Version tested: PlayStation 2
Given that PS2 console games are region-locked, and that the average punter is very unlikely to have a Japanese console tucked under the telly, it seems fair at this point to bid a fond farewell to those of you with no prior experience of Winning Eleven. What you want is Pro Evolution Soccer 3, which remains the pinnacle of footballing accomplishments in your local gaming shop, despite the efforts of 878,000 FIFA fans to convince us otherwise. Go and play PES3, and, by the time you can curl a Beckham free kick into the top corner every once in a while, you'll be in a position to appreciate why this one is better.
That's because Winning Eleven 7 International - the Japanese vintage - is a fairly minor adjustment to the game we all bought at the end of last year. And yet it's not the same as the American version, which is also called WE7 International thanks to Konami's confusing decision to market PES under the Winning Eleven banner in the States. What this is, to be completely clear, is a more fluid, responsive and balanced version of PES3 that you can only buy in Asia - with the option of menus and commentary in several different languages, helpfully including English, which makes the Master League mode a little bit easier to handle. With us so far? Good. Then you won't mind if we lapse into dreamy approbation...
As we type this, see, the players of AC Milan are preparing to celebrate a monstrous 6-2 victory over Bayern Munich. As the final whistle blows - and, perhaps in deference to Sky Sports, the score graphic vanishes from the top of the screen - they will raise their arms aloft in exultation. They will raise them to thank the lord for their good fortune. What they don't realise, though, is that we are their lords and masters, and that our thumbs are the mighty instruments that drove them to such a divine accomplishment.
The score line, 6-2, is the sort of excitement that we've come to expect from end-of-season encounters between closely matched sides throwing caution to the wind for the sake of a few more points and climbing to 11th. To be honest, it is completely anomalous. You just do not win 6-2 in a Pro Evolution or Winning Eleven game. It's the stupidest way to introduce the game imaginable.
But, to us, it is indicative of something. It is indicative of the fact that Konami football games can still surprise us, because they themselves thrive on those occasions when we manage to surprise ourselves. When our thumbs carve out openings, and actually respond with the deftness and composure a real footballer would need with half a shot at goal, that's when Winning Eleven is at its most magical. 6-2 is a lucky result, and it's brilliant because it's genuinely lucky.
Our luck is one of the things that renders the Winning Eleven and PES games most worthy of your time. They are very hard for newcomers to get into, the presentation is extremely clumsy, there's no 16:9 mode, the players are guilty of moonwalking between animation frames here and there, and most of the clubs have stupid names (like this reviewer's beloved "Merseyside Red"), but on the field it is, for want of a better expression, a completely different ball game to anything else. These Konami footy games are games of almost-genuine football, where real tactics breed real opportunities, and you really feel the pain when you miss a gilt-edged chance. They are games where showboating can be a scrumptious sight to savour, but simultaneously they are games in which you can't just roam up and down the field with the ball at your feet. Ask Cristiano Ronaldo is that's realistic or not.
They are games of sometimes-blistering pace and fluidity of movement, full of endless variation. Games in which you can pick between four different methods of passing the ball long, and where a double-tap dink of the keeper is a toggle rather than an obligation. Games in which the players show a preference for a particular foot and get knocked off balance by charging defenders as they prepare to shoot, and have been animated in such a way that they generally move like their real-life counter-parts, even if they're still some way off resembling them up close. They are games full of footballing minutiae that you just can't find amongst the competition. You may still play other football games nine months after you buy them - perhaps for ten minutes after a trip to the pub - but how many of them still manage to surprise you after that long beneath your thumbs?
Obviously this sort of depth makes it a bit difficult to get to grips with marginal updates like Winning Eleven 7 International, but equally this sort of fine poise means that even subtle changes - like those implemented in WE7I - can make a world of difference. And, rather appropriately, this time it's a strict adherence to the game's, nay, the sport's core strengths, that makes this one that much more enjoyable than a game we were celebrating just six short months ago.
One thing that's always been true of Winning Eleven and PES is that, if you put it under the microscope, cracks in the graphical engine start to appear. In WE7I more than ever, it's clear that in order to facilitate the smoothness of the action, KCET has been forced to sand paper over the mismatched running and shooting animations - particularly obvious if you keep an eye on the player's standing leg during replays. But while some of our chums actually cite this as a flaw, we'd go so far as to encourage it, because it seems to us that it's this 'problem' more than anything that helps deliver such a fluid and responsive game - even compared to last year's iteration. (And if you want to get picky, we can point out plenty of things wrong with FIFA's replays...)
