It's a game of two halves. So's football, come to think of it. But in terms of Konami TYO's calendar of releases, it's very much split in two - and Winning Eleven 8 marks the kick off of the first half of season 04/05. The side that lines up again later this year for Pro Evolution Soccer 4 will be very different - a lot of the personnel will have changed, their haircuts will be more authentic, they'll be fitter and a lot of their new ideas will have had time to bed in, and they'll be trotting out on more formats than ever before. For now though Winning Eleven 8, the product of much summer spending and a good few weekends in Malaga, gives us a chance to see some of the gaffer's raw ideas in action. And rather like a lot of summer trialists, it makes a solid first impression; the only question now is whether the new additions will survive in front of the capacity crowd.
If the last Konami football title you played was Pro Evolution Soccer 3, then WE8 is going to come as a big shock. In fact, we suggest you refer back to our review of the Japanese Winning Eleven 7 International if that's the case, because for the purposes of these impressions we're mainly addressing changes above and beyond what we saw in that game. And it's certainly changed significantly. Rather like a team emerging after a summer break with a few transfers in place and a new boss (lord almighty this writer is anxious about Benitez' opener next weekend), some of the things that marked the last outing have been dialled down, while some new elements seem to be turned to 11 in case anyone misses them.
In general, dribbling and passing the ball around feels much more crisp and responsive - even more so than WE7I, about which we made the same observation. It's much easier to keep up the momentum and produce flowing football, and there are plenty of things that contribute to this. Partly, there's a change to the way players run -R1/sprint is certainly more useful now - but there's also the way that players flick the ball on now with greater effectiveness, and most obviously the way that players pass with the outside of the boot for the first time. In terms of flick-ons, Konami had said that PES4 would make some changes here, and it's definitely nice to see, and intuitive - many players simply move the ball on quicker, with a much greater variety of animations and approaches to doing so, and as promised some players are much better at handling high or fast balls than others. Playing a lofted ball to Cafu around the halfway line earlier, we were delighted to see him stand tall and gently volley the ball at about chest height onto a runner on the left wing.
Outside-of-the-foot-passes are definitely the more interesting addition, however, and you'll notice the effect they have immediately. Players stretch less to make obvious passes, and the passing moves are a lot more fluid as a result. Obviously it comes down to the player's preferred foot in a lot of cases, but it does mean that turning to give the player in possession a comfortable angle is less significant than it was - and little toe-pokes can be fantastic ways of splitting the defence. Nevertheless, there is a sense that WE8 may be overdoing these at the moment, in the same way that the (admittedly much more irritating) handball rule seemed to pop up all over the place in PES3. They could perhaps do with toning down, but for the moment we're, er, not that enraged by the prospect of being able to complete more of the passes we actually want to play...
Probably just as helpful as the flick-ons and outside-of-the-boot passes in terms of attacking is the updated radar. It features correctly coloured blobs for each team (rather than generic colours), a big, obvious golden ball icon and highly visible indicators showing the receiving player on longer passes. It's a lot easier to read in general now, and we've certainly found it easier to spot when forward players are making darting runs, and a lot easier to stroke the through-ball button in time to take advantage. We'd say off-the-ball running from team-mates is improved too, and that defenders have more trouble breaking up through-ball passes now, but whatever the blend of tweaks, it makes for a more exciting balance in the final third of the field.
Offsetting that attacking impetus slightly are a number of changes to tackling, in particular slide tackling. For a start, the variation in styles paints a much nicer picture visually - defenders will still slide in on their side or their back, but now they also sweep their leg round and let their standing leg slip out, and do other things equally difficult to describe. But the key changes for us are improved effectiveness, less punishment for wayward attempts (assuming they don't infringe on the move itself), and, critically, the way that the referee's decisions now seem to do a better job of reflecting what you actually see on the screen. One of the Winning Eleven/Pro Evo series overriding flaws over the years has been the way the player on-screen would perform what seemed to be a perfectly valid tackle, but that the CPU's interpretation would be different, and a foul would be awarded - and sometimes a card for the 'offender', too. Although we've seen that a couple of times so far, it does appear on first impressions that Konami has tightened up this area of the game, and if so it's a long overdue improvement that will make a huge difference to long-standing fans of the game.
Speaking of the referee, his involvement is certainly one area that Konami has emphasised in its PES4 literature, pointing out that he will now be on the pitch itself, react to decisions more intuitively and generally cause less of a fuss. He's certainly on the pitch now, which is nice to see (though sometimes vaguely distracting, even if we haven't managed to hit him yet), but he doesn't seem to serve much of a purpose other than to drain a bit more CPU. He does have a new 'tapping the bloke on the arm to calm him down' animation, but that's a close-up cutaway job similar to the yellow or red card animations, so surely that doesn't count? On the other hand, we're prepared to let him be since there seem to be less yellow and red cards flying around.
