Reviewed: March 8, 2005
Released: February 1, 2005
Thanks to Konami’s impeccable timing my annual soccer review of Winning Eleven 8 is being published exactly one year to the day of last year’s version. Last year I was convinced that this franchise just couldn’t get any better but leave it to Konami to make me eat those words.
This eighth installment of Konami’s award-winning soccer game manages to improve on the core game engine not only enhancing the already-flawless gameplay, but it manages to improve on the motion-captured players, animation, and overall package. But just how good can a soccer game get, especially when we are dealing with a sport that is still widely unaccepted by the media and most of the sports-loving community. Hopefully the recent NHL strike might send a few hockey lovers in search of a new sporting event. Soccer is easily the most demanding of all professional sports, and while it’s popularity remains overseas, it is slowly gaining a foothold on domestic shores.
Winning Eleven 8 builds upon the success of last years critically acclaimed soccer title and brings several new improvements, upgrades, and subtle refinements to the series. Unless you are a true fan of the sport of soccer most of the technical achievements in gameplay and spot-on accuracy for the rules of the sport will go unappreciated. Winning Eleven 8 has been and remains a game for hardcore soccer fans. It doesn’t pretend to cater to the masses, as the steep learning curve and strict adherence to the rules will quickly show. But if you are looking for the best damn soccer game available (since the last one), look no further.
Winning Eleven 8 has it all starting with a new front-end that is not only more attractive but much more functional than ever before. There is also a new and improved training mode that will help rookie players get acclimated to the game and even the sport of soccer if needed.
The core of Winning Eleven 8 features a more robust engine that certainly enhances the gameplay along with 126 licensed club teams, 57 national teams, 4,500 players, and new signature moves and tricks including free kick and penalty kick techniques. This year’s edition also includes official Italian, Spanish, and Dutch league licenses and for the first time ever, we have on-screen referees.
You can enjoy several familiar modes of play including, Match, Cup, League, Master League, Training and Edit modes. These are probably self-explanatory for most of you but just to clarify, League allows for 16 teams in a tournament structure, Cup mode allows for custom leagues and tournaments, Match mode is a single exhibition game, and Master League is the career or franchise mode. All of these modes feature a plethora of options to customize each game or tournament to your exact liking.
The Master League game mode has been given much greater depth to include aging and injury and you can now use the “My Best Eleven” feature to save your best teams. There are literally hundreds of motion-captured animations that stream seamlessly together to create a look that is nothing short of broadcast video. You can even zoom in on replays to see realistic facial expressions that are keyed into the current situation.
The Training Mode is phenomenal and even if you have played the past seven Winning Eleven games you owe it to yourself to check this out. There are so many new and improved moves like dribbling, passing, advanced shot techniques and even some defensive moves, that you can spend hours in the training mode and still keep on learning. WE8 also comes with an informative 50-page manual that explains everything from gameplay to all of the powerful editing features of this game.
Game controls are just as intuitive as last year and you will master them in just a few minutes. One thing I did notice this year is that there is a very small but noticeable delay between the time you input your command and the time you see it played out. I’m pretty sure this is because of the detailed animations that must play out before the next move can be triggered. It’s barely perceptible and you’ll only notice it once you start thinking faster than you play.
Defensive and offensive controls share a lot of common buttons for movement and player switching while the face buttons are used for the more specific commands. Shooting and passing are broken into forcefulness or range and assigned a unique button while applying various levels of pressure, tackling, and goalkeeping functions are given their own buttons. Even more inventive is the ability to move your player with the left stick and pass with the right. This method might not be for everyone but if you can master it you will become an unstoppable force.
Not only has the player control improved but the ball control and physics are unparalleled in real world accuracy. You can now put spin on the ball and see that spin affect the curvature of the shot and any deflection when it hits the ground or another player.
Knowing the capabilities of your team and each player on it will take you far in winning these matches. The game encourages and rewards your efforts to play soccer like it was meant to be played, with lots of precise ball handling, passing, strategic setups, and lightning attacks on the goal. Working the ball down the field has never been better. In most other soccer games if any one man keeps possession of the ball for more than ten seconds he will likely lose it to a defender. WE8 slows things down enough that you can actually work the ball and setup quick passes or lobs to other teammates down the field. Even though you are one player, you have a full team at your disposal and using them all is justly rewarded.
The menu and in-game interface is flawless. You can manage your team; make substitutions, change strategies and formations with the tap of a few buttons. Team management is essential, as players will realistically become fatigued during extended gameplay. The more you play the better “chemistry” you build up amongst the players and the better they perform as a team. These subtle RPG-like elements to the gameplay make this one of the most realistic soccer sims available.