Think about how good older sports games were - the top-down ones that barely had to worry about whether legs clashed in animation - and apply that to what you know about Pro Evo. Players are so much quicker to fire the ball out of their feet now. If a ball comes to a midfielder on the halfway line at waist height, he can harness its momentum in mid-air by knocking it on to an advancing attacker with just one touch, often helping to craft an opportunity in the process. Rather like Heskey's touch that led to Liverpool's winning goal at Stamford Bridge a few months ago, for those who remember that...
Passing is much zippier than previously, too, and, perhaps most encouragingly, shots from outside the area are a good deal more effective. Coupled with improved responsiveness all round, and the improved volleys PES3 was celebrated for, this means you can often crack 40-yard screamers goalwards and actually hold some hope of achieving something. They even sail close to the posts, whereas previously they'd be hopelessly inaccurate, and every once in a while you just might get lucky. Sure, these long range efforts are probably no more or less likely to go in than they would be in real life, but they certainly get the pulse racing.
WE7I also fixes some of the balancing issues and subtler flaws that made PES3 rather frustrating at times. Referees seem to have a much better appreciation of the advantage rule, pulling the play back when a ball is spilt out of a foul and doesn't run for the advancing team. The refs also appear to have given up on handball again, which is a good thing. Handball decisions were ridiculously random in PES3, and if they are in here then we haven't seen them.
It's also a lot harder to move up and down the pitch without passing. It was never easy, to be fair, but defenders seem to have less trouble catching up with attackers now - obviously with a few exceptions - and it's easier to shepherd advancing wingers out to the sidelines, forcing us to tone down our reliance on speed in the flanks to build opportunities.
Regular followers of new PES and WE games will know that the first time you score in a new version is always something to treasure, and once again for the umpteenth year running it was a new look finish for us, with Heskey sliding in on the far post, his outstretched right boot connecting with Owen's low cross and slotting the ball past an Everton keeper. We're not saying it's a new thing - one of the best things about PES is that you're never really sure, because there's just so much depth that you can't really say whether you're doing something different, or just seeing it for the first time - but it's indicative of just how vast and intuitive the game has become. It's actually aware of what you're trying to do.
Oh, and they've got rid of that bloody annoying TV fuzz effect on the replays. We absolutely had to mention that one.
Do I not like that!
It's not all good news though. While PES3 was a largely 60fps affair, we've spotted a bit of slowdown creeping back in to WE7I at times; we're still saddled with various hard-coded quirks that Konami still hasn't got round to ironing out, like the invisible barrier around players when you're defending throw-ins; and despite all manner of tweaks, the goalkeepers remain largely unable to deal with looping headed shots. On more than one occasion in endless hours of football we witnessed a header slip almost through the hands of a prancing keeper and into the net. Looks great when it happens; feels terribly inconsistent when you look a bit closer.
There are some ever so minor presentational adjustments though - it's quicker to turn the viewing angle left and right when you're taking a free kick, for example, and we'd swear blind the ball was never capable of showing this much sidespin on the bounce in PES3. Beyond all that though, faulting this is the usual practice of picking up on minor irritations that we've noted down during the course of play (something of a sport in itself). This week's moans include refs failing to caution players when they've already played the advantage, despite remaining rather heavy handed with their cards in other circumstances; the usual issue of players not running exactly where they were meant to in our mind's eye; and our anger at KCET's continued portrayal of Milan Baros as some form of Wes Brown look-alike. We also object to Harry Kewell's hair, although that's more of a general observation than a quirk of WE7I...
This one goes to eleven
Although Winning Eleven 7 International will sadly never make it out in Europe, what we're seeing here really does bode well for Pro Evolution Soccer 4, which will almost certainly appear towards the end of the year (even if Konami hasn't officially announced it at this point) as some manner of improvement over this. You can still argue that it's not realistic at all, and that all PES fans have become lazy zealots determined not to like what the competition is doing, but in the end your appreciation of Winning Eleven 7 International is a question of your ability to play football, plain and simple. If it doesn't feel like normal football, it's because you're always racing hell for leather trying to secure one more goal. It's the sort of game where you still yearn for goals even when you're 5-0 up in injury time.
Some die-hards may not take to this version as fervently as we have, and we dare say there's plenty more in there we haven't been able to appreciate even over hundreds of matches, but in the end it's all a question of your own approach. With so many different ways to play it, what KCET has done this time is bound to foul it up for somebody, but as ever it's an adjustment that will make a positive difference overall.
9 / 10