Konami's Winning Eleven games have never been able to boast the official licenses and superb presentation that are such integral parts of many other sports games, and as result the series has earned its great reputation solely on the strength of its realistic gameplay. World Soccer Winning Eleven 8 International not only marks the first time that (an unfortunately limited number of) licensed club teams have appeared in a Winning Eleven game, but also the first time that the series has appeared on the Xbox. Released in Europe as Pro Evolution Soccer 4 toward the end of last year, World Soccer Winning Eleven 8 International is undoubtedly Konami's best soccer game to date, thanks to a number of quite dramatic improvements made both on and off the field.
The training mode offers plenty of ways to hone your skills.
Regardless of whether or not you're familiar with previous Winning Eleven games, the first thing you'll want to check out in Winning Eleven 8 is its surprisingly deep training mode, which, like everything else, can be reached via menu screens that are both far easier on the eyes and far easier to navigate than those found in previous entries in the series. The training options in Winning Eleven 8 are divided into four subcategories: beginner training, free training, situation training, and challenge training. Beginner training not only teaches you how to perform all the basic moves, but also does a great job of explaining the sport itself, the roles of the different players on the pitch, and even the offside rule (via a series of texts, diagrams, and demonstrations). Free training lets you take control of a team on a field where the only opponent is a goalkeeper. Situation training teaches you how to use some of the more advanced controls to make you more effective at dribbling, passing, shooting, attacking, and defending. Challenge training is basically an opportunity for you to put what you've learned to the test in a series of increasingly difficult trials. It's so rewarding that you'll want to successfully play through everything it has to offer at least once.
The challenge training mode comprises no fewer than 40 different trials for you to complete, and it will test your skills in eight different disciplines: attacking, defending, dribbling, short passing, manual passing, free kick long passing, free kick shooting, and ball possession. All the challenges on offer are played using exactly the same controls and camera angles as the rest of the game, but they require you to perform very specific tasks. The dribbling challenges, for example, require you to navigate your way through mazes of cones within a time limit, while the free kick challenges have you aiming at increasingly smaller targets. Every time you beat a challenge, you'll gain access to a more difficult one, in addition to being awarded a number of "WEN points" to spend in the WE-Shop. WEN points are one of the many new features in Winning Eleven 8. Specifically, they can be spent to unlock additional content, such as stadiums, classic teams and players, ball types, player-edit options, camera angles, and a sixth difficulty setting. Completing the challenge training is the easiest way to amass a large number of WEN points early on, but you'll also be awarded a small number every time you play a match, regardless of the outcome.
The master league career mode boasts a number of innovative features.
When you're not playing Winning Eleven 8 with friends (up to seven can simultaneously play on the PlayStation 2, while three can play on the Xbox) you'll most likely be managing a team in the "master league" career mode, which this year introduces a host of great new features to what was already a winning formula in previous Winning Eleven games. The first thing you'll notice about the master league, before you've even chosen a team to take control of, is that you're no longer forced to manage the exact same squad of fictional no-hopers, regardless of which team you opt for. That option is still available, of course, but you can also choose to start your career in charge of a team that comprises the players you'd expect it to in real life, thus making winning games a lot easier. However, raising enough money to pay wages becomes a bit harder. Once your career gets under way, you'll find this year's master league to be an incredibly deep and engaging gameplay option in which every player on your team is in a constant state of change.
The behavior of every player in Winning Eleven 8 is determined by a rating of 1-100 in no fewer than 31 different attributes, as well as by any of 23 specialized skills that each might possess. The attributes system isn't radically different from that found in previous Winning Eleven games, but what is new is the role-playing-game-style character development that every player goes through as your career progresses. At the end of every match, you'll automatically be taken to a development-sheet screen where you can see which of your players has been awarded experience points and how those points have affected any of his attributes. Every time a player accrues 100 experience points for a particular attribute, his rating for that attribute (which might be top speed, shooting accuracy, or team work, for example) will be increased by one point. Only players who actually participated in the match will be eligible for experience bonuses, and the number of points that can be received is more dependent on age than anything else.
The players on your master league squad are in a constant state of change.
Very young players in Winning Eleven 8 are generally less skilled than those in their primes, but they're quick to learn and can improve noticeably over the course of just one 14-game season. Older players, on the other hand, will actually start to lose skills as they near retirement age, by which time you'll hopefully have managed to sell them to other clubs. The new age and experience system works incredibly well, because whereas previous Winning Eleven games let you both build your dream team and stick with it indefinitely, Winning Eleven 8 forces you to constantly evaluate and change your squad, since retiring players are removed from the database and promising youngsters invariably replace them. Signing big-name players for your team is still very satisfying, of course, but in addition to the huge transfer fees and wages they'll invariably demand, you'll now also have to take their ages into account.
As you've probably guessed, you'll be spending a fair bit of your time wheeling and dealing on the transfer market in this year's master league, which is, no doubt, why Konami went to the trouble of including player search options that put even those in some soccer management games to shame. You'll find a quick search option that automatically selects a number of players that are ready and willing to play for your team, as well as a talent search option that lets you search for 14 different "types" of players (such as dribblers, ace strikers, or defensive leaders). Additionally, you'll find an advanced search option that lets you narrow down your short list by fine-tuning just about every parameter imaginable. As in previous Winning Eleven games, you also have the option to look for new players to sign simply by checking out other teams' lineups, though this really isn't a very efficient use of your time. In short, finding the player that you're looking to sign really couldn't be any easier (assuming that he exists), although convincing him to play for your team is occasionally much more challenging than you'd imagine.
At other times in your master league career, you'll have to make the tough decision of not playing key members of your team, either because their "condition" ratings are low or because they've not been rested for a number of matches and have accordingly accumulated fatigue. The condition rating in Winning Eleven 8 works the same way it did in previous games, with different-colored directional arrows used to indicate five varying player states. A player in poor condition (indicated by a blue arrow pointing down) will definitely not perform as well as he would if he was at his peak (red arrow pointing up). So, again, you're forced to constantly evaluate your players so you can alter your starting lineups accordingly. One of the more unusual options in the master league lets you "regulate" your entire team's condition by kicking a ball around with it for 20 seconds or so before going to a match. This results in the overall improvement of most of your less-well-conditioned players, while your better-conditioned players often drop slightly in overall gameplay performance. The master league mode can be played indefinitely, and you can, of course, pit your team against one that belongs to a friend at any time via the miracle of Memory Card.