KCET
Konami
Sports
1-4
02.02.05

Winning Eleven 8


The strongest soccer series on the planet has finally made its way on to the Xbox in the form of World Soccer Winning Eleven 8 International. Although the name may be unfamiliar to some, this top-notch soccer title relies on a refined soccer engine that has put out some of the best soccer games in the last decade. Some whipper-snappers may remember an excellent soccer game for the Nintendo 64 called International Superstar Soccer. Who was responsible for that game? Konami. Who is responsible for Winning Eleven 8? Konami. You do the math.

Is Winning Eleven 8 the perfect soccer game? No, but it is the best game of soccer you'll find on the Xbox and it has a made a convert of me: I play FIFA no more!

Gameplay

The gameplay is smooth and compelling, offering a myriad of ways to express your soccer creativity. For first-time players, a number of avenues are available for players to ease into the game's many nuances. There are five levels of difficulty (with a hidden sixth level) that truly range from desperately easy to frighteningly challenging. I recommend beginners to start on level two or three until they are comfortable with Winning Eleven's pace. There are also interactive tutorials to teach players somewhat tame skills such as dribbling and sprinting as well as more refined tactics such as give-and-gos and fake shots.

After a few games, players will have a solid feel for the game and then begin to experience the most satisfying aspect of the Winning Eleven series: its depth. At first players are happy with passing and shooting, but then players find themselves hungry for more. Finishing off your first give-and-go with a rocket into the top corner is satisfying indeed. Also rewarding is your first goal from a free kick. The free kick system, although considered a tad difficult by some, epitomizes the spirit of soccer. Knock, knock, knock on the door, and eventually it will open. And if you're still not satisfied with the vast array of in-game controls, you can always rotate the right analog stick in a circle to pull a 360-maneuver around your opponent's defenders.

While we're talking about adversaries, it's important to note that the North American version of Winning Eleven 8 does not support Xbox Live. Apparently online play has only been made available to the European market. Not sure why this was done but I suspect that the online play was flawed, so it looks like we'll have to wait until Winning Eleven 9.

Game Modes

There is the standard Match play where any two teams in the game can square off in a quick battle, but there is also League and Cup play for extended playing experiences. Now that Winning Eleven has the endorsement of the Dutch, Spanish, and Italian leagues, players can play in round-robin league tournaments with real players and teams. Cup mode offers a variety of tournaments such as the American, African, and European Cups all the way to the International Cup, which is closest to the real World Cup, complete with opening round group play.

But the heart of the game, and the mode that will suck you into its grip, is the Master League. Analogous to Franchise Mode from other sports titles, the Master League starts you off with a team that you have the opportunity to improve by signing or trading players while keeping a close eye on your team's budget. With hundreds upon hundreds of players available, a thorough search engine is available to find the perfect player…at the right price. Position, attack skill, and stamina as well as age and contract years remaining are just a few of the attributes available for managers to use for their search criteria. Be ready to spend an hour or two during negotiation periods to quickly ramp up the quality of your team. But time well-spent is extremely worthwhile when you can whip an archrival 3-0 after losing to them in last season's final game.

In Master League mode, there are two tiers of teams, Division 1 and 2. You begin in Division 2 with fellow strictly-mediocre teams. If you can finish in the top two at season's end, your team is "promoted" to Division 1, where you can square off with soccer superstars such as Thierry Henry, David Beckham, and Ronaldo. Moving to D1 can be a shock to your system because you are made aware of how average your team truly is, but it's oh-so-satisfying when you finally scratch and claw your way to the top.

New to the Master League in WE8 is aging. In prior games, players stayed the same age, but no longer. Players skills decline as they creep towards 40 and eventually retire. They are reborn (as a free agent) in a later season however so there's no need to restart your campaign once Zinedine Zidane has gone over the hill. Menu navigation and the overall interface has improved over WE7, but I guess that's what happens when you are inspired by Apple's interface on the iMac.

Graphics

I would be lying to you if I said WE8 was pushing the limits of the Xbox's hardware. Don't get me wrong, the models look excellent and famous players are easily recognizable due to high poly counts and detailed textures, but my gut tells me that since this is WE8's first incarnation on the Xbox, the hardware wasn't used to its fullest potential. What really stands out in Winning Eleven 8 is the attention to detail in the ridiculous number of animations. Players pull up on runs once the ball goes out of bounds, gesture towards the referee after being taken down with no foul called, even clap for teammates in appreciation of a well-placed pass. It's funny to watch replays of penalty kicks as goalies dive to the left while their heads follow the incoming ball go to the right.

The stadium models look great and the soccer pitches have a good deal of variety in color and apparent texture, although soggy, greenish-brown fields do look rather bland. The in-game referee, new for WE8, moves well but I have to question his uniform colors for some games due to their similarity to a team's colors. I've tried passing to the referee close to a dozen times because I swore he was one of my teammates. Turnovers due to "camouflage-ref" drive me crazy.

Sound

The music in the menu screens is passable, guitar riffs of various colors and rhythms, but at least the sound effects are noticeably better than WE7. In-game commentary is decent at first but like every other sports game, gets repetitive pretty quickly. Fortunately WE8 has a number of commentary languages including German, Spanish, and French. I'll just switch it to a language I don't know so it takes much longer for me to realize how repetitive the commentators are. Of course, the option to silence them completely is available.

Replay Value

As mentioned earlier, WE8 is not a perfect game. There are a few things that irk me, mostly because I was so happy with how certain features were executed in Winning Eleven 7, but I thought the public should know just in case Konami catches wind of this review. First off, it seems as if goalies can, at times, predict the future. When shots on goal are slightly off-target and actually go to the side of the goal and out of bounds, somehow goalies know that they are going out of bounds and don't react! They just stand there! Real-life goalies are frenetic, fast-twitch athletes that smother any shot that is anywhere close to the goal. When the goalies in WE8 don't move towards shots like that, it shatters the believability of the experience, and that's not cool.

There is an aspect of the replay camera that I wish they kept from WE7, and that is the ability to change the height of the camera by moving the right analog stick up and down. The views they give you during replays are either very flat and close to the ground or a birds-eye that is far from fascinating. You really need the ability to change the camera's height to see all the crazy things that can happen in this game such as wild ricochets and sharply curving balls. What I don't understand is that the up/down axis on the right analog stick wasn't replaced with a cool, new feature - it just doesn't do ANYTHING AT ALL! I'm not asking you Konami, I'm telling you: bring it back!

Bottom Line:

Minor gripes aside, I have to come back to the core gameplay. Sure, leagues and cups and team management and training challenges are great fun, but it's the tight on-field play that glues every aspect of WE8 together. The controls are well-done and the gameplay is deep, allowing players to get very, very skilled at the game. And that's what many gamers are looking for, right? An opportunity to get more out of a game by putting more time into it. In that respect, Winning Eleven 8 confidently delivers.

Related Links:

Official Winning Eleven 8 Website

-Kahn Jekarl




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