IGN Review of Winning Eleven: Pro Evolution Soccer 2007
Not too long ago, I ran into a European games journalist at a press event. We said our hellos and talked about upcoming releases and the conversation eventually landed on Winning Eleven Pro Evolution Soccer 2007. At the mention of Pro Evolution (as Konami's stellar soccer franchise is called in Europe), his face lit up, he whipped out his cell phone and started playing videos of his best goals in the game.
Such is the outstanding gameplay of Winning Eleven, and when you score a great goal you want to savor it and show it off to your friends. It's a magnificent feeling to really crack one from distance or pull off the flip-flap with Ronaldinho to beat the keeper one-on-one. For soccer fans, that feeling is better than almost any other moment in other sports games. When's the last time someone whipped out their Blackberry to show you a touchdown in Madden?
While EA's FIFA franchise (and the upcoming UEFA Champions League title) has surpassed Winning Eleven with better graphics, more licensed teams and stadiums, and more exciting atmosphere, Winning Eleven is still the best-playing game of soccer on the planet. The controls are tight, the star players shine and the AI continually challenges you.
But hey, if you follow Winning Eleven then this isn't exactly breaking news. The gameplay, options and Master League franchise mode have remained basically untouched for years now. There isn't some wild new feature on the back of the box like Total Dribble Control or a Lace Your Boots mini-game. So knowing that the gameplay was going to be solid, it is most disappointing that Konami did little to improve the game in other areas, something we are getting used to with this franchise.
When you first boot up the game, the graphics look pretty poor. That's because there's some very poor color and texture used for the pitch. It's not too hard to get grass right in a videogame, but here Konami struggles. The players' faces in cutscenes slightly resemble the real-life counterparts, and everyone has a very stony look about them. The game looks much better in action, however. Animations are suberb, especially as players jostle and interact with each other. The game also runs at a smooth clip and never slows down.
In the audio booth, Peter Brackley and Trevor Brooking do another serviceable job of calling the game, using a less-is-more approach. "Dida, Cafu, Kaka, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, oh it's in!" could be a call for a goal from the Brazilian national team. Even in preview versions of UEFA's Champions League we hear actual color from the color commentary, as he recounts great players of the past and his own experience on the field. We hear Brooking so little, he might as well be swigging on a bottle of Jack Daniels in the booth while Brackley calls the game. The only thing good about this approach from Konami is that the commentators are never off of the action and they rarely make a bad call. The crowd is less-than-inspiring too, and sounds basically the same in every stadium with every team. The menu music is still the drunken byproduct of an unemployed Eastern European disc jockey.
Presentation has always been a problem for Winning Eleven, and that continues this season. There are a number of licensed teams and leagues and just as many unlicensed teams and imaginary players. There are a few roster gaffs as well -- Vincenzo Montella, the "Little Airplane," is currently on a sixth month loan to Fulham, although he still shows up on the bench for AS Roma in the game. The good news is that L'Aeroplanino still does his trademark celebration after a goal. A nice new option is the ability to transfer edit files between the PS2 and PSP (no Master League, though).
The German League, the unlicensed Bundesliga of WE past is gone, although Bayern Munich is still in the game in the other leagues section. While we've come to accept Winning Eleven as perhaps the only sports game that can get by without official licensing, it's disheartening to see the game actually loses some teams. At least you can still edit players, kits and even their shoes. You can also change the name of Merseyside Red to Liverpool and every other fake to team to the real name for a bit of authenticity. WE players for years have wasted hours editing all the teams and players to their liking.
Master League returns as a competent franchise mode. You can start off with a loaded team like Manchester United (one of the few licensed teams from the Premiership), or you can start from scratch with your own batch of scrub players. The appeal of Master League is making transfers for big name players and moving up through the divisions. It's interesting to see how different teams can evolve even though they start out with the same rosters. It's actually a nice topic of water cooler conversation between friends to note which star you signed that week. If you start out with the scrub players, you can take your squad online and play against other Master League teams. Early on, everyone has the same roster, but in a few days it will be fun to see who landed Theirry Henry. Unfortunately, Master League is still a bare bones franchise mode, devoid of any team chemistry or deep manager options. You play games, negotiate for players, and repeat.
Still, if there's one sports title that can over all this, it's Winning Eleven, a title that has fallen off on every important category but the most important one: gameplay. Just watch the way players interact with each other on the pitch -- defenders slyly stick a foot in to knock the ball away; attackers will use their bodies to shield defenders from the ball; everyone jostles for position on free kicks. When you have space, you can dribble and occasionally beat a defender, although one-on-one matches are few and far between. Mostly great goals are executed by precision passing and a little bit of luck. Ball physics are spot on. There are a few minor complaints, however. On throw ins, there is an invisible force field preventing defenders from challenging close throws. Shooting is extremely difficult and there are many times -- even in the six yard box -- where world class soccer players blast the ball into the stands rather than on goal. Still, we would rather see too many missed shots than too many goals. The game seems to run a tad faster on the PS2 than on the 360, clearly a result of developing on the PS2 for several years now.
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