Lost in the whole shuffle of the yearly FIFA vs. Winning Eleven debate is how great it is to have two series that are so close in quality trying to outdo one another on a yearly basis. The competition between the games has spurred developers to add new features, actively pursue more licenses, and polish their games relentlessly. Take this year's Winning Eleven for example – thanks to FIFA 05 & 06, Konami made darn sure that online play was included, they also increased the number of leagues and licensed teams (Chelsea and Arsenal are included this year) in the game. As to the debate as to which game is better; there's really no definitive answer. Each title has its strengths and they each tend to appeal to certain crowds, but you can't go wrong with either of them.
Winning Eleven has always had a deep feature list, and it was made even better this year with the inclusion of online play. As usual, the menus aren't very exciting and they can be a little cumbersome to navigate, though they are better than years past. Available options include quick start match, Master League, League, Cup, training, and edit. The game's training mode is quite robust, taking you from the extreme basics of soccer to more advanced techniques. It's nice to have such a thorough training tool, but it's a bit dry, and can be a little cumbersome at times. The cup mode allows you to play through a 32 team tournament – it's basically the World Cup without the official license.
Most of the game's replay value can be found in the Master League, where you've got total control over your team. You start off by selecting a squad, and then you take them through a season, complete with trades, injuries, suspensions, older players retiring and younger players getting better. If it sounds easy, think again. You can actually get fired for poor performance, and you've got to worry about playing well on the field so you can pay your players, since after a game is over you earn points that go towards paying their salaries. If you can't pay the players, you can't play and it's game over.
If you're really into soccer you'll spend quite a bit of time in the game's edit mode. Here you can edit players and teams, which you'll probably want to do since there are some noticeable teams missing (Manchester United) due to EA locking them up with exclusive deals. If you have the time and the patience you can pretty much re-create any player and team. If you don't have the time and patience, using your PC and the internet you can download files from other users that have taken the time to edit teams. You will need separate equipment for this, however, as the game doesn't support it.
On the field is where Winning Eleven 9 really shines. The gameplay is very tight, and the pace of play is just right, players make intelligent runs, and scoring frequency is right-on. If you want to play a wide-open, more arcade-like style of soccer you can drop the difficulty down and do so, but if you're craving realism, bump up the number of stars for a real challenge. While the controls are tight and responsive, they can be quite challenging to master, even with the deep training mode provided. Because there are so many things you can do, some dribbling moves are tied to double-tapping the shoulder buttons, while others are done by rotating the right analog stick. I counted 13 different types of passes and even four different ways to control your wall during a penalty kick. All those options are well and good, but they take a very long time to master. While I'm on the subject, kudos to Konami for providing a detailed instruction manual; EA should take note.
Japan and Europe have already enjoyed playing Winning Eleven online, but this is the first time Americans have been able to experience the series via the internet. WE9 uses a neat system to rank players, which will hopefully allow you to find better matches. Unfortunately there's no voice chat supported for the PS2, so you're limited to the clunky onscreen keyboard or pre-set phrases. Other than occasional bits of lag, the game was quite enjoyable, and it was nice to be able to play against human opponents since they have different, more exciting, and often unpredictable styles when compared to a computer controlled team.
Over the years Winning Eleven's presentation has improved, but there's no question that it still lags behind FIFA 06. While the stadium crowds are raucous in the intro, they don't add much to the match, and there's very little emotion displayed by the players. There are over 70 different goal celebrations, but the rest of the game feels so plain that this variety doesn't help matters much.
The player models are acceptable, but they're far from mind-blowing. You can typically recognize the more well-known players in the intros and cut-scenes, but the in-game camera is so far out you won't see much detail. Player animation has been improved slightly, but you're not likely to notice unless you're a veteran of the series. The framerate is always solid and never an issue, which is a necessity for sports games. Sadly, there is no widescreen support to speak of, which is disappointing since the increased screen size works well with soccer games. One little touch that's nice is the numbers that appear above players' heads will be yellow if that person has received a yellow card that game. It's a great way of letting you know that you might want to think long and hard before making a risky slide tackle, since that player has already been booked.
Winning Eleven's audio is so non-descript that I had to go back and check my notes to find something to say. The in-menu music is lousy, but that's pretty much the case every year. Peter Brackley and Trevor Brooking's match commentary is competent, but it's pretty shallow and there wasn't a whole lot of in the way of in-depth analysis or discussion.
WE9 is an outstanding game, but outside of the new online play it doesn't feel a whole heck of a lot different than last year's game. I think it's safe to say that the gameplay has been refined to a high level, so it's disappointing that Konami didn't spend more time bring the game's audio and video presentation up to speed. If you're going to go online this one's worth picking up, but if you'll only be playing offline, you're a casual fan, and you bought WE8, there's just not much new here.