. When playing online, you can only send messages like these during replays and stoppages in play, so there's no danger of the system being abused in an attempt to put you off your game. It's possible to customize your preset messages, and it's a testament to the quality of the series' fan community that none of the opponents we've played to date have abused that privilege in any way.
Winning Eleven 9 employs a quite ingenious league system that comprises five different divisions: Division 1, Division 2, Division 3A, Division 3B, and Amateur. You start out as an amateur by default, and when the league is updated on a weekly basis, your statistics and recent results will determine whether you get promoted to (or relegated from) one of the higher divisions. The system is intended to give players the option to play against opponents of similar ability, though in practice there are often so few players online who aren't already in a match that it's easier just to jump into a game with whoever is available.
Even if you're not planning to take advantage of Winning Eleven 9's online play, the game represents a significant enough improvement over its predecessor that it's impossible for us not to recommend you check it out. Is Winning Eleven 9 a better game than FIFA 06 and its recent World Cup-themed sequels? It certainly plays a more realistic game of soccer than EA Sports' offerings, and it doesn't suffer from any of the awful slowdown that plagues some of the World Cup games, but it also lacks many of that game's great features, such as official licenses across the board and the multiplayer lounge mode. You can't go far wrong with Winning Eleven 9 or FIFA 06 frankly, and if you've previously been dismissive of either series for no other reason than its name, now would be a great time to kick that habit.