Let's make something clear from the outset; Winning Eleven 6 is not the game that will eventually be released as Pro Evolution Soccer 2 in Europe. The final product will hopefully improve upon WE6 in the same way that WE6 improved upon Pro Evolution Soccer - specifically though, KCET is promising to work hard to overcome areas in the Japanese release which fall short of our expectations.
One of the Winning Eleven 6's less welcome subtractions is an apparent loss of ball control. R1 still provides a speedy but inaccurate dash, while R2's sprint is still slightly slower but more controlled, allowing players to weave away from defenders and shield the ball with greater ease. Previously the L1 button had given players the ability to slow almost to a halt, but in WE6 this facility seems to have disappeared. Perhaps it hides behind one of the wealth of Japanese-language menu options we couldn't decipher. We hope so, because without it the game completely lacks close control options, key to those Ronaldo style stop-overs, twists and turns, and coupled with the increased pace of the game this gap can lead to far too much turnover in midfield.
Shooting remains one of the game's best aspects though, with all manner of wonderful goals achievable by those who put the hours in. You can feign shots by filling your power bar then quickly tapping X to shuffle aside, which gives you the opportunity to take the ball around the keeper - something completely alien to players of the original Pro Evolution Soccer - and a quick double-tap of the shot button as the keeper goes to dive will dink it over him satisfyingly. Of course, all manner of long- and short-range efforts are still there, from sticking a random boot out decisively as Ronaldo did on Monday, to blasting it into the top left corner from the edge of the penalty area. The comprehensive array of options and directions the ball can take defy the conventions of the genre, which often puts the game on rails.
If one thing is true of Pro Evo 2 at this stage, it's that you will get better the more you play it. In Winning Eleven 6, early reliance on pressing will lead to lots of stoppages, gradually you learn to anticipate where the ball is going to be played, and grabbing the R1 and R2 buttons simultaneously gives you direct control of the player, allowing you to run him to where you feel the ball is headed instead of just hoping the AI will direct him to intercept. Making liberal use of the combo along with the circle-controlled slide tackle is also a good way to intercept, and often rewarding because it finds the opposition out of formation and susceptible to counterattacks.
Player statistics continue to contribute to the overall gameplay dynamic, and teams are noticeably different to one another not just overall, but in critical areas. Speed and accuracy with the ball are obvious ones, but stats can also make a difference in terms of how much control individual players have over the ball in one-on-one situations and in many other areas. For example, Zidane's skill with the outside of the foot, for peeling balls away and slotting those incisive through-balls into place can turn a match around, and Zidane playing a ball between two defenders onto the end of an Henry run produces a very different result to a Barmby ball to Heskey.
When it comes to moving the ball around passing is normally smooth, with the same options for lofting the ball forward and about as before. Our one criticism of the player statistics system lies here though, as players often stand around waiting for the ball to arrive, plainly watching the ball and the inevitable defender as he races to pick it up. Better players can pick the ball up from a bad pass, but however technically realistic, having a striker stand and watch the ball without budging is frustrating, and it certainly doesn't look realistic.
FIFA may advocate fair play, but the referees on their default settings in Winning Eleven 6 are more like mafia crime bosses - make one mistake kid, and you're dead. Holding down the X and/or square buttons when not in possession still chases the ball and presses the opposition, but players topple much more easily, making it harder to steal the ball and resulting in a heck of a lot of stoppages. The good news is that Winning Eleven 6 has an extraordinary amount of options to tweak, and with all the work KCET is putting in at the moment, we can expect even more by the time Pro Evo 2 is finished. Konami assures us that already the referees can be toned down and various other elements of the game altered to streamline the experience as much as possible.
Stoppages continue to break up the game too much though; any whistle blow sees the camera zoom in, the ref dish out a card if necessary, perhaps even a replay, and then a few seconds' pause before play resumes. This is one area that we hope KCET will streamline for Pro Evo 2 - perhaps after the whistle goes, a quick button combo from the infringed player could bypass all this messing around? The free kick system itself is still pretty hard to get right as well. After more than 50 hours of play with WE6 (and countless hours with Pro Evo) it's still almost impossible to net the ball, even with advice from the developer!
We don't expect to see the infinitely more manageable ISS2 system make the transition across - in fairness that one is a bit too easy to master - but the present system is confusing. Pressing forward on the left stick puts power behind direct shot free kicks, and spoons long pass free kicks, while pulling it back does the opposite. Pulling the stick back on a shot removes much of the pace and leaves only spin, but the gradations are a bit inconsistent, so most of the time you end up spooning it to just the other side of the wall, where it bounces harmlessly to be cleared by the foot of a defender. Then there are other factors like spin, distance and direction… In a way, this is where WE6's depth works against it, because investing hundreds of hours is something that only a scant few can do, and we still find it extraordinary to score from a free kick. Those not prepared to lose a day to free kicks on the practice pitch will have difficulty getting anywhere.
Jumpers for goalposts
Graphically the game receives a few tweaks, with more transition animations for little dinks, chips, passes and so forth. The game seems a lot brighter and smoother, with more polygons and real-time shadows on every player from each of four floodlights. In the most zoomed out of views the game does slow down now and then, and from free kicks and corners changing the direction can be horrendously slow thanks to all that player detail coupled with the sight of a huge stadium packed full of fans. Needless to say, this is at the top of KCET's list of items to address.
Elsewhere, player models are slightly more detailed, but the most striking change is actually to the animations and player heights, which are extremely reminiscent of their real-life counterparts. Choice players like Beckham and Roberto Carlos get their own unique run-ups, and even if we have yet to emulate Carlos' stinging kicks, he doesn't half race about like a little prima donna.
On the audio front, commentary still seems a bit repetitive, although it's infinitely more bearable in Japanese with the game's over-enthusiastic pairing babbling incoherently as far as us uneducated Brits are concerned, and judging by the regularly referenced player names we'd imagine that licenses have been acquired, so Pro Evo 2 should be even closer to real football in that respect. We also like the choice of tunes for the intro and exit movies - Queen's We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions, and we hope that they remain in place. Overused in British sports coverage they may be, but they are also intimately associated with football and just plain stonking tunes.
Pro Evolution Soccer 2 is shaping up to be an extraordinarily complete package, incomparable to any other footy game, if WE6 is anything to go by. It is already the finest football simulation in Japan, just as Pro Evo is in the west, and KCET isn't done tweaking the game yet. Although it might seem a bit cheap to continuously update the same game at the expense of a new project, the more they do to the Pro Evo formula the better it gets. There are a few problems, but there always are, and ultimately these can't detract from the overall experience, which is fast, versatile and rewarding. Give it another six months and we'll be saying the same again, with bells on.