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Winning Eleven 9
Graphics: 8.4
Gameplay: 9
Sound: 7.5
Control: 8.8
Replay Value: 9.1
Rating: 8.8
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Konami
Number Of Players: 1-8 (2 online)
Lost in the whole shuffle of the yearly FIFA vs. Winning Eleven debate is how great it is to have two series that are so close in quality trying to outdo one another on a yearly basis. The competition between the games has spurred developers to add new features, actively pursue more licenses, and polish their games relentlessly. Take this yearís Winning Eleven for example Ė thanks to FIFA 05 & 06, Konami made darn sure that online play was included, they also increased the number of leagues and licensed teams (Chelsea and Arsenal are included this year) in the game. As to the debate as to which game is better; thereís really no definitive answer. Each title has its strengths and they each tend to appeal to certain crowds, but you canít go wrong with either of them.

Winning Eleven has always had a deep feature list, and it was made even better this year with the inclusion of online play. As usual, the menus arenít very exciting and they can be a little cumbersome to navigate, though they are better than years past. Available options include quick start match, Master League, League, Cup, training, and edit. The gameís training mode is quite robust, taking you from the extreme basics of soccer to more advanced techniques. Itís nice to have such a thorough training tool, but itís a bit dry, and can be a little cumbersome at times. The cup mode allows you to play through a 32 team tournament Ė itís basically the World Cup without the official license.

Most of the gameís replay value can be found in the Master League, where youíve got total control over your team. You start off by selecting a squad, and then you take them through a season, complete with trades, injuries, suspensions, older players retiring and younger players getting better. If it sounds easy, think again. You can actually get fired for poor performance, and youíve got to worry about playing well on the field so you can pay your players, since after a game is over you earn points that go towards paying their salaries. If you canít pay the players, you canít play and itís game over.

If youíre really into soccer youíll spend quite a bit of time in the gameís edit mode. Here you can edit players and teams, which youíll probably want to do since there are some noticeable teams missing (Manchester United) due to EA locking them up with exclusive deals. If you have the time and the patience you can pretty much re-create any player and team. If you donít have the time and patience, using your PC and the internet you can download files from other users that have taken the time to edit teams. You will need separate equipment for this, however, as the game doesnít support it.

On the field is where Winning Eleven 9 really shines. The gameplay is very tight, and the pace of play is just right, players make intelligent runs, and scoring frequency is right-on. If you want to play a wide-open, more arcade-like style of soccer you can drop the difficulty down and do so, but if youíre craving realism, bump up the number of stars for a real challenge. While the controls are tight and responsive, they can be quite challenging to master, even with the deep training mode provided. Because there are so many things you can do, some dribbling moves are tied to double-tapping the shoulder buttons, while others are done by rotating the right analog stick. I counted 13 different types of passes and even four different ways to control your wall during a penalty kick. All those options are well and good, but they take a very long time to master. While Iím on the subject, kudos to Konami for providing a detailed instruction manual; EA should take note.

Japan and Europe have already enjoyed playing Winning Eleven online, but this is the first time Americans have been able to experience the series via the internet. WE9 uses a neat system to rank players, which will hopefully allow you to find better matches. Unfortunately thereís no voice chat supported for the PS2, so youíre limited to the clunky onscreen keyboard or pre-set phrases. Other than occasional bits of lag, the game was quite enjoyable, and it was nice to be able to play against human opponents since they have different, more exciting, and often unpredictable styles when compared to a computer controlled team.

Over the years Winning Elevenís presentation has improved, but thereís no question that it still lags behind FIFA 06. While the stadium crowds are raucous in the intro, they donít add much to the match, and thereís very little emotion displayed by the players. There are over 70 different goal celebrations, but the rest of the game feels so plain that this variety doesnít help matters much.

The player models are acceptable, but theyíre far from mind-blowing. You can typically recognize the more well-known players in the intros and cut-scenes, but the in-game camera is so far out you wonít see much detail. Player animation has been improved slightly, but youíre not likely to notice unless youíre a veteran of the series. The framerate is always solid and never an issue, which is a necessity for sports games. Sadly, there is no widescreen support to speak of, which is disappointing since the increased screen size works well with soccer games. One little touch thatís nice is the numbers that appear above playersí heads will be yellow if that person has received a yellow card that game. Itís a great way of letting you know that you might want to think long and hard before making a risky slide tackle, since that player has already been booked.

Winning Elevenís audio is so non-descript that I had to go back and check my notes to find something to say. The in-menu music is lousy, but thatís pretty much the case every year. Peter Brackley and Trevor Brookingís match commentary is competent, but itís pretty shallow and there wasnít a whole lot of in the way of in-depth analysis or discussion.

WE9 is an outstanding game, but outside of the new online play it doesnít feel a whole heck of a lot different than last yearís game. I think itís safe to say that the gameplay has been refined to a high level, so itís disappointing that Konami didnít spend more time bring the gameís audio and video presentation up to speed. If youíre going to go online this oneís worth picking up, but if youíll only be playing offline, youíre a casual fan, and you bought WE8, thereís just not much new here.

2/16/2006   Aaron Thomas