It may have official FIFA PC licensing; it may have dominated the genre for the better part of a decade; and it may have climbed to such a lofty position of strength that it's driven away virtually every contender. However, Electronic Arts' celebrated FIFA Soccer series may not have the PC footie market cornered after all. Fresh off its 2004 revision, in which the game's producers have once again shown a disturbing recent penchant for sitting idly upon the throne, the FIFA series is also now in the midst of taking a full-on broadside from an exciting newcomer. With World Soccer Winning Eleven 7 International, Konami brings its console soccer hit to the PC for the first time and, in the process, proves that EA's reign is suddenly as shaky as the San Andreas Fault. Whether it's superior overall to the durable EA franchise is open to interpretation, but one thing is clear: Winning Eleven 7 is a superb game that sounds great, looks impressive, and gets the most important element--playability--just right. No true PC soccer fan should buy into the EA FIFA machine this year without first investigating Konami's superb alternative.
As the title suggests ("Winning Eleven" stands for the number of players on a soccer side and "7" stands for the number of annual revisions in the game's history), Winning Eleven 7 is far from a brand-new series. In fact, it has existed in the console realm since 1996. Granted, North America didn't get its first taste of the game until 2003's Winning Eleven 6, when Konami released it for the PlayStation 2 crowd. But this is the first time we've seen it in PC form, and it's not a moment too soon.
When EA's FIFA Soccer rose to prominence in the latter part of the last decade, it did so with a solid combination of presentation and user immersion. Featuring full FIFA licensing--which allowed EA to use all the real-world players, teams, and stadiums--and EA's masterful 3D graphics and animation technology, FIFA's visuals simply blew its competitors away. Its lengthy roster of user options certainly didn't hurt, nor did its gameplay experience, which represented a clever balance of detailed team management and coaching decisions, as well as an ever-growing inventory of player actions and moves. Still, recent editions have not exactly been filled with innovations, especially in terms of the product on the pitch. What had once seemed like amazing gameplay back in the late '90s began to feel arcadelike and fanciful. Could real-life players pull off the moves you'd see on a FIFA Soccer pitch? No. Could one real-life team completely dominate another in every facet of the game and outshoot and out-chance them by the widest of margins, only to ultimately lose because some unseen force wanted it that way? No. Did an EA game really feel like the pass-happy, calculated, and sometimes plodding experience of a real-world FIFA game? Not usually.
Conversely, Winning Eleven 7 plays very realistically indeed. In all truth, very casual PC soccer players may not notice much of a difference between the two approaches. Moreover, those who prefer a fast and more-whimsical game that often keeps things interesting by maintaining an undeserved tight score may even prefer the EA game. Nonetheless, Konami's latest soccer extravaganza will most likely satisfy those serious soccer students who've grown somewhat disenchanted with the EA methodology.
In Winning Eleven 7, you'll really feel in control of the proceedings. Unlike FIFA Soccer, where you can often let go of your controller completely and can then grab it again a couple of minutes later--with nary a goal scored against you--Winning Eleven 7 compels you to play and play well. Furthermore, it penalizes you heavily if it detects no skillful movements and actions. Here, you can't let your artificially intelligent opposition swirl around in your own end for very long at all without falling victim to yet another goal against. This is the way soccer should be. Moreover, you can't expect your players to naturally be in prime position to receive thread-the-needle passes. Yes, your team generally moves to the correct zone--based on current management strategy, of course--but it is you who must ultimately take control of any and all players who receive passes, even before they touch the ball. In this way, the game is extremely challenging. But it's all the more rewarding when you finally come to grips with its myriad control possibilities.
Indeed, if you venture from Winning Eleven 7's Easy setting without having first investigated the helpful Practice mode, the controls chapter of the printed manual, and the game's informative and wholly interactive Lesson component, you may well feel very much out of control. Goals will be almost impossible to come by, unless you make lengthy end-to-end dashes that will probably not be successful but will exhaust your players by the end of the match (and will cumulatively exhaust them into the next match during season or cup play). Ultimately, it is mandatory to learn at least some of the many complex advanced maneuvers if you want to seriously contend at any level above Easy.
