When Konami released World Soccer Winning Eleven 8 International early in 2005, we described it as the best soccer game ever made. Then, toward the end of that year, EA Sports released FIFA 06, which was not only the best and most beautiful game in that series, but it was also such an enjoyable version that even the most passionate Winning Eleven fans were compelled to take notice. In short, 2005 was a great year to play soccer games, and if the recently released World Soccer Winning Eleven 9 from Konami is any indication, 2006 is going to be even better.
In the master league, you won't always be able to field your strongest 11 players.
Like previous games in Konami's long-running series, Winning Eleven 9 does a great job of improving upon its predecessor, and it does so not through the introduction of any revolutionary new features or controls, but simply by making everything that the previous game offered noticeably better. With that said, Winning Eleven 9 happens to be the first in the series to support online play for both Xbox and PlayStation 2 in North America, which is obviously a very significant addition.
Those of you who have played a Winning Eleven game in recent years will feel right at home the moment you arrive at the main menu screen. The gameplay options available to you include a quick match, the master league career mode, custom league and cup competitions, online play, training, and the all-important edit mode. The option to edit the names and appearances of players and teams has always been a key feature of Winning Eleven games, simply because the vast majority of that information is incorrect by default since Konami lacks the necessary licenses to use real-world information. That situation is slowly improving, though, and so, in addition to the licenses that Konami acquired for the Dutch, Italian, and Spanish leagues last year, there are now a number of other licensed club teams in the game, including the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Rangers, Celtic, Dynamo Kiev, and Galatasaray. It's unfortunate that there are still a large number of high-profile teams in Winning Eleven 9 whose names and uniforms are generic, but you'll find that the editing tools are more powerful than ever before (if you don't mind spending some time with them).
Where you'll really want to spend the bulk of your time, though, is in Winning Eleven 9's master league career mode, which basically plays out in exactly the same way it did in last year's game. You can choose to manage any of the 140 or so club teams for the duration of your career, and you also have the option to start the game either with your chosen team's real roster or with a relatively unskilled squad of fictional players. Choosing to use real players for your master league will invariably make it much easier for you to win matches. However, you'll have a much larger wage bill to worry about, and you'll likely find that your players' abilities deteriorate over time, because they're already at or slightly past their best when your career gets under way.
Wage bills and other financial matters aren't something that you'll have to concern yourself with too much in Winning Eleven 9, but it's worth pointing out that one of only two ways that your career can come to an abrupt end in the game is if you don't have enough points to pay your team's salary at the end of a season. The other, incidentally, is if you ever have fewer than 16 players on your roster. You'll be awarded points (which are currency, essentially) at the end of each match based on your results and on the number of goals you scored, and you'll find that lengthy losing streaks can quite quickly put your management career in jeopardy if you're not careful.
Keep an eye out for teammates making intelligent forward runs.
Without bogging its career mode down in realism, Winning Eleven 9 does a great job of forcing you to make the same kinds of decisions and experience the same kind of emotions that a real manager would. Having your job be at risk if you lose too many games is perhaps the best example of this, but it's also true of many other situations that you'll find yourself in. Having players miss matches because they're injured can be a headache, but things become much more complicated if a star player is simply fatigued or not at his best. Should you put your star player in the starting lineup, or should you replace him with an up-and-coming youngster who is hungry for match experience? You'll face similar decisions to this one ahead of every single match that you play, because while many young players have the potential to gain experience points and improve their skills as a result of time spent on the field, your more experienced players will eventually start to show their age and go into a steady decline. Do you field the best team that you possibly can for every single match, or do you plan for the future and give your youngsters a chance to improve? Welcome to the world of sports management.
Regardless of which players you decide to start a match with, you can't help but notice that the bulk of the improvements made to this year's Winning Eleven is evident only between kickoff and the final whistle. The menu screens and overall presentation still aren't nearly as polished as those in EA Sports' offerings, for example. But the somewhat unwieldy menu system and repetitive elevator music is easy to forgive, because shortly after you step out onto the field, you'll realize that you're playing what is undoubtedly the most realistic soccer game ever made.
What sets Winning Eleven 9 apart from the competition once a match gets under way can be difficult to put a finger on, but it's clear that Konami's development team has once again taken a near-perfect soccer game and improved upon it in more ways than one would dare hope. Perhaps the most dramatic improvement this year is the way that your players handle when you're controlling them. You'll also notice that the other players on the field behave and are animated far more realistically now.