Release Date: February 7, 2006
I'll begin this review with an admission: I don't really enjoy sports games. Yes, it's an uncommon thing amongst the nerdy hardcore gaming community, I know (wink); regardless, I should make this clear from the start.
My time with sports games is usually relegated to Blitz, Sega Soccer Slam, Tecmo Bowl and Beach Spikers. You know, accessible arcade-style games, with little reliance on keeping an "official" veneer over the gameplay. The games anybody could play.
Okay, that's not all I enjoy. I'll spend some time with Top Spin and Sega's tennis games, but tennis is simple enough in nature – at least when it translates to a videogame – that it almost doesn't count as a "real" sports game. I can play a few rounds of a Visual Concepts sports game here and there, but that about wraps it up for me and the sports genre.
Except for Winning Eleven.
Somehow, Konami's take on soccer is compelling enough that I throw any pretenses aside. Or perhaps it is simply so well constructed that it actually justifies my avoidance of so many other sports games; it highlights exactly why I don't enjoy any iteration FIFA or Madden. Winning Eleven 9, as with each sequel before it, embodies this idea.
FIFA changes, yet it doesn't change. It adds roster updates, a select few new "systems," tweaks something here or there, and maybe adds a polygon or three. Each version stacks on something new (as long as it looks good on the back of the packaging), building up a little tower of add-ons – and fresh bugs to go with each – that are thoughtlessly swept aside when the next generation of consoles arrives.
Winning Eleven 9 stands for something different. Features aren't held back from version to version. New concepts aren't developed for the sake of something that reads well in a press release.
Imagine this being written on the back of a box: "Winning Eleven 9! Now with slower gameplay!!!" That doesn't sound too good, does it? But that is the most important new feature of the game over 8, outside of broadband online play.
"A slower game?", you ask. "That sounds terrible," you say. If you did ask and say those things, you probably haven't played a Winning Eleven game before, or at least not long enough. Winning Eleven is a bit like Virtua Fighter, making FIFA something like Mortal Kombat. It, like Virtua Fighter, strives for realistic physics and visuals without overstepping the bounds of a game controller. Both are easy to pick up and play, thanks to the incredibly tight and intuitive controls. That ease of use thinly veils a deep and complex system of combos and minute gameplay tweaks that demand – but don't require, for the sake of more lighthearted gamers – hundreds of hours of dedicated analysis.
This brings us back to the slowed down gameplay. In Virtua Fighter 3, elevation was added to the traditionally flat arenas, allowing the fights to take place in more natural environments. This was an amazing feature at first, but it ended up being more of a hindrance to the gameplay than anything. Virtua Fighter 4 excised the feature, despite it being something that would look great in screenshots and, yes, in press packets. It didn't belong in the game, even though it sounded so good on paper, so out the window it went.
The same is true with the faster gameplay from the last few Winning Eleven games. The slower gameplay allows thinking players to shine while removing some of the twitch elements from the game. Less luck, more brains; more time for newer players to adjust to the intricacies of the series while letting veterans master the mechanics. If they keep it slow next time around, that's wonderful; if they speed it up, players of the current game will have a great edge from combo practice while simultaneously having to relearn the game at the quicker pace.
Regardless of the slowed pace, individual combos aren't as daunting as their collective whole is (six full pages in the manual!). New players can choose a few relevant combos to rely on and slowly learn others while they choose; veterans can invest all the time they want working on timing and memorization. Those without much previous gaming experience can still start by employing strategy culled from professional soccer; Winning Eleven games even have mid-field as the focal point, just like real-life. Games are low-scoring, too, even ending in 0-0 matches (that still felt fun to play!), something FIFA tends to gloss over, despite being officially licensed.
As good as Winning Eleven 9 is, it isn't perfect. Of course, what game is? The biggest miff for most people is the lack of a full FIFA license. Konami could only afford certain players, and while 9 has more than any Winning Eleven before it, it surely isn't enough for soccer purists. Thankfully, the horrible licensed soundtrack is exempt, too, so it is a much more pleasant experience than that… other soccer series, not to mention it has the most realistic sonic bumps and grinds out of any sports game I can think of.
One major mechanical issue is present, although to some players, these complaints will be highly subjective. Being an American, I make more brazen goal attempts than most logical players would, which means I need more shorter, direct shots than most players do. The shooting system is slanted towards long, sky-high passes, which caused me to mess up a few more light attacks than I thought necessary. More practice would absolve the game of this problem, but I did find it to be the one major feature that wasn't completely intuitive within a few minutes of experimentation.
Those are the best complaints I could come up with for Winning Eleven 9, since it is really a remarkable game. I can wholeheartedly recommend it to any gamers at all, mostly because I myself am not a sports game fan or an avid watcher or player of soccer (as one could surmise from this review). I simply see Winning Eleven 9 as an extremely well-crafted game that exemplifies how a proper reality-to-videogame transition should be handled. It does things right, and that should be commended. With the below score, I take it as my responsibility to do so.