For a long time now, FIFA has been the only name to look for on the Xbox if you wanted to play an American soccer game. The truth remains that, as with most EA-generated material, FIFA Soccer games are not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, FIFA Soccer was, and still is, a decent sporting title. However, there is an ever-present reason why FIFA does not do as well as it’s expected in both Europe and Asia. That reason is, of course, the Winning Eleven series. Winning Eleven first hit Stateside through the PS2 on its sixth series, but issue number eight is the first to appear on the Xbox.
This is Konami’s first year in being able to gather up some official club licenses, which is a definite plus. But, unfortunately, once you see the licensed clubs in question, in countries such as Italy or Spain, looking for some of the other clubs is a bit weird. Looking for and identifying English clubs such as Arsenal FC takes no small amount of effort and guesswork. Even so, most people will be happy to see clubs such as A.C. Milan and Real Madrid officially represented inside the game. Notable teams missing are from Major League Soccer, America’s professional soccer league.
The gameplay in Winning Eleven 8 International is like butter on a biscuit, it just rolls on sooo smoothly. Passes are kicked, trapped and dribbled so efficiently that there is no problem setting up an attack, or a crossover. When playing FIFA Soccer, after passing the ball, you have to slow down, trap, then start running. While this is certainly acceptable, it’s almost like watching colleges play soccer. Sure they are better than the average person, but they would lose against a professional club. This is the best way to explain the gameplay differences between Winning Eleven and FIFA Soccer.
The graphics are not revolutionary, but everything is spit-shined to perfection. The game’s intro is extremely well executed and shows clean hi-resolution animation throughout. The in-game character models have no jaggies and all move in a convincing manner. The legs swing, bend, and pivot to realistically as to actually mimic humans running. One of the nicest touches on show is that each (major) player’s face is emulated with amazing precision. While all minor graphical touches are very nice, there is nothing that can’t easily be done on the PlayStation 2. Konami went with an across the board graphical approach here.
Small touches of beauty are all over this game. Let’s consider the players’ falling animations. While there are several variations, my favorite is the downed player ?acting’ hurt until the referee decides against calling a foul. Then the supposedly injured player miraculously jumps to his feet to argue. Others, like how characters use the middle inside of their foot for a small pass, and the front inside for a goal kick add to that feeling of soccer authenticity.
Sound is one thing that perhaps falls short in Winning Eleven 8. Not in the way that it’s terrible, because it isn’t, but more in an uninspired sense. The music is cheesy, filled with generic guitar riffs and static drum lines that can be reproduced on any synthetic keyboard. Even the English commentators are repetitively drab. No discernible wisecracks, neat snappy jargon, or related color commentary on show here. They do, however, keep up on the action very well. As the ball is moving up and down the field, the commentators accurately follow it play-by-play. Another positive is the lack of loading when mentioning points, countries, or players.
When you play Winning Eleven 8, the stats are one of the most outstanding features due to their unswerving accuracy. Ten points means so much in abilities. Think of the grading like school. If you have a 90-99, that’s one of your player’s best abilities, 80-89 means he’s extremely competent, and so forth down the scale. Anything below 60 means the player is garbage at that particular ability. Real Madrid’s Ronaldo may be the greatest player since Maradonna, but that doesn’t mean he is a master in every position. Place him in the center of defense (though why on Earth would you), and watch the opposing team score at will.
Training mode in Winning Eleven 8 takes a page right out of Madden’s extensive book with a deep walkthrough from beginner to expert. There are several different modes of training: free, beginner, situational, and challenge. If you’ve never played Winning Eleven before, then starting from the beginner training is an absolute must – then situation – and then challenge. Free training is practice mode.
Most of the training time spent will be in challenge. These situations range from a single star difficulty rating all the way to five stars. And, simply put and as in life, five stars is simply unfair. The difficulty settings are scalable, as you play and dominate a setting, the next one will be just challenging enough without ever leading to frustration.
It’s easy to pick up a instant match in Winning Eleven 8, but the real replay value lies in the Master League. Essentially the same as a franchise mode, you pick a team, create one, or have the game pick one for you, and play through several years of soccer. During that time, you can pick up fresh new players, sell on those not producing the desired productivity, or even part with those who are getting too old.
There’s no draft or recruiting phase in the world of soccer, though. Everything in terms of team evolution must be achieved through direct trading between clubs. Thanks to their ever-changing abilities, you must monitor all your players constantly, especially the older players as their skills eventually decline to the point where they are not worth their asking price. At this point you need to pawn them off somewhere else in favor of young and upcoming talent. This is one of the most involving and addictive aspects of the game.
Unlockable features within a sports game is fairly standard and, as far as that goes, Winning Eleven 8 falls a little short. The included list of unlockables is rather short, with only twenty or so items on offer. Most of those items are negligible, with the extra gaming difficulty level being the best one. Purchasing any of these items needs WEN – Winning Eleven currency. WEN is gained through successful match results and completed challenge modes.
There isn’t a create player mode, rather you have to edit existing characters to your own specifications. However, you can create everything else, from uniforms, to flags, even the supporter colors your fans will wave. The flag and emblem creation is dense enough to satisfy all but the most depraved ideas. Probably the neatest thing you can create is your own original dribbling challenges.
There are some small problems with the game, such as the bland interface. With so much obvious polish, why scrimp on one of the most accessible parts of the game? Another thing that irks is the CPU’s constant ability to turn a corner kick into a headed goal. It was seriously rough going with a meek two stars, and it’s extremely aggravating at my current four. Nothing ruins a game like a header that gives the computer opponent the lead thirty minutes into the second half. Other small glitch nuances stand out, like how both the header physics and graphics are not up the rest of the game’s standards.
Also missing from the experience is the ability to take the action online. Playing matches either one-on-one, or in teams would be good fun, as Winning Eleven 8 only goes up to four people, and with such a small audience, online would be the best way to consistently find fresh competition. There should also be a way to have your dribble challenges posted so that others can compete in them.
Winning Eleven 8 International is the best soccer game around. It’s as simple as that. There aren’t many options to choose from, so be glad to have such high quality. FIFA Soccer will only appeal to those already familiar with FIFA and who don’t want to rock the boat too much. Winning Eleven 8 doesn’t do everything right but, more importantly, it gets the gameplay just right. And, in the end, that’s what matters most in soccer titles. Fancy front ends and detailed licenses mean nothing if you can’t perform a decent crossover kick and convert it into a headed goal every time you need to.