The referee's presence on the field adds very little to the game.
And how would that game against your friend play out? Well, like every other match in Winning Eleven 8, it would be incredibly realistic. It's highly unlikely that you'd ever score the same goal twice, and while one of you sings the praises of the new on-the-pitch referee, the other would almost certainly be cursing him for making some poor decision or another. In truth, the referee on the field doesn't add anything significant to the game other than representing a focal point for your frustrations after a dubious offside decision or after a questionable judgment that awards a penalty or playing advantage to the opposition. Like the CPU-controlled players in Winning Eleven 8, the referee exhibits great artificial intelligence (if you can use "referee," "great," and "intelligence" in the same sentence), but since he's only human, it's not uncommon for him to make mistakes from time to time. Dubious refereeing decisions are a big part of soccer in real life, of course, so this isn't a criticism so much as an observation...and a warning.
Perhaps the best thing about Winning Eleven 8 is that it's not a difficult game to pick up and play, particularly if your pride doesn't prevent you from playing at one of the easier difficulty settings. However, it should also offer a lasting challenge for even the most experienced players among you. Some of the advanced controls listed in the instruction manual, for example, will undoubtedly come as news even to many of you who spent a lot of time with Winning Eleven 7. We should also point out that Winning Eleven 8 is the first game in the series to feature licensed teams. Although the teams from the Dutch, Italian, and Spanish leagues collectively look great and certainly represent a collective step in the right direction for the series, they also serve to highlight just how generic the remaining 80 club sides and 50 international teams look. With that said, Winning Eleven 8 does boast some adequate editing tools with which you can quite easily add more-realistic uniforms, badges, player likenesses, and more...if you're so inclined.
Most of the players in the game are instantly recognizable.
Most of the default player likenesses in Winning Eleven 8 are very good, in fact, as are the re-creations of famous stadiums from around the world. These stadiums, despite presenting false names, are instantly recognizable and can be given their real-life names just as easily as players like Wales' Ryan Gils, who, strangely, also appears under the correct name of Giggs for Manchester United. (sorry, Man Red) It's unfortunate licensing issues have manifested themselves in such messy, evident manners in team and player rosters for Winning Eleven 8, but these issues are nothing that those of you who are familiar with the series aren't used to, and it's certainly not reason enough for any of you to ignore the best soccer game available for any current-generation console.
More impressive than the stadium re-creations and player likenesses in Winning Eleven 8 are the way they come to life when a match gets under way. The player animations are superb, the ball physics are as believable as always, and even the crowds look good, so long as the cameras keep their distances from them. The visual differences between the PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions aren't significant, although the Xbox game's player models are a little more detailed. We also noticed that the PS2 game suffered from drops in frame rate occasionally, though these were extremely rare and were limited to those occasions when practically every player on the field was in the active shot.
The only other noticeable difference between the PS2 and Xbox versions of Winning Eleven 8 (besides the aforementioned numbers of players supported on a single screen) is that the loading times in the Xbox game are a lot quicker, which is particularly apparent when matches between CPU-controlled teams are being played out in the master league mode or during custom cup and league competitions. Despite the fact that most of the differences between the two games favor the Xbox version, we'd definitely choose to play the PS2 version for its controls. It's not that the PS2 controller is inherently better than its Xbox counterpart, it's just that Winning Eleven 8 puts all four shoulder buttons to good use when you want to sidestep other players or when you want to alter your team's playing style on the fly. Accomplishing either of those things on the Xbox means using the poorly positioned (regardless of which official controller model you're using) black and white buttons.
If there's one area in which Winning Eleven 8 definitely comes second to FIFA Soccer 2005, it's audio. The game's soundtrack comprises just two or three instantly forgettable and mind-numbingly repetitive variations of the same tune, and the crowd noise, while varied, doesn't always seem to relate to the action on the field. BBC soccer pundits Peter Brackley and Trevor Brooking do a good job reprising their roles in the commentary box, and although they're prone to repeating themselves, their observations are generally accurate.
Eat my goal!
So there you have it. World Soccer Winning Eleven 8 International is KCET's best soccer game to date, which basically makes it the best soccer game ever made...even taking the seminal Sensible World of Soccer games on the Amiga into account. The competition between KCET and EA Sports is now closer than ever, and which of this season's games you choose to play will ultimately be determined by what you're looking for from a soccer offering. If online play and official licenses are high on your wish list, then FIFA Soccer 2005 is the only way to go. If you can manage to play without those features and are looking for the most realistic soccer game available, in addition to an all-consuming career mode that you can play when your friends aren't around, then Winning Eleven 8 is definitely the game for you.