Reviewed: March 11, 2006
Released: February 7, 2006
For the past three years we can always count on Konami to deliver what is irrefutably the best soccer game on the planet. EA might have the licensing, the teams, and the players, but Winning Eleven 9, like all the games before it, has the gameplay. Last year I was convinced that this franchise just couldn’t get any better, and perhaps Konami agrees with me because not that much has changed for this ninth installment.
This year’s award-winning soccer game does little to advance the sport of soccer in either gameplay, or technical achievements in sound or visuals. It’s almost as if the designers have shifted their focus to the upcoming next-gen release and simply released this game because “we expect one”. But in all fairness, there are a few subtle enhancements for those looking hard enough.
Winning Eleven 9 builds upon the success (or perhaps more accurately, relies on the success) of last year's critically acclaimed soccer title, offering some minor 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.
The Winning Eleven series 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 9 loses nothing from last year and continues to offer the most technically proficient edition of soccer in town. The complicated menu system has been tweaked to make things a bit easier to navigate, especially for team selection, but Konami’s soccer titles still lacks the pizzazz of the FIFA franchise.
The core of Winning Eleven 9 bumps the content from last year, adding new teams from Italy, and England, now offering 138 licensed European Club teams, 57 national teams and thousands of top pro players, and there are even a few new signature moves, tricks, and formations to round out the soccer experience. And for the first time ever, Winning Eleven 9 goes online – about time.
For those who just have to have their favorite team and players in the game, you are still free to use the editor to customize just about every aspect of the game. Even so, not having access to major events like the 2006 World Cup certainly gives EA a bit of competitive edge, at least in presentation. Winning Eleven 9 offers its own feeble attempt at a World Cup clone using the Master League and a somewhat generic Division Two path leading up to the Champion’s League.
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 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. Winning Eleven 9 also comes with a large and informative 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. Last year there was a slight hiccup between the command inputs and the resulting animations. Those seem to have been cleaned up nicely offering a fantastically smooth gameplay experience.
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. WE9 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 has been tweaked to makes things a bit easier than last year. 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. It’s not unrealistically brutal, but very authentic and rewarding when you actually score a goal. I was jumping up and down and shouting right along with the on-screen fans.
Winning Eleven 9 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. And finally, just as the PS2 is about to go away, Konami sneaks in some online support for two-player games over the Internet.
Online play works surprisingly well for a first-time effort. I had a few games with some lag, and those were just spurts of slowdown and probably due to the “other guys” bandwidth. The Xbox offers a much fuller online experience but at least the PS2 crowd can join and host their own games.
Not much has changed with the visuals in WE9. You’ll sacrifice a bit of framerate and clean graphics that the Xbox offers over the PS2, but it’s worth it to play this game with the DualShock and the shoulder buttons that are in constant use.
Konami has made a few improvements to their already-polished engine from WE8 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 moves, some of which aren’t even game related. There are literally hundreds of motion-captured animations that stream seamlessly together to create a look that is nothing short of broadcast video. You’ll watch in awe as players run down the field, dribble, tackle, jump, flip, or perform any other move physically possible. And check out those awesome Keeper animations.
If you don’t like the way something looks in WE9 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 (which looks better in cutscenes than gameplay), 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 WE9.
Winning Eleven 9 offers an excellent replay system that lets you playback 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 WE9 pales in comparison to its competition and even its predecessors.
The music is just terrible, quite possibly worse than last year. The limited selection of music all sounds painfully similar, so unless you like repetitive European dance music turn this feature 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. Crowd participation really sells the soccer experience in WE9.
Peter Brackley and Trevor Brookings are back again this year and not doing much better than they did in WE8. Their commentary is serviceable but not terribly exciting. In all fairness, it’s about the same as commentary you’d hear on U.S. broadcasts but still, once you watch a European feed of real soccer and hear those commentators, you’ll settle for nothing less. Brookings color commentary and limited insight into the sport hearkens to the days of Dennis Miller in the NFL broadcast booth.
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. Now, the only people who will be disgruntled are the Spanish-speaking community.
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 9 is hands down the best soccer game you can currently play on any format, but FIFA is quickly catching up.
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 on next-gen systems. I can’t imagine what that game will look or play like but I can’t wait to find out.
Winning Eleven 9 still manages to surpass the other soccer offerings out there, but its lead is slowly slipping. Lack of licensing and hardly any improvements to presentation, graphics, or sound makes this newest installment feel just a bit self-serving. Online support has finally arrived and is much appreciated, even if it does come at the end of the system’s lifespan.
Winning Eleven 9 continues its legacy as the best “playing” soccer game in the world, but Konami will really have to work to maintain their lead, especially when they tackle the highly competitive world of next-gen video games next year.