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 and most beautiful game in that series, but it was also such an enjoyable version 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 if the recently released World Soccer Winning Eleven 9 from Konami is any indication, 2006 is going to be even better.
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. With that said, Winning Eleven 9 happens to be the first in the series to support online play for both Xbox and PlayStation 2 in North America, which is obviously a very significant addition.
Those of you who have played a Winning Eleven game in recent years will feel right at home the moment you arrive at the main menu screen. 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 since Konami lacks 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 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 it did in last year's game. You can choose to manage any of the 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. However, 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 under way.
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 is evident only between kickoff and the final whistle. The 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 under way 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 one would dare hope. Perhaps the most dramatic improvement this year is the way that your players handle when you're controlling them. 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 side steps and turns because you don't have to use anything but your left analog stick to do so. 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 anytime 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 before, 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. 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 makes Winning Eleven 9 feel more like real soccer than any other game before it.
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. Although much of the terminology used on Xbox Live and the PS2 Network Mode is different, their functionality is basically the same. We found that it took longer to get online and find opponents on the PS2 than it did on the Xbox, but that certainly didn't come as surprise, and it did little to taint our enjoyment of the online experience.
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 really where the two games are very different. The Xbox version supports the communicator headset, of course, while the PS2 game features a text-based system that employs preset phrases and a virtual keyboard. The PS2 system is obviously more unwieldy, but given the kind of nonsense that many Xbox Live gamers use their microphones for, it can occasionally make for a much more agreeable gameplay experience.
All of the PS2 game's preset phrases and in-game messages can be customized, but all of the players that we encountered online seemed content with the standard stuff, which includes "Goal!" "Nice shot!" and "Good game." 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.
Though it's too early for us to have seen the system in action at this point, Winning Eleven 9 employs a quite ingenious-sounding league system that will consist of five different divisions: Division 1, Division 2, Division 3A, Division 3B, and Amateur. You'll 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 hope is that the majority of players will choose to play against opponents of similar ability by logging into special division-specific lobbies, although free lobbies with no restrictions and friendly lobbies where the results have no effect on your rankings are also available. For the most part, our online matches have been free of any lag that would be considered detrimental to the gameplay. However, there certainly were a few matches when there was a noticeable delay between us pressing a button and the corresponding action actually being carried out.
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 that you check it out. Is Winning Eleven 9 a better game than FIFA 06? It certainly plays a more realistic game of soccer than EA Sports' superb offering, but it also lacks many of that game's great features, such as official licenses across the board, the multiplayer lounge mode, and its innovative playing-style feature. You can't go too wrong with either game 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.