While the competition between EA Sports and Take Two's ESPN football and baseball games has garnered most of the headlines these days, EA's FIFA soccer franchise has been taking on another opponent for a number of years. Konami's Winning Eleven franchise has left soccer fans divided on which game is the best representation of "The Beautiful Game", as it is called around the world. Generally, the hardcore fans point to Winning Eleven's realistic pace of play and detailed player management as its strengths, while FIFA supporters tout the series' TV-style presentation and fast-paced, high scoring games. Once again there's no clear winner, as each game is very good, but like previous years, it's strictly a matter of preference when it comes down to which game you will enjoy more.
This year's version, the eighth in the long running franchise features the same time-tested gameplay of its predecessors, and adds more teams than ever before, as well as improved passing and new dribbling techniques. To help you get acclimated to the new moves, or to teach beginners the basics, WE8 features a robust training mode that challenges you to beat certain objectives while you learn the moves. This is an enjoyable way to become acquainted with the game's intricate controls, and it's actually quite addictive trying to improve your scores and times. Yes, an enjoyable training mode, you read that correctly.
As you'd expect, you can play a quick match, single match, cup, season or, the game's strength, the master league. The master league is basically an owner's mode which tests your skills off the field as much as it does on the field. Managing your players from game to game is vitally important here, since players will tire if not rested enough, and their performance will drop significantly. Player's attributes will also rise and fall from game to game based on their performance and their age. Younger players are extremely valuable in WE8, because despite their initially low ratings, they can gain experience and skill quickly. Older players will see their stats decline, which forces the difficult decision between keeping a veteran team together for one last run, or transferring the older players while they still have value.
Once on the pitch, Winning Eleven 8 shows off some very refined gameplay. The controls are responsive, passes are crisp, and players make intelligent runs. Some of the more in-depth controls, particularly some of the passing, will take a long time to master, but with five difficulty levels you can work your way up comfortably. The game has a fantastic drive shot, where you time the release of the shot button with the ball just getting ready to hit the ground. This allows you to drive through the ball and drill a laser towards the net. Since it's such a quick strike it often catches the keeper off guard, and combined with its speed, it's a lethal shot when mastered.
The pace of play is certainly a bit faster than a real game, but it's a good compromise between boring and unrealistic. This slower pace means goals are hard to come by, but it also makes them all the more satisfying when you do put one past the keeper. WE8 also has a number of different referees, and each one calls the game a little bit different. Some call a tight match, giving cards for even the slightest foul, while others are more inclined to let play continue, which can lead to some pretty wild matches.
One of Winning Eleven's weakest points is its lack of licensing, although it has been improved a bit over last year, with the inclusion of the Spanish, Italian and Dutch leagues. There are 136 club teams, 57 national teams, and 4,500 players, so it's not like you're not getting your money's worth. Many of the teams and leagues don't feature proper names and rosters, but you can edit players using the game's deep player editing tool. This will at least allow you to re-create your favorite team, but it's very time consuming, so you won't do much more than edit a team and a few stars.
Winning Eleven 8 doesn't have a very flashy presentation, but it's solid, and other than being a bit bland it doesn't do anything wrong. The menus are geared towards our friends in the UK, so some of the terminology may be confusing to Americans, but a brief description of each choice scrolls along the bottom when you highlight something, so it's not the end of the world.
The player's generally look like their real-life counterparts, but it's not the type of accuracy you're used to if you play any of EA's baseball or basketball games. There is an odd glow on the side of players' heads that you see during close-ups, making them look as if they have glowing bald spots. It's not a huge deal, but it's a bit odd that so much attention is paid to lesser details, while something noticeable like this sneaks through. When playing a match, the animations are smooth and transition from one to the next seamlessly, but the variety of moves is lacking. Goalkeepers dive for an inordinate amount of balls, even ones that are slowly rolling towards them with no players in the area. Player celebrations are also rather subdued, which is a far cry from the typical scene after a goal, even a meaningless one. The framerate does slow down from time to time, but it's an infrequent issue, and rarely affects the game.
The game offers a large number of different stadiums, and gives you options to control the time of day, year, and even what kind of crowd is attending the match. Inside the stadium, there are a wide variety of styles for the way the grass on the field is cut, and a raucous, flag-waving crowd fills the stands.
It's a good thing WE8's gameplay is so good, because it takes your mind off the uninspired visuals and average audio. There are a few tunes in the game, but they're quite forgettable and do nothing to get you pumped up for a big match. Commentary is handled by Peter Brackley and Trevor Brooking, who call matches for the BBC. Their comments are usually accurate, but they're rather vague, they don't offer much insight into why things are happening, and they repeat themselves quite often. They aren't horrible, but they certainly won't do anything to convince someone who thinks that soccer is boring otherwise. The crowds respond to hard fouls, bad calls, and goals with vigor, but in between the big moments, they're rather subdued. This is certainly not the case in real matches, where fans will entertain themselves by singing, playing drums, and chanting.
Only the PC version of WE8 supports online play, which is a major disappointment considering FIFA 2005 will even support dial-up users on the PS2. Almost all sports games are online in this day and age, so there's really no excuse for its absence.
If you're a fan of the Winning Eleven series, this year's version improves on last year's in many ways, including the addition of some licensed leagues, and its master league is deeper than ever. Casual soccer fans, however, aren't likely to delve into the master league, and would prefer online play over the ability to cultivate the skills of a 16 year old player in a generic league. So once again, WE8 is a great choice for anyone who calls the game "football", while FIFA 2005 is the better game for the average American fan.