How to develop a foot fetish.
Buying a sequel to a sports game is always a rough prospect. Sure, it's important to keep up with your favorite teams' lineup changes, but a lot of the time it feels like that's all you're getting for fifty bucks. Now imagine you're in Konami's shoes and need to make a sequel to the acclaimed Winning Eleven 7, a game with no licensed rosters, and some of the best gameplay ever seen in a sports title. How do you even attempt to add anything noteworthy without seeming gimmicky? Having played and studied World Soccer Winning Eleven 8 International (enough title there for 3 games " Ed.), and seen that it is in fact the best one yet, we gleaned these important nuggets of wisdom.
Lesson One: If it ain't broke, polish it. League and Cup Mode are back as are the fun and effective training modes. Beginner's Training places you in realistic, on-field situations while clearly explaining your objectives and introducing play mechanics. From there you can move onto Free Training, Situation Training, and Challenge Training, which is made up of mini-games like dribbling through cones and shooting through progressively smaller targets. When you complete the challenges you get "WEN points." These are new to Winning Eleven 8, and can be spent to unlock classic teams, players, new stadiums, camera angles, and extra player editing functions. If you're like us, your created players' eyes can never be too close together, nor their heads pointy enough, so we appreciate the depth added to the player creator. Zippy shoots and scores! Gooooalll!
Winning Eleven 8 retains its stellar gameplay. It's an easy game to pick up and play and has loads of higher-end hairpin controls to keep you entertained and practicing well into masterhood. That means enough jukes, dribbles, passes, and shots to fit every possible situation as well as the ability to coordinate daring plays with your teammates. Since Winning Eleven 8 is friendly to both beginners and veterans, these plays form naturally around your players when you're just starting out. Later, as you get better, you will start to figure them out. Even with a mirror behind your dummy box, you won't even notice that your brain is getting bigger -- you'll be too busy just having fun, and learning more about soccer than you ever could by simply watching it on TV.
Of course, deep yet easily accessible gameplay has always been a big feature with the Winning Eleven games. New to Winning Eleven 8 is a cool pass-receiving system. During a pass, the control switches over to the receiving player. Now you can actively vie for position against your defenders. You may not want to do this all the time, but it's another way to play and it's a lot of fun. Defensively, with a simple button press, you can have a fellow defender leave his man to apply pressure to the ball handler, as you either cut off a passing lane or go for the steal.
Lesson Two: Simplify. The menu system has been greatly streamlined, and is much easier to navigate. There is also a new Player Search option in Master League mode which removes the need to scour individual team rosters for a healthy prospect to strengthen your roster. You can instantly search for players by the roles they play, such as dribbler or striker. You can also search by attribute levels, or by a quick and easy auto-list of players who are ready to join your team if you have the funds. Konami lets you get as deep as you want, because they know Winning Eleven 8 is great at every level.
Lesson Three: Go deep. Winning Eleven 8's Master League Mode has benefited from the most significant upgrade this year. In Winning Eleven prequels, you would form your optimal squad through savvy player trades and acquisitions. After a couple of seasons, you could forever trounce the opposition once your team was fully stocked. This eventually led to static, pointless play.
But in Winning Eleven 8, time is factored in. Any of your players who participate in a game will gain experience points that will be automatically allocated to their attributes. Rookies are naturally weaker in skills than your established pros, but will grow quickly and improve greatly after a couple good seasons. Your veterans' learning curves will level off as they age, and eventually will begin to decline as retirement looms ever closer. Therefore, when acquiring players from other teams or any of the other search options, their immediate benefit, how they will develop over time, and how many years they have left in them before you should trade them up have to be taken into pleasant consideration along with their asking price. Sweet.
For the first time ever in a Winning Eleven, the Spanish, Dutch, and Italian leagues are licensed, with other teams mirroring their real-life counterparts. It's a step in the right direction, though most of us cannot pronounce "Caractacus" without a crutch, so who cares? Winning Eleven 8 is also the first of the series to come out for the Xbox, though there is no online support for either it nor for the PS2, which is just sad. The PC version does have online play, though it uses the outdated "gimme your ISP, and I'll give you mine" host-client relationship. Ping hunters rejoice!
Player animations are smooth and the stadiums look great. Winning Eleven 8 does an awesome job of giving you that "As seen on television" feel. Menus are bright, and easy to read, which is important because there's a lot of micromanagement to be done here if that's your thing.
The commentators make their triumphant return from Winning Eleven 7 and are just as limey as ever -- not to mention accurate and moderately repetitive. The fans sound powerful or nerve racking, depending on whether or not you're striking or reeling. There are only about 3 menu songs, all of which are remixes of the hit single off "The Trendy Grocery Store Soundtrack." It's a good thing the menus are as navigable as they are, because you'll get sick of this music real fast.
The Winning Eleven series has been a prime example of intelligently controlled chaos wherein the gameplay experiences are as diverse as snowflakes. While we're sorry that the series still lacks an online component for its console versions, we love the cyclical player skills system, as well as the new player search. For an offline title with few licensed players, Konami's World Soccer Winning Eleven 8 International is one sexy pitch.