Ayyyyy! Es Muy Bueno!
America: Land of the Bear Claw with Coffee, the 9 to 5, the Freedom Fry and the dubiously named sport of football. Since the advent of organized sports, Americans have always regarded soccer as a Big Mac with no cheese -- not worth paying for. Well, it's time to trade in that Whopper for a nice, fat helping of rice and beans because Winning Eleven 7 will show you why the rest of Earth watches Futbol'and loves it.
The multiple game modes in WE 7 take you from wearing jammies with little footballs on them to Pele in a Stealth Suit. Training Mode includes an effective Beginner's Tutorial as well as Challenge Training, which contains numerous shooting, passing, and dribbling drills that all play like great mini-games in their own right. Have fun while you learn: what a concept! Match Mode allows quick start Exhibitions for practicing your new slick skills or Two-player games. League Mode is your essential round robin Tournament and Cup Mode is where teams compete for new flashy trophies to woo the Brazilian ladies.
These are all fine and dandy, but it's the Master League Cup where the simulation and customization aspects of WE 7 really shine. Apart from the vast array of selectable countries in the other modes, Master League Mode lets you choose from 64 lesser provinces, choose their flag from loads of designs, and change the flag and team uniform colors. You can then acquire and train young talent or trade your players with other teams, weighing their skills and their salaries against your team's needs. Assemble the best team you can and lead them through the higher divisions all the way to the championships.
Still lacking a license to feature real players, Konami more than compensates by striking the perfect balance between arcade and simulation gameplay while keeping it realistic and true to the sport's spirit. Direct and lob passes, shots, and headers can be done with a touch of a button. The controls are simple enough to allow you to jump right in and play, get addicted, and then dig deeper into the instruction manual to master the finer controls of the game, which are plentiful.
Organizing team-wide attacks to the opposition's goal and splitting the defense through some tight passing is the name of the game. However, a PhD in Analog Stick Tilting can dribble and feint his way past numerous defenders and pass across the field to his man in the goalie's box to go for a header. Defensive slides and tackles are tight and fouls are entirely believable, due to the collision detection being so accurate.
The player who wants to be the Michael Jordan of soccer will be trounced, while the team player has a much better chance of success. Though soccer is very much a team game, it's amazing how much a midfield steal can lead you to either thrust your fist in the air or choose a target to hit. The gameplay balance is, in a word, masterful.
There are multiple, well-placed control assists dependant upon your player's situation. For example, in the case where the opposing team has the ball deep in your goal box, a quick tap of the pass button will clear that ball straight out of the danger zone. However, after a couple of matches, you'll wonder why you just got flabbier.
The only reason you may consider putting the controller down and physically running a lap for change is the tough default A.I. Initially, the game can get frustrating; you'll play a stellar game but lose focus for twenty seconds and let that bogie juke your defense to score on your head. All that will be worthwhile, though, when you chalk up your first goal, even if it only leads to a tie. WE 7 demands your full attention throughout any match, which is what soccer is really all about.
The player and field graphics are beautiful. The animations seem to be limitless while being realistic to the ball's position. Passes can be played off the head, chest, chased down and fielded or trapped in a dribble depending where the pass lands in respect to the player's orientation. This kind of variability is found throughout any match and keeps them dramatic and memorable. Facial expressions are detailed when the camera zooms in during goal celebrations as the players dive and perform back flips. The menu interface is by and large slick and intuitive. As you get deeper into the menu options, such as in player trading, the menus break down to basic gray boxes favoring function over form. Just smart design through and through.
The stadium sound effects are great and add to the excitement of the match. The crowd cheers whenever a team forms a promising strike against a goal or when a diving save is performed. Unfortunately, this grating electronic music plays during the menus and game highlights shown at halftime and at the match's end. The same track is played for all the highlights for every match, which is disappointing. The commentators' match analysis is intelligent, but also gets redundant after three matches or so.
There's really not much of a comparison between this and EA's FIFA 2004, as WE 7 trumps it in most major areas. However, if you want to play online, you'll need to swtich to EA's team as Konami has not included support for online play. It's a bit disappointing.
Minor problems notwithstanding, Winning Eleven 7 is the best soccer game available on the market. Deep, intuitive and engaging gameplay, as always, is king. Channel surfing gamers, flipping one by one through their infinite cable streams, may very well keep a soccer game on 'last channel viewed' after playing WE 7. And who knows, maybe by Winning Eleven 14, the wee ones playing WE 7 now will end up training and put an end our nation's embarrassments at the World Cup. Viva!