The game's developers have also done a masterful job of harmonizing the number of goals, the final score, and the eventual victor with the run of the play. This is clearly one of the most difficult elements to correctly code into any sports game, but it's particularly difficult in soccer, where goals are few and far between. In fact, EA's FIFA series has never really seemed capable of accurately figuring it out. The program must take into account the aggregate times of possession, the aggregate times of threatening possession, the total number of shots, the total number of true scoring opportunities, the quality and frequency of passing, the level of gamepad mastery, and so much more. Then it must intelligently deduce who should score, when they should score, and what the final relative tally should be.
Despite a few quirks, Winning Eleven 7 also feels less preordained than FIFA Soccer. Its ratio of goals scored versus opportunities seems more believable. And it doesn't go out of its way to produce last-second goals or final flurries of goals just to keep a contest even. In other words--depending, again, upon which level of difficulty you've selected--you can generally expect to win if you dominate the most important aspects of a contest. On the other hand, if you've assumed a lead against the run of play and are consistently under pressure, your players will eventually fatigue and will crumble. As a result, you will lose. Not many miracles here...
Like any good soccer game, Winning Eleven 7 doesn't base final tallies solely on reflexes and gamepad mastery. Indeed, Konami has gone even further than EA in this regard, both in the number of available management options and in the effectiveness of selecting a truly sound formation and strategy for the current situation. One word of warning: If you select an all-out attack strategy, you'd best be confident in your abilities to both hem the other side in its own zone and score the goal you so desperately desire, or you risk leaving yourself wide-open for the plucking. You should also be aware that a given strategy will work very well in some situations (with certain teams) but not nearly as well in others. In any case, whether you want to enact a quick one-click general strategy and formation or go through an intricately detailed piece-by-piece setup, the options are there.
Fortunately, Konami realized it would take more than great gameplay to effectively compete with FIFA Soccer. To that end, the game features an impressive number of user options and management duties. When playing an exhibition match, for example, you'll not only select from five difficulty settings but also from one of five levels of physical condition for both your opponent and your own squad. And, of course, more talent variations are found in the team selection screen, where you'll choose from 64 club or 56 international sides.
The really good news is that Konami has not ignored the single most important element that contributed most to FIFA Soccer's rise to the top--presentation. From the impressive hoopla and pageantry surrounding its opening ceremonies to its post-whistle animations, Winning Eleven 7 is generally a beautiful game, and it's far cleaner than its PS2 sibling.
You'll notice right off the bat that all 20-plus stadiums are impressively rendered, each with a unique structure, ambience, and nifty periphery, such as rotating advertisements and Jumbotron video panels. Like FIFA Soccer, the pitch-level view during a goal kick offers an awe-inspiring look at each facility, from top to bottom (even in the rain, with its ball- and player-soaking puddles). Additionally, Winning Eleven 7's stadiums are certainly home to some of the rowdiest and most-active spectators currently in any PC sports game. If these folks ever sit still, we've been too busy playing to notice. They'll bounce up and down or hurl smoke bombs or streamers and confetti; they'll even wave banners and flags and will rise to their feet in unison. It must be said that a square-on front view of the assembled throng exposes each individual entity as an indistinct sort of creature, but when you're busy playing the game, this matters not. The overall impression is quite spectacular.
However, the actual players will undoubtedly be the center of your attention, and here the news is also very good. Konami has added a lot of detail to the players, including moving mouths, unique body and head shapes, individual faces that bear the likenesses of each player's real-life counterpart, perfect little uniforms, and real-time shadows. Heck, these little dudes even realistically mimic the motions of breathing, inhaling, and exhaling when they're running or standing still.
They're also capable of an impressively wide range of animations. They'll pound the ball when they need to, and they'll give it gentle, little touches when the situation is right. They'll head the ball, give it a scissor-kick and juke, and will jive and deke. Players will generally behave in a most-authentic fashion, even when the play stops and they're displaying the great joy of having scored a goal or are angered by the annoyance of what was perceived as a blown call. They'll hang their heads, applaud, and much, much more. But while all of the above looks silky smooth from any of the game's wide-angle camera perspectives, it's not quite so rosy up close. Here, player movements appear somewhat stilted when compared to the current PC sports standard. Konami particularly needs to perfect fluid leg movements, because right now, players' legs are simply not working in sync with the rest of their bodies.
Does this seriously impact the quality of gameplay? No, especially considering that most players will want to select a distant perspective that gives a better read of the pitch. And you can indeed pull back a long way with the available sideline cameras. But if you're a fan of the end-to-end camera, you'll find the game simply doesn't allow you to pull back far enough to fully visualize all that's going on around you. Granted, you can refer to the miniature overhead-inset view where little colored circles take the place of players, but this is no substitute for an authoritative full-field end-to-end perspective. Sadly, the game does not provide such a thing. It does, however, provide a killer replay so that you can check out the latest developments in any number of ways.
With a couple of notable exceptions, Winning Eleven 7 sounds great too. The crowds are superb and are exceptionally lively, so they'll sing, cheer, or whistle derisively at key moments, while they'll also blow horns and play drums when the time is right. Indeed, you can actually instruct the fans (and the commentators) beforehand to favor a given side! You won't hear much from the pitch, aside from ball thumps and whacks, and there is certainly no player-to-player dialogue. Back in the commentary booth for another go-round is the team of British commentator and performer Peter Brackley and ex-player-turned-BBC pundit Trevor Brooking. Though both can be flat-out wrong on occasion--referring to a goaltender save when there wasn't a save or praising a team when, in fact, that team was being whitewashed--they are most often on the money, though they're not quite as comedic as FIFA Soccer's John Motson-led duo. Konami has clearly saved a few bucks by limiting the script and by having Brackley often use player numbers rather than names, but due to the game's lack of a FIFA license, many of the names are incorrect anyway. For what it's worth, Winning Eleven 7 does have all the authentic national teams, as well as a half-dozen club teams.
Unfortunately, controlling the game is not nearly as easy as it should be. Because it is almost a direct console port, the vast majority of its menu system does not support a mouse. Furthermore, it'll advise you to "press any button" when it really means "Hit the Esc key." You'll enter your name not by typing it but by choosing letters from an alphabetic grid. And because it's ultimately geared for a PlayStation gamepad, you may have some trouble properly configuring your computer controller. Konami has included a rather substantial section dedicated to the controller, but owners of less-versatile gamepads may well be forced to clumsily use both the keyboard and controller to activate some advanced moves.
When you eventually grow weary of single-game-exhibition play, you can undertake any of the many alternate modes Winning Eleven 7 has in store. These include Cup Mode, where 32 teams compete in a round-robin format; Training League Mode, which presents a variety of challenges that includes the innovative Original Dribble Challenge; and the pièce de résistance, Master League Mode. Here, you'll not only play the games and manage your style and players but also enact transfers (trades), train young and upcoming prospects, and generally build a cohesive team. As this mode rewards a side that stays together and slowly builds synchronous team interaction on the pitch, too much trading is not always a good thing. Moreover, it's usually not a smart move to keep an injured or unconditioned star player in the lineup, because his performance will only continue to deteriorate. There are a lot of factors at work here, and it's a great way to demonstrate that you're not merely a fast-twitch button pusher.
FIFA Soccer regulars will be forced to acclimatize to some of the game's quirks. For instance, if they want to see more real-world player names across the board, they must make judicious use of the superb and very highly detailed player editor. Additionally, players will never be able to stretch the length of a match beyond Winning Eleven 7's maximum of 30 real-time minutes. And regulars may never grow accustomed to the game's unimpressive multiplayer support. Though two players can sit down at the same computer for a head-to-head game, they won't be able to do so from remote locations or via the Internet. And this is a shame, because the game is otherwise just too good to be restricted in this manner.
Few games have ever made such a remarkable PC debut. Not only does Winning Eleven 7 come across as an admirable challenger to the previously acknowledged genre leader but also--in many ways--it exposes FIFA Soccer's weak underbelly. The finest PC soccer may no longer reside comfortably in Electronic Arts' lap, and this says something about both FIFA's recently uninspired development and the inherent quality of Konami's game. One thing is certain: The state of the virtual sport of soccer just got a heck of a lot better.