We're also happy to see the fourth official getting a run-out - holding up boards on substitutions (even his little board with time-added-on appears in the top left at the end of a half) - and probably presiding over players coming and going from the pitch for minor injuries, which they sometimes do now. We were angry at first when Ronaldo was scythed down and stretchered off, in one instance, only for him to come back on at full fitness a few minutes later. He then got sent off for trying to tackle the goalkeeper about 24 times, but that's our issue...
Another thing regularly touted in connection with PES4 is the change to the free kick and penalty systems. Although WE8 may not be giving us the full extent of Konami's plans for PES4 (and penalties don't seem to have changed at all for this version), there are certainly new options when you line up with your favourite architects of the set piece. Whereas before it was a bit like roulette until you managed to perfect the technique on the training field after many long hours of frustration, here it, er, still is, but with added bells and whistles. Step up and whack the ball as normal and you'll probably get the same result. Press Select though and there are a couple of other options, which allow you to involve another player or two. Press L1 and kick, for example, and you can do a pass and then shot, or you can click in the right thumb-stick (R3) to lay the ball off to the chap running up. This does marginally improve the defending team's chance of closing it down (by holding circle, remember), but it also gives the shot a different angle, which can be worth something.
Something else we noticed at free kicks, but which affects a lot of the rest of the game too, is the way the ball rebounds and deflects a lot more. Already we've seen a roaring shot from Davids catch the hip of a defender and spin into the near side of the net - the keeper, already on his way to the far post to make a save, powerless to react in time - and in one case a defender of ours managed to thunder a goal-line clearance into the retreating keeper hard enough to send the ball spinning into the roof of the net. Oops.
Fortunately though we're not quite facing the PES2-era pinball-in-midfield problem of a very physical ball and not much ball control - players are now much better equipped to hang onto the thing in close quarters when it does tumble loose, either moving it on instinctively as you hammer X or keeping it at feet longer than before. It's also nice to be able to tap R2 when you're facing away from the opposing goal and not moving, and have your player swivel round to face up field, and - although we're still getting the hang of it - coming to a halt and holding R1 and L1 together to nudge the ball slightly ahead can tee up some truly fearsome shots. Remember that Portuguese goal in extra time against England? We hit one of those earlier. We cried a little.
On the whole then, it's a solid first half performance. A few individuals have excelled themselves, and others have managed to put in a solid if undistinguished turn. What is a little disappointing, however, is the typical early season lethargy that generally comes about after a major summer tournament. What are we on about? Slowdown. Bags of it. Now, to be fair, we notice it more than most because our preferred camera view is Wide, and we set the angle to 9. Don't ask why, it's just the way we like it. However Winning Eleven 8 most definitely does not; the game slows to an absolute crawl using these settings, particularly at either end, and by 'crawl' we do mean single-digit frames-per-second. The effect is improved by using the default view, or not tilting the angle at either end, but it's still there, ready to pounce in a crowded penalty box when it's least helpful. Turning off commentary and sticking to non-English stadiums seemed to help us, but it's still there and it's still frustrating. We dearly hope that Konami can straighten that out for Pro Evolution Soccer 4 without having to trim any of the clever stuff going on under the bonnet - at least, we suppose, there's hope that the Xbox and PC versions will be better if not.
One thing that will definitely change for PES4 is the team data. At the moment, WE8 is using last season's, which will annoy anybody who's been avidly watching the transfer activity this summer as we have - particularly if your club has signed a bunch of decent players and sold some under-achievers, or just not given them a squad number for 04/05... On the other hand, Leeds and Wolves fans will be pleased (and probably surprised) to find their clubs represented here - with all the old stars still in place. They may be gone for PES4 for all we know, but WE8 has them, along with the various licensed teams Konami has been touting recently.
What Will He Be Saying To Them?
In fact, Winning Eleven 8 has a lot of everything - and most of the things it's brought in for the new season have proved resoundingly successful around here. We haven't had much chance to check out the Master League yet, sadly, and the presentation is still a bit dull, but the latter's almost a trademark these days, and even so there are some nice tweaks where it counts. Like the way goalkeepers make more spectacular saves, palming the ball into the ground so it rockets up over the bar; the superior animation blending; and the way the game handles goals from offside positions - the camera angles towards the goal as if to say 'nice one', and the player runs off to celebrate, only to realise it won't count and shoot an evil look at the linesman. It conjures up that same sudden shot of excitement followed by bitter disappointment that it does in reality, as you hear Barry Davies or whoever muttering, "No. It won't count," in your head.
And that's what we like most about Winning Eleven 8 after spending a few days playing it - it inspires the right sort of passion in the player, and does so in more ways now than ever before. Konami TYO may need to make a few half-time substitutions to see PES4 through till the inevitable ninth game in the Winning Eleven series, but, for now at least, it's scored a few more than its conceded, and we're happy to buy another season ticket on that basis.
Winning Eleven 8 is out now in Japan on PS2.