Putting the world into the winning.
It's a lot easier to blow greatness than refine it – just ask Konami. Each year, they've faced the increasingly tricky task of tweaking their award-winning soccer franchise ever tighter without snapping its engine or
our interest. If they do too little, we might complain about how they double dipped us, and if they change too much we might be alienated enough to try out the ever-enticing FIFA 06
Luckily, Konami again stays true to its franchise with Winning Eleven 9, which finally takes the series online and makes the gameplay more realistic without weighing it down in reality. This is what happens when "keeping it real" goes right.
Most of these tweaks have gone toward emphasizing the heartbeat of any soccer match: the passing game. Opposing A.I. is much more aggressive towards the dribbler this year, but your teammates are now equally dogged in running through defenders intelligently. As a result, passing up the gut through one defensive pack after another is just as strong as the tried-and-true lob pass from the corner. This makes the onscreen mini-map much more useful, and it's up to you to glance down at it, quickly assess your passing options, and react. These tweaks may not sound like much, but they offer even more gameplay variety while keeping the action fast and accurate.
On the downside, foul frequency seems to have become a little less realistic. With aggressive A.I. comes lots of fouls, but the collision detection has been increased to the extent that players will just brush each other and one will fall down. Depending upon how tight the match is, every other strike can be riddled with minor offenses that add up to a bunch of gameplay stoppages. That's a yellow card.
There are more player animations with almost every tilt of the analog stick for greater control and realism. Adding more animations usually means slowing down a game's tempo. However, each player's responsiveness to your input has remained razor sharp. Otherwise, Winning Eleven 9 plays just like Winning Eleven 8, which is to say, very, very well.
The content is also much the same. Master League Mode still has your players gain skills with use, hit their prime, decline with age, and eventually retire. You still have to consider whether to play and develop rookies, risking injury to your win/loss margin, or risk fatigue and injury to your stars by trying to win every single game. Light budget balancing acts and player trading continue to bolster the simulation end while in-game menus keep the whole thing accessible.
Like last year, you earn WEN points to spend on unlockables in the shop by doing pretty much anything in the game, so you'll always have a rewarding experience, even playing through normally fruitless Training sessions or Exhibition matches.
Edit Mode still gives you tons of options to make as many carbon copies of real life squads you want, so you have the option to build them out yourself if it matters that much to you. This year, Konami might have saved you some time by acquiring the licenses to the Spanish, Dutch, and Italian leagues in addition to other random teams like Arsenal and Celtic.
And at last, you can support your favorite clubs by playing online. The online options are pretty standard with quick matches and a regular old lobby system, but the match-making feature is kind of cool. When you begin playing online, you'll automatically be placed in the amateur division and play games against other amateurs. As you play and win matches, you'll be able to climb into tougher divisions and match up against tougher competition. And the fact that it's free of both a fee and an evil credit-card pyramid-scheme means it does its job without whoring itself out. Yeah, I'm lookin' at you, FIFA.
And frankly, it's getting a little boring looking at Winning Eleven. The player models look identical to WE8's, as do the stadiums and terrain. The crowd is janky, having lost little of their washed-out, 2D choppy luster, but at least they're still loud and excitable about it. You'll still be snapping your fingers to randomly foreign "Shooby Dooby Doo" covers during menus, which is fine except that no one scats to muzak anymore. The announcers are also back from last year and are still as dubiously sophisticated as ever, smoke pipe or no smoke pipe.
Finally, Winning Eleven fans are online and no worse for wear, making the best game of digital soccer that much better. Though the tweaks are mostly small, they're just enough to keep this star a header above the rest.