Unlike Electronic Arts' FIFA Soccer games, which have undergone some major changes in recent years, Konami's Winning Eleven series continues to evolve gradually as the KCET studio strives to make its game more and more realistic with each incarnation. The gameplay in Winning Eleven games has always been more realistic than that of EA's soccer titles, but perhaps in part because Konami has never secured the necessary licenses to feature real team and player names in its games, it's really only been in the last year or so that the Winning Eleven games (and specifically Pro Evolution Soccer 2 and 3 in Europe) have given the FIFA titles a run for their money in terms of popularity and sales. Konami still hasn't seen fit to invest in an official license for its increasingly popular series, but Winning Eleven 7 International plays such a great game of soccer that such details quickly pale into insignificance.
The fact that Winning Eleven 7 International is better than FIFA 2004 shouldn't come as a shock to any of you who take your soccer games seriously, but what's surprising are just the number of ways that KCET has found to refine and improve upon the game's predecessor. There really wasn't much wrong with Winning Eleven 6 International, and while the majority of improvements made to this year's game might seem insignificant on paper, in practice they add up to a soccer experience that really is in a league of its own. The option to have your own name appear above the player you're controlling, for example, adds nothing to the single-player game, but it makes identification a lot easier on the pitch if there are between four and eight individuals playing simultaneously.
Perhaps the most significant changes that have been made to the game this year--at least in terms of action on the pitch--are the functions performed by the R2 button and the right analog stick. In last year's game, the R2 button was used to run at a speed that made retaining possession of the ball less challenging than sprinting, while the rarely used right analog stick could be employed to pass the ball in any direction. This year they're both used to access on-the-ball moves, including step-overs, shimmies, spins, drag-backs, and the like, which allow particularly skilled players on the field to express themselves in ways that haven't really been possible in the past. With these kinds of moves now easily accessible, the temptation is definitely there to try to take the ball all the way up the pitch using only a single player. Of course, this is certainly possible if you're using a very skilled player and are on an easy difficulty setting. For the most part, though, you'll be more successful against both CPU opponents and friends if you pass the ball around a bit and play the game as soccer is meant to be played.
As is true of the sport in real life, the characters who come under the most scrutiny are invariably the goalkeepers and the referees. The goalkeepers in Winning Eleven 7 International do occasionally make costly mistakes, but the fact that the majority of the scorelines in the game are realistic (at least if you're playing on an appropriate difficulty setting) says a lot about their abilities to stop shots. You also have the option to have your keeper leave the goalmouth and run toward the ball at any time. While skilled strikers are quite capable of lobbing a shot over a keeper who's off his line, you'll occasionally be able to catch a friend off guard by having your goalkeeper charge at his ballcarrier before he's got a chance to unleash a shot on goal. The referees and linesman in the game will still make decisions that frustrate you from time to time (it wouldn't be soccer if they didn't), but their decisions on fouls and offside calls are backed up by action replays that invariably prove them right. New for the Winning Eleven referees this season is the ability to "play the advantage," which, in case any of you are unfamiliar with the rule, allows them to let play continue after an infringement if they decide that the team in possession of the ball would benefit more from retaining possession of the ball than from having play stopped to be awarded a free kick. The rule isn't an easy one for referees to use in real life, and Konami has done an admirable job of implementing it in Winning Eleven 7 International. A large yellow icon appears in the top corner of the screen whenever the advantage rule is played, and although the referee doesn't always get it right, it's at least reassuring to feel that your opponent's fouls aren't going unnoticed, even if they seem to be going unpunished.
If you're a fan of previous games in the series, you should have no problems getting a feel for Winning Eleven 7 International. And if you're new to the game, you'll find that the training mode's beginner lessons, free training, and challenge options are great for both getting used to the controls and for practicing every aspect of the game, including both open play and set pieces. Even if you're an experienced player, you'll probably want to play through the training challenges, not only to familiarize yourself with some of the subtle differences in this year's game but also to earn credits for the game's shop, which represents a major new addition this year. Shop credits are earned in small quantities every time the game is played, and these credits can then be spent to unlock additional players, classic international teams, stadiums, custom dribble challenges, and more. The additional players and classic teams are definitely worth unlocking, but the rest of the bonuses really amount to very little, so you'd be well advised not to waste your credits by unlocking the double speed matches feature, which, although vaguely amusing for about a minute, verges on unplayable.
Winning Eleven 7 International features the requisite exhibition match, league, and cup competition modes of play, but like it predecessors, its best feature by far is the master league mode. If you're not familiar with the Winning Eleven series, the master league mode challenges you to take control of a mediocre team, which is composed of imaginary players. You're then charged with taking them to the top of the league by winning matches and by spending the points you're awarded, after successful results, on luring big-name players to your squad. This year's master league mode has been improved in a number of ways, and it now allows you to compete in any one of four European two-division leagues. The most significant additions to the master league are actually the new gameplay options that allow you to specify how challenging the transfer market is, how actively the CPU teams will look to improve their own squads, and how your players' fatigue will accumulate over time if they're not rested. The new options are, of course, in addition to those from previous incarnations that allow you to specify the length of matches, the difficulty level, and the stance of the crowd and commentary team. The other major improvement to the master league mode this year is the option to search the game's entire database for players who have the attributes that you're looking to add to your team in your next big signing. It can be a slightly time-consuming process, but it's a lot quicker than the system used in previous games, which required you to check out every individual player's stats manually.
Incredibly, many of the team and player names in Winning Eleven 7 International are even further removed from their real-life counterparts than in previous games. The game's editing tools can be used to correct all of the inaccurate information and can be used to alter the teams' flags and uniforms, but the process isn't a quick one and, unless you've got a copy of Championship Manager: Season 03/04 on hand, it's unlikely that many of you would easily be able to or would even bother to work out who all of the teams are--let alone all of their players.
The sounds made by the crowds in the game are actually quite impressive, particularly if you select the home and away stance option that results in them cheering for the home team but booing and whistling whenever the away side is in possession of the ball. The commentary, on the other hand, doesn't do an awful lot to improve upon that found in previous incarnations of the game. The English language TV commentary team of Peter Brackley and Trevor Brooking makes fewer mistakes than they've been known to make in the past, but they're still prone to repeating the same phrases over and over again throughout the course of a match.
Until now, Winning Eleven 6 International was the best soccer game available for any game platform. The fact that KCET has managed to improve upon that game at all is a real testament to the development team's devotion, and the fact that Winning Eleven 7 International is so much better than its predecessor is a remarkable achievement. If you're a fan of the series, you need to know that Winning Eleven 7 International is a worthwhile purchase--even if you own last year's game. And if you're one of the FIFA faithful, we'd be doing you a disservice if we didn't point out that there's never been a better time to switch teams.