a review of Winning Eleven 7 (Pro Evolution Soccer 3)
a videogame developed by konami
and published by konami (et al)
for personal computers and the sony playstation 2 computer entertainment system
text by Thom Moyles
Often, the hardest thing about playing a game is overcoming the desire not to play it. Games, hell, anything can be pretty easily dismissed before truly being examined because we are such media-savvy creatures that we quickly find out that things we don’t like look a certain way (and this is far more important and obvious than what things we do like look like). This is my own special way of saying that Winning Eleven is almost the only sports game to appear in the Action Button Dot Net Manifesto, with the certain exception of a football game to be named later. Don’t be scared/fooled by this. This is not a token appearance. This game fully represents the ethos of Action Button Dot Net, regardless of it having actual people pictured on the cover of the game. This disclaimer may be unnecessary because by now, Winning Eleven (WE) is roundly admired as the “hip” and “real” football/soccer game to play, just in time for all the hipsters to start talking about how the recent FIFA games are actually delivering a more authentic product. Such is the endless cycle of taste, the Automatic Dharmatic march to the ur-game. Well folks, this *is* the ur-game. This is, if this is the kind of game you like, this is the only game that you will ever need to play, forever, for the rest of your life.
The best thing that can be said about WE is that it is a game that wants to be played well and when it is played poorly is the fault of the player, not the game. At its best, WE marr. The This is one stat that cuts quick because sports games are generally anti ethical to those who enjoy fighting games, even as fighting game players are regarded as jocks by the nerds who play games on an actual Personal Computer, those who play sports games are some kind of bottom-feeding scum, hooting and hollering under their backwards baseball caps, emanating vibrations of previous locker-based transgressions. In a nice ironic twist, these are also precisely the people who wouldn’t play Winning Eleven because it’s soccer and soccer is “boring”. These are probably also the same people who would tell you how “special” it was to observe a no-hitter in baseball, an achievement that is precisely as boring as the sport of soccer and much harder to understand. These are also people who have never played soccer, otherwise they would realize that “boring” would be a relief from the constant mental and athletic challenges of the sport, except those challenges are precisely why we play instead of sitting on the couch, watching Baseball Tonight and eating nachos (this is not to say that Action Button Dot Net is against nachos, except that they probably shouldn’t be eaten on the couch).
Soccer is a simple sport, possibly the most simple sport with the notable exception of boxing, which probably isn’t a sport (for the same reason that there will never be a good boxing game until we can make a game that will actually be capable of punching you in the face). There’s a ball and two goals and the idea, see, is to put the ball in the goals without using your hands. There’s some other rules; that’s the basic gist of it. The Germans, who are very good at soccer, have a saying about the sport: “The ball is round and the game is 90 minutes.” It is easy to dismiss this as something that a simpleton would blurt out after reading a copy of How to Play Soccer. This is because people don’t realize what isn’t being said. The English, who like to think that they’re better than the Germans despite the fact that they’ve won less World Cups, also like to say: “That’s football for you”, which is a self-congratulatory way of meaning the same thing as the Germans. Which is: with such a simple game, with so many available permutations of building blocks, in the end all you can rely on is that the ball is round and that the game must come to an end. Otherwise, anything can happen.
This is why playing WE has a weight and a precision to it that’s usually reserved for old-school arcade games. Playing it well feels like a performance in front of impressed kids at a smoky arcade, to the point of the involuntary facial tic at a sloppy button press or a mistake in tempo. When two masters play it, there are games within the game, an analogue to the circling and waiting that is commonly associated with Two Guys Who Know a Lot About Fighting. In other words, something that attracts attention for those interested in the purity and beauty of the strategic mind. In the sport, these games are described as “cagey” and while there might be a lot of each team passing the ball around the back (defense), something that while it looks like nothing is happening, it is like those fighters circling, each waiting for the subtlest indication of a weakness, a chance to fly into action with surgical accuracy.This precision is there in WE because the controls are satisfyingly crisp: you have your basic attacks (pass on the ground to player, shoot, pass through the air, pass on the ground into space (commonly known as the through ball, the mastery of which is possibly the most crucial element to developing as a WE player)) and your combos (the 1-2 pass, the lofted through ball, the various acts of individual ball trickery) which combine to create a hermetically sealed mechanical system that, when you ease into it in the proper gear, is like blasting a well-balanced sports car down the Pacific Coast Highway. In other words, WE may have the trappings and appearance of brah-dom; however, when you get under the hood, it’s more like an Outrun or a Street Fighter than you would have any reason to initially suspect.
You don’t get the pleasing pixel-perfect call-and-response that you get with a sprite-based or even a 3D fighter though, since that’s not how the sport works. If a perfectly-weighted ball is passed to a third-class player with defenders lurking close by, the ball will more than likely ricochet off his shin straight to the opposition, gifting possession to the other team. Strategy is just as much working with what you’re given as it is projecting your concept of the Perfect Build-Up from your understanding of the sport, into your hands, through the DualShock cable and up into the guts of the console. It is necessary to use your tools with precision; brute strength will only work against the lowest levels of the CPU AI and won’t work at all against any game-player worth their salt in making their roommates cry. However, “brute strength” here does not imply that all action must be complex. WE can be played and played well, without the player ever using the “combo” style advanced controls. The basic controls are more than enough, provided that the player has the imagination to apply them correctly. These are the blocks that were mentioned earlier, the combinatorial greatness of both games and sport, smashed together into a gooey explosion of greatness.
The height of the WE series was almost certainly Winning Eleven 6: Final Evolution, a version that only appeared in Japan, on the GameCube. Aside from the initial difficulty of dealing with the GameCube pad its insanely small directional pad (easily fixable by using the Hori pad instead), it works out incredibly well and has a unique balancing of mechanics that was never recreated in any of the other versions. The shoot button is