Those of you playing solo will enjoy some of the best opponent AI ever seen in a soccer game and perhaps some of the best in any sports title to date – yes, it’s even better than WE7 if that is possible. It’s not unrealistically brutal, but very authentic and rewarding when you actually score a goal.
Winning Eleven 8 delivers a superb multiplayer experience with great two-player action out of the box and if you are lucky enough to have a Multitap and a group of soccer-loving friends you can crowd up to eight players around your TV. While I was certain Konami would include online support this year they chose once again to avoid the online element.
Konami has polished their new engine that debuted in WE7 delivering an even more stunning visual experience to create what is simply the best sports graphics I’ve ever seen on the PS2; they are so good it actually enhances the gameplay. Players look and move like their real-life counterparts and you can even note facial expressions that reflect the current emotions of the game.
The motion-capture is beyond words with hundreds of new moves, some of which aren’t even game related. When these guys start to move it’s poetry in motion and there is so much subtle detail that you won’t even get to appreciate it until you begin to explore the wonderful replay system built into the game. Players have an expansive library of individual animations that are blended together seamlessly as they run down the field, dribble, tackle, jump, flip, or perform any other move physically possible. The keepers have some new tricks up their animated sleeve as they leap and dive around the net.
If you don’t like the way something looks in WE8 you can dig into the powerful edit features of this game and tweak your existing jerseys or design entirely new ones. You can change player numbers, design team flags and tweak all sorts of cool details to make this game truly your own.
The stadiums are perfectly recreated. The details in the various types of grass, the stadium seating, the crowd, and all the ambient details you never consciously notice until they are absent are all here to create the perfect soccer experience. You can choose various weather conditions and time of day for the game or let these things happen randomly. These conditions all affect the excellent lighting and shadow effects present in WE8.
Winning Eleven 8 offers an excellent replay system that lets you play back the previous play from all sorts of camera angles with full control over rotation and zooming. You can view the playback at various speeds or study it frame-by-frame. You can play the actual game from a variety of camera views. The incredible detail will tempt you to play from a closer view than I would recommend. Stick with the long camera and save the savoring for the replays.
Oddly enough, when all things are being polished and improved somebody literally “dropped the ball” in the sound department. Admittedly, not the biggest factor in a sports title, especially when the hollow thunk of a soccer ball is your only necessary sound, but WE8 pales in comparison to its competition and even its predecessors.
The music is just terrible, and I’m pretty open to musical tastes. The guitar and keyboard heavy rock riffs just grate on your nerves after a few minutes. You’ll definitely want to turn these tracks down or off so you can enjoy the rest of the sound package which doesn’t fare as bad.
Spectators come to life with a fervor that you only hear in other countries. Their chants and cheers are keyed right into the action down on the field and can even drown out the commentary, which this year is a good thing.
Peter Brackley and Trevor Brookings are back only this year they decided to phone in their commentary. Seriously, it’s like they aren’t even watching the game. There is nothing relative to the action, the score, or even the last play they “witnessed”. Everything is very generic like a “Magic 8-Ball” was in the booth. “How about that first half, Trevor?” “Ask again later…” No, not really, but pretty darn close.
The ability to change the commentary language between Spanish and English was a great touch last year and it’s even more useful this year since listening to the commentary in Spanish gives you that authentic flavor while disguising their worthless babblings.
One of the reasons I enjoy sports games so much is that they quite literally have limitless value and gameplay potential, at least until a new version or something better comes along. Winning Eleven 8 is hands down the best soccer game you can currently play on any format, and this year we see its debut on the Xbox.
With a good selection of single, multiplayer, and franchise game modes available, this is one sports title that you will be playing until Konami releases their next installment. We can only continue to hope that WE9 will have online support so the online crowd won’t have reason to look elsewhere for their soccer needs.
Winning Eleven 8 annihilates this year’s competition, sparse as it may be, while managing to improve upon last years game in just about every way possible. The only hiccup in the entire presentation is the commentary and music, which keeps this game just short of perfection. I'm also taking off points for the continued lack of support for online gameplay. I let it slide last year, but I can no longer overlook this glaring oversight in today's world of online sports titles.
All of the new improvements in graphics, animation, gameplay, Master League, Training, and the new features will be appreciated by soccer lovers and novices alike. This is a perfect example of a sequel actually exceeding its original and if you have any love for the sport of soccer this needs to be in your game library. Winning Eleven 8 continues its legacy as the best soccer game in the world.