Walking before you can run has never been a particularly popular philosophy within the games industry, so baby-steps are generally out of the question when it comes to developing (or at least promoting) big-name sequels. "Revolution, not evolution!" is what gamers are so often promised, and we only need look back as far as Fable, Doom III and Republic to realise that this promise is never to be taken at face value.
In contrast, Winning Eleven (known as Pro Evolution Soccer outside of the U.S. and Japan) is a game series of quite singular restraint and subtlety. Consistently avoiding any Big New Features or major gameplay overhauls, Konami's press release for the latest iteration extols the virtues of its "new free kick and penalty techniques," an "indirect free kick move" and the greater "individuality [that] can now be found in the ways players run." To the average gamer that may sound like a wishy-washy, more-of-the-same statement of no intent. However, the average series devotee will appreciate just how hard it must be to try to sell a game whose most exquisite qualities are also the most innocuous and indefinable, and to explain exactly why it is that Winning Eleven 8 is the finest sports game ever made.
Now that last histrionic sentence may have hit home a little hard for an American readership raised on the undeniable good quality of the Madden titles, and as a Brit I'm fully aware of the cultural bias such a statement implies. But if there is one videogame that has captured the feel and physicality of a real life sport more than any other, as well as obligatorily simulate all the strategies, statistics and micro/macro-management choices involved in the professional game, then to my mind this is it.
Of course, Winning Eleven 7 was no slouch itself (you may recall a golden 10 rating being gifted to the previous installment by fellow GameCritic Thom Moyles) and the subtle additions in WE8 are typically slight—but they are also many, and crucial to the gameplay in almost imperceptible ways: The allowance for extra bounce before a player can bring the ball under control; the higher probability of successfully shouldering an opponent off of the ball without conceding a foul; the extra contrast in speed between a player running with the ball and one running without. With barely any new moves or play modes, it takes dedication as well as a keen eye to be able to articulate and appreciate how the series has evolved this time around.
It took me a good week to recognise that the changes made by WE8 were for the better and to confidently pronounce it as the best in the series. It certainly plays a different game from 7: matches are slower, less clinical and some degrees scrappier than before, with outcomes being much harder to predict. All of which adds realism, thanks to its well-judged balancing of random elements. By random elements I mean that aspect of the simulation that comes into play when the countless variables of the game code interact to decide, for instance, that out of two identical shots on goal one will hit the back of the net and the other will not, or decide to award a penalty for a certain offence that may have passed unnoticed minutes earlier, and so on. This is important.
A game of virtual soccer (or any sport for that matter) could easily play out by strict, pre-defined rules so that, for instance, a refereeing decision would never be incorrect (according to those game rules) and a certain player would always (or never) score a goal when he takes a particular shot several times in identical ways. But we have now reached the point where accurate computer-based simulations must necessarily emulate the inefficiencies in real life sports as much as anything else. So Konami ensure that Winning Eleven's referee's (now always on-screen for the first time in the series) are not infallible and are not supposed to be, and that it is not only incredibly hard to pull off the exact same shot more than once in quick succession, but that the vast database of variable-interaction and AI behavior which determines the outcome of the player's input means that we ought never to be absolutely certain that a shot will sail into the net even if we perform the correct actions perfectly. In the same ironic way that Artificial Intelligence is actually a term used to describe how error-prone and stupid an otherwise perfect computer opponent will be, Winning Eleven's attempts to be as realistic as possible actually negate the idea of a perfect simulation. One of the hardest challenges that videogames will face in the years ahead is not how to compete with and attempt to recreate real life as a complex web of audio-visual stimuli, but how to lower themselves to simulate an inefficient and illogical human world that will never follow any wholly predictable science.
Don't worry, I'll not wander into chaos theory. The chief point is that I'm not sure I've ever played a game series that, in spite of all the potential potholes and limitations listed above, genuinely recreates real life situations to such a degree of accuracy as Winning Eleven. Not only do certain matches play out scarily similar to their real life counterparts (England vs. Germany matches never fail to resurrect some truly spooky ghosts for me), but that the emotions which the player experiences while playing a match have a direct and tangible correlation to their performance, and vice-versa.
Players who head straight for goal against a COM team will soon find themselves hemmed in and frustrated by their lack of attacking options, whereas those who take time to pass it around with their defenders for a while will make the opponents do the running and give themselves more space and time in which to plan out their next move with more confidence. A lazy attitude on the part of the player will see them play uninspired and therefore sloppy and predictable soccer, which the COM players will easily read. A deluge of early goals for the player will naturally give way to a more calm and relaxed second half. And how many videogames can be said to change "naturally" during play?
In essence then, Winning Eleven 8 is simply yet another step in the right direction, both for the advancement of quality sports games and for the slowly progressive principles to which Konami's series has held close—even throughout years of being outsold by the flashier, gimmicky FIFA games. And whilst I've so far bitten the bullet by referring to "soccer" rather than "football" to suitably Americanise (or is that Americanize?) this review, you'll excuse me if I pronounce Konami's European title—Pro Evolution Soccer—to be the most fitting moniker for the game: It's still the same, but still changing; still getting better, but still not perfect. To my mind, Darwin's theory has rarely seemed more beautifully apt.