Release Date: February 6, 2007
When writing for an American site, I shouldn't really need to state the obvious, but I'll put it up as a reminder for me anyway: The majority of U.S. citizens don't care about soccer (it's football, damnit) whether it's on a spreadsheet, big screen, handheld or even if one of England's best soccer stars and his nauseating wife are strutting their stuff through L.A. It should therefore come as no surprise whatsoever to be able to claim Winning Eleven 2007 from the list of DS titles, despite it being well past its shelf life. And to be fair, Winning Eleven's debut on the DS offers nothing that could possibly convert someone unfamiliar to the sport, and is — barring a few brief moments when everything clicks — a bad match for the console.
This was something of a surprise to me. Konami knows how to make a quality football game, and the DS's N64-sized abilities should make matching a quality on-the-move football experience as easy as pie. For some reason, it never quite fits, though, and it's barely worth a purchase for die-hard "soccer" fans, let alone the apathetic American public.
Starting with the gameplay then, it's a soccer game. Two teams of 11 try to put the ball in the opposition's goal without touching it with their hands. This is replicated approximately on the DS's top screen in garish grainy graphics, while the bottom screen allows you to make subtle tactical changes on the fly — except the idea of subtle here is "more attacking" or "less attacking," and it's often difficult to see any real difference to performance. For those who know the series' history, this feels more like the arcade ISS games than the more recent console Winning Eleven series, and it feels every bit as much of an unrealistic soccer throwback as that suggests. The players move in a stilted fashion, the ball behaves more like a beach ball than the pig's bladder we know and love, and the AI is pretty poor — on your own team, at least. What's always been great about Winning Eleven is the realism that's there; it plays like real football, unlike the end-to-end ping-pong that used to be the norm, and that just isn't replicated here.
Winning Eleven 2007 does itself no favors with the controls either. The d-pad on the DS is fine for platform games or even driving titles, but for 3-D sports, only an analog stick will do. The result is that your players will run in very scripted diagonal lines and find it very difficult to turn quickly, leading to the stop-start gameplay I lamented in the last paragraph. This, combined with the grainy visuals, makes shooting at goal a complete game of chance. Placing your shots seems to rely completely on the direction you're facing, and as I've already stated, adjusting it requires some effort. Basically, if you're clean through on goal, then unless you started at a good angle, it's not quite the clear-cut goal-scoring opportunity you'd expect it to be.
That said, Konami does seem to understand the unique features of the DS. Most notably, the ability to customize is extremely welcome, and allows you to rename players and edit things extensively with the stylus. You can even make your custom team's logo by drawing on the touch-screen, in much the same way that you can make a Mario Kart logo. It's nice, but I think the majority of people would have preferred a better game to begin with than to go crazy on the customization. With this team, you can then enter the competition, and it's pleasing that you can hold onto your creations throughout the tournaments. You grow about as fond of them as it's possible to love boxy, awkward stick men.
I don't want to kick in the graphics too much, because I'm not sure whether it's the developers' fault or whether the DS just isn't cut out for football games, but to put it kindly, the graphics are functional. To put it less kindly, they're an eyesore: You can make out that each of the boxy shapes are footballers, and you can keep track of the ball and distinctly angular goals, but there is no graphical pizzazz to speak of. There's only one stadium as well, a big cutback from the previous games. In terms of technology, the one thing this has over the PSP equivalent is that it doesn't suffer from the horrific loading times, but frankly, I'd prefer to wait. The biggest kick in the teeth Winning Eleven 2007 offers is the frequent slowdown when too many players are on the screen at once. Corners and attacking breaks are particularly problematic, but the inconsistency of the problem makes me wonder if it's poor coding rather than technical limitations that cause the issue.
Sound has never exactly been the series' strong suit, so the minimalist efforts employed in Winning Eleven 2007 could be a blessing in disguise. Nonetheless, on their own merits, the music is typically dreadful Euro-dance pop, made altogether less pleasant by the DS' tinny speakers, but winning some points for the easy-to-reach volume switch. The dreadful commentary in the console versions is blissfully absent, leading to an eerie quiet while matches are in progress punctuated by the sound of angular limbs connecting with an unconvincing ball. There's also a kind of background generic crowd noise, which raises ever so slightly should a goal be scored, but it's nothing to write home about (not that I'm in the habit of contacting my parents about particularly memorable game sound effects, but even if I were, it's not worth the price of a stamp).
The one area the title really shines is its multiplayer. Now, a solid multiplayer segment can raise even the most disappointing game off the low scores, and it might have here, were it not for the fact that finding other players online is almost impossible. While I waited for a connection I put the kettle on, read a couple of news articles and played on the Wii. Still no joy. When I finally got a match going, it was as enjoyable an experience as possible given the limitations of the title, and it was largely lag-free. In addition to that, the download play is single cartridge (though it does take what seems like an age to load) and allows a full match, which is a nice bonus that some sports games fail to include (Mario Hoops, I'm looking at you). If only Konami could match their impressive multiplayer setup with the base quality of the game, we'd be onto a winner.
In summing up, Winning Eleven 2007 doesn't feel like the kind of quality work the guys at Konami regularly produce on a console, and the Winning Eleven brand feels like something of a misnomer here. You might be able to scratch some enjoyment from the tougher challenges later on, if you can put up with its many faults, but you shouldn't have to. This isn't playing to the strengths of the DS, and it isn't comparable to its PSP cousin. You expect this kind of low-end mediocrity from shovelware DS titles with "ponies," "horses" or some kind of sick animals in the title, but Konami can, and should, do better than this.