I've played a lot of sports games in my day. 2D sports games. 3D sports games. 8-bit to the present day, I've consumed pixelated sports until my eyes ached and my back gave out. To date, there hasn't been a sports game I've played that's been better than Winning Eleven 7, the latest iteration of Konami's soccer franchise. I wouldn't say that it's the best game, period, that I've ever played. But I will say it's close.
A large part, maybe the main part, of why Winning Eleven is so successful at evoking soccer is because of its brilliant physics engine. Unlike any other 3D sports game (ever), there is very little evidence of unexplainable forces acting on the ball or players. Actions and motions seem natural, and with them comes the natural flow of the game. The term gets used a bit too much these days for my liking, but this is emergent gameplay in action. Every time I play Winning Eleven, I'm surprised by something that the game does. This isn't to say that the game is free of repetition, because it isn't, but it's open enough to allow for truly incredible variety. There's something to be said about a soccer game where every time a goal is scored, can feel like an entirely new experience for the player, regardless of how many previous goals they've scored.
Graphically, this is the most stunning Winning Eleven to date. The players are decidedly low-resolution compared to FIFA, but at the same time they wind up looking better because they're more accurate representations of the real players. Nearly everybody, from the stars to the bench-warmers, look like who they're supposed to, with a few odd exceptions. The real graphical strength of the title is the animation. Because the physics system is so well-modelled, each player must be able to react smoothly and interact with other players and the ball no matter where they are in relation to the player. Odd animations and actual mistakes are incredibly rare, a remarkable feat for a sport that involves so many players. The commentary is enjoyable for the first few games but like most sports games, becomes horribly annoying once the user has heard the bulk of the audio.
As much as I enjoy it, there are plenty of people who don't like Winning Eleven. Their complaints are usually along the lines of:
"I don't understand the controls."
"The players don't automatically react they way they do in FIFA."
"It's too hard to shoot."
These are all fair complaints. They are also all related to the game's learning curve. Again, to be fair, it's not a control system that someone can grasp in a single sitting. It takes weeks, possibly even months to truly learn the control scheme, but once it's done the player can actually control the pace and shape of the game. For those who want to step up and immediately start scoring and looking like Henry (or Maradona, for the old-schoolers) slaloming past the defense, this is not the game to play. Playing on the easiest difficulty will no doubt result in a lot of goals, but it's no fun playing against posts. Players who actually want to feel like they're playing soccer will have to pump up the difficulty and, as a result, start taking their lumps. Those wanting a quick jog in the park are advised to look elsewhere.
This difficulty is important beyond just making the game harder for those with more experience. The difficulty is also an inherent part of providing an accurate representation of the sport involved. Some may be frustrated by the sheer amount of work, or sometimes luck, which is needed in order to score a goal. That frustration is key to the experience, along with the release and relief that follows when the player actually scores. As soccer fans already know, a goal is a precious thing. If a player can start banging in goals at every touch, then the act itself loses its importance. Lose the importance of the goal, and lose the importance of the very sport. Winning Eleven is the only game that's caused me to run around my living room, pretending to be an airplane with my shirt pulled over my head. Barking your shins on the coffee table is very much worth it when a game is capable of evoking such a reaction.
And concentration is just as important as a full knowledge of the controls. A moment of weakness is all that's needed for the game to be snatched away. Strategy and tactics are the lifeblood of this game at its higher levels and mistakes are quickly punished. Heck, there might be games where the player doesn't make a real mistake, or games where the player does far more right than they do wrong. Odds are, if the player is playing at the higher difficulty levels, they'll lose a good amount of those games. It doesn't feel 'fair', but it does feel like soccer. It's not that the opposing teams have abilities that the user doesn't, but like the sport itself, one lucky bounce can be the difference in a game even when two teams are 'unfairly' matched. And that's pretty 'fair' to the game.
Winning Eleven 7 isn't a perfect game. It isn't a perfect representation of the sport of soccer, or as near it as some would like to claim. Nor is it a fully satisfying experience from a game standpoint. Lack of player and team licenses, lack of player progression in the Master League, a control system that demands decisiveness and perfection in the same breath… there are plenty of reasons why Winning Eleven isn't the game to place in front of some mythical committee and say 'This is the perfect game'. But there isn't any game that comes closer to giving the feel of soccer and there are few games that come closer to gaming perfection.