Winning Eleven 9 Review (PS2)
I have this theory that, at the core, there are two types of sports gamers in the world. There is the die-hard, sim-action, ultra-real, gameplay-first, roster-file, slider-setting, Operation Sports Kool-Aid drinkin’ "hardcore sports gamer". Then there is the "gamer who plays sports games". I’m not here to say which one is better. I’m not here to say which camp is the right camp. I’m just here to recognize the existence of both.
Now that we’ve acknowledged that both creatures exist, we ask the age-old question: Whom do sports game developers develop for?
Freshman year Marketing and Business 101 will tell you to market towards the "gamer who plays sports games".
Well, simply said, there are more of them. Lots more. The video game industry is a multi-billion dollar a year industry. “Atari Teens” are now knocking on the door of becoming grandparents. The hardcore sports gaming sect wants to believe that we are the audience. But, in reality, we are the tail… not the dog. Developers want you, the same guy who bought Halo to buy their new football title. They want the Mom who ran to Target for towels and Vasoline to pick up that surprise game for Billy.
Broad market appeal is the key.
Style over substance is acceptable.
Exclusive licenses, street modes, customize everything, bling-bling, big pimpin’, seizure-inducing graphics and a boomin’ soundtrack.
But, the cry from the die-hard hardcore masses remains the same: "Quality. Gameplay. Realism." I like my sports with, well, sports in them.
If you follow sports gaming, even at the most basic level, you’ve at least heard of the Winning Eleven series from Konami. Even if you just check-in in January for year-end awards, you’ve seen Winning Eleven in the Soccer category or, often times, in the “Game of the Year” conversation. This series has consistently produced the quintessential video soccer experience and, arguably, the most realistic sports gameplay available today.
Needless to say, the day that Winning Eleven 9 hit my black box, it came with some high expectations. As an unbiased reviewer, I attempt to go into every review with a clean palette. I try not to overly compare a new product in a series to its previous release. Note that I said, try to not compare it.
For those of you that are rookies to the Winning Eleven series and used to the black and white licensing agreements that we are seeing in the current generation of sports gaming, you might be a little thrown off at first by Winning Eleven 9. Due to certain licensing restraints, primarily with FIFA, Konami actually uses a combination of both real and “fake” teams and players in their title. Nine times out of ten, if you follow soccer at all, you can quickly distinguish the secret identities. But, not to worry, the diligent editors can put in the time to make the game the experience they want. That ability has long been a bonus selling point to the series that I’m sure some other developers who are struggling with exclusive licensing agreements have taken note of.
The modes of play available in Winning Eleven 9 are what you would expect from a soccer title. You have your Friendly (Quick Match/Exhibition), Custom Leagues, Cup Competitions, Training Mode, Master League Mode, and, finally here, Online Play. We’ll talk more about Online Play later, but I want to start with the Master League Mode, because it’s really is the core for the hardcore legions.
Master League Mode is Winning Eleven 9's version of a Dynasty or Career Mode and it’s arguably the most complete mode in sports gaming today. In a nutshell, your job is to build a championship caliber team on the field, through not only your on-the-pitch gameplay, but through careful managing and coaching off of it. You can start off with a real team or build from the ground up. I’ve found a unique experience with each. When you start off with an existing team, very often you’ll find success early on because of the talent that is already there are developed. However, finding time for young players to develop and having the finances to bring talent in can send you into a long stretches of decline when your superstars start to fade.
Building from the ground up tends to be more of a struggle in the beginning, but it allows you to build and mold the club that you want from the beginning, hopefully culminating in a dynasty that rules for years.
The realism from a management perspective is top-shelf. Finances need to be managed. Players age, causing skills to decline and eventually lead to retirement. Injuries occur. Players' emotions affect your club. Players are summoned away to play on their national club. The information is almost a little daunting at first, but the depth should satisfy hardcore soccer fans and fans of this style mode for months. The replay factor is through the roof before you ever see the field.
All that said, where Winning Eleven 9 will once again win it’s awards and accolades will be on the pitch. This game features the most realistic and rewarding gameplay available from any sports title on the console today. This is not arcade soccer. This is soccer as it is meant to be played. It’s a game of timing, precision, strategy, control and grace. Passing and shooting require a perfect blend of execution and angle. Ball physics look and feel like a ball should. It takes patience and touch to control the game.
I’ve long theorized that soccer has never caught on in the United States to level it has internationally because the US audience and SportsCenter generation can not appreciate anything short of a highlight goal. Some of the best action you’ll ever see in a soccer match never even results in a shot on net. Winning Eleven 9 captures that. Watching a scoring chance develop has never been more rewarding. Almost getting off a shot means something. Playing to a 0-0 tie or even losing 1-0 can be your best game of the season. Because of that fact, the crowd I mentioned in the beginning - the "gamers that play sports games" - may quickly get frustrated with this title. It is not “pick up and play” soccer. It's still a fun game, but the more you know about soccer and its basic strategies, the more success you will likely have.
AI reacts like it should. Computer-controlled teams play their style of game while reacting to yours on the fly. Some clubs will play more aggressively than others. Others will play a very ball-control, possession styleof offense. I did notice that it seems like defensive players gain a little bit of “make-up speed” that cancels out some chances, but it's nothing that you can’t learn to adapt to. The more you know and can react to each style, the more you’ll get out of the experience. Other sports gaming developers need to take note of this AI code and bring it in. No other game gives each team the unique personality that Winning Eleven 9 does.
Visually, Winning Eleven 9 has some of the smoothest and slickest animations today and some of the most realistic collision detection of any title, regardless of genre. While some of the graphics still leave a little to be desired, the way the game moves and feels is almost jaw-dropping at times. I shudder to think of what this series is capable of when it switches to the PS3 and/or Xbox360.
The game is a treat for the ears. The crowd is one of the smartest in sports gaming and reacts right on cue, making it such a realistic blend that you get lost in it. Commentary is right on point and, like I’ve mentioned in the past, achieves the highest marks in gaming because it makes you forget that you’re playing a game. Perfect sound in a game should be so natural that you hardly even notice it. Winning Eleven 9 achieves that balance.
For all of the accolades this series has won over the years, the loudest outcry has always been for an Online Play Mode. Well, the wish has been granted in Winning Eleven 9. File it firmly under “beggars can’t be choosers”, but the mode this year is pretty basic. That’s not a complaint; just pointing out that if you’re looking for online leagues or deep stat-tracking, you will not find it in this year’s release. In fact, you don’t get much more than a solid player-versus-player online experience and whole lot of fun. That’s nothing to complain about in my book.
All of that and we are still left with the age old question of “should I buy this game?” Isn’t that really what reviews are for?
Winning Eleven 9 is a must buy for soccer fans, Winning Eleven series fans, hardcore sports gamers who love a deep Dynasty/Career Mode... and current developers who think that you can’t make a great game without licensing rights.
Winning Eleven 9 is probably a pass for people who want lots of goals, swiss cheese AI, bling-bling, and flash. That’s not what this game is about.
When you check back in January 2007 to see where all of those year-end awards are going, be sure to check the mantle at Konami. They'll have my vote.