Every year we go through the same ritual. First we drool over the tiniest morsels of information on the latest Winning Eleven game, then we see some screens, and then some videos. At this point the excitement is too much and the release date can't come soon enough. We import the game, play it to death, but never really understand all the options and settings as we can't read Japanese. Then a few months later Pro Evo arrives and we can finally see which option turns off injuries. Thankfully, we've done our drooling this year, and Winning Eleven 9 is finally here.
As is the case with every new game in the series, the game looks almost same as the previous release, but at the same time, feels different. You know how to play the game, but things just don't click when you start playing. Your passing is all over the place and your dribbling skills seem to have become rather rusty over the summer break. It's rather disheartening, initially at least, but anyone who's a veteran to the series will know that it always takes a few hours to get used to the nuances of the new game.
So, what exactly has changed since last year's game? Quite a lot actually. The first thing you'll notice is the new, stricter refereeing. While you could get away with pestering the opposition with the X-button in previous games, WE9 will punish this rather lazy play. Badly timed X-tackles will almost always result in the ref blowing his whistle, and your first few games with WE9 will be stop, start affairs because of it. To counter this, the slide-tackle appears to go unpunished more regularly. Whether or not this is down to the ref making better use of the advantage rule, or tackles themselves being made easier, isn't clear, but we're yet to receive any red cards - something that happens very frequently in the previous game.
'Set-pieces have seen a number of small changes as well.'
Set-pieces have seen a number of small changes as well. Corners and free-kicks both allow you to use a measured X-pass, via a power-bar. Throw-ins now put you in control of the thrower, rather than the receiver, and long throws also use a power-bar. They are small changes, but give you a few more options. Dribbling has also changed, with the R2 shuffle now accomplished with just the D-pad, and players now have more control over received passes.
New to the game is the placed shot. The most skilled players can tap the R2 button just before the shot is released and this will unleash a more controlled, precise shot. It takes some time to get used to this, and we are still trying to learn when it's best to use it.
The visuals, while appearing similar, have also been changed. The most obvious change is in the player likenesses and animations. All the big players are now easily recognisable, with each of them featuring far more facial detail than in previous games in the series. The series has always had great animations, but WE9 has included loads of new ones, giving the players an even more lifelike appearance. The crowd is still a rather ugly mess, but on occasion you'll see a close-up of your fans in full polygonal form, cheering and waving flags.
While the game doesn't have the amount of licensed teams as EA's FIFA games, there are a few fully licensed teams, such as Chelsea, Arsenal, Real Madrid and a few others that sport real kits, sponsors and club emblems. However, most teams still play in kits that resemble the official kits and lack the sponsors and club emblems. We assume that this will be the same for Pro Evo 5 when it is released in Europe.
There are a number of game modes that suffer because of the language barrier. From what we can make out, there's a mode where you try to take Japan to the world cup (which is certainly going to be removed or changed for Pro Evo 5), online play and some kind of stat tracking. The stat tracking, in particular, is something that we've wanted for years. It seems that each player will need their own memory card in order for stats to be tracked, but actual stats to prove who really is the best player among a group of friends should settle a few arguments.
It's hard to say if this latest game in the series is better than the last, given that we've been playing it for under a week, but the game hasn't been removed from our PS2 since it arrived. There are still problems though, with slowdown in congested boxes once again rearing its ugly head, and the AI teams still demonstrate some rather uncharacteristic class once you up the difficulty level. These problems, though, are small when the overall game is so good. The European release of Pro Evo 5 can't come soon enough, and with online play in the PS2 version this year, other games may be hard done by this winter.
Check out our exclusive movies of the game in action.
Six more videos, including a full match, are available here.
Why not enter our Fantasy Football Competition for a bit of fun and a chance to win some prizes.