NO CHELSEA FC: But it feels like real soccer, and that’s what counts.
No video-game genre gets a free pass from consumers the way sports games do. Year after year, millions who wouldn’t otherwise set foot in Gamestop happily throw down their hard-earned cash for the latest Madden roster update or bug-ridden NBA Live. True, every once in a while an NFL2K1 or a Gameday ’99 stomps onto the scene and spurs everybody to up his game. But then the competition fades, the games slide back into mediocrity, and sales continue to grow. It seems that most consumers care less about the gameplay than about the bells and whistles that come with being The Only Officially Licensed Game for a sport. Those people should steer clear of Winning Eleven: Pro Evolution Soccer 2007, since it’s missing several of the so-called features we’ve come to expect. What it’s got in spades is fluid soccer action that stays true to the spirit of the game.
The missing pieces are a bit offputting at first. EA Sports’ FIFA series nabbed the rights to several of the world’s biggest leagues (not to mention our own Major League Soccer). Winning Eleven has just a sampling of real-life clubs and players. No doubt the legal discussions were intricate and long-winded, but for the player it’s a bit strange. Of the top English sides, only superclubs Arsenal and Manchester United are represented in all their glory; Chelsea and Liverpool get generic names (“London FC” and “Merseyside Red,” respectively). At least the rosters are generally correct, with superstars like Chelsea’s John Terry and Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard present and accounted for. (No US national team members made the cut.)
Stranger still, and slightly more discomforting, are the missing features on the Xbox 360 version of the game (which I played for this review). The PlayStation 2 edition features more stadiums, a create-a-player function, and the capacity to save replay videos. It’s bizarre that more than a year into the 360’s life cycle, we’re still getting these castrated ports. Even the graphics aren’t up to snuff, surprising given the 360’s high-definition capabilities but hardly a deal breaker. The most disappointing omission, from a fan’s perspective, is the lack of real-life stadiums in the 360 version: half a dozen compared with the PS2’s 31.
But that brings us back to where we started. What do you want from a sports game? Winning Eleven provides a low barrier to entry, with a beginner mode that lets you learn by doing. Although the instruction manual lists several pages’ worth of maneuvers (including stepovers and feints), it’s easy to wade in with the basics and not get blown off the pitch. As you work more advanced moves and strategies into your repertoire, you’ll also find yourself wanting to move up to higher-difficulty settings, where they’ll be more effective. The simplicity of this approach renders the training mode almost moot.
But what really makes Winning Eleven work is the way it all comes together. Maybe it’s not sexy to talk about stringing passes together when other sports titles are draped in pageantry, but that’s what the Beautiful Game is all about. Winning Eleven also gets the little game-design things right, like the way it switches your control between players — by default, you go to the defender nearest the ball, which means you never find your player sprinting away from the ball as if it were radioactive. This feels like real soccer. That’s what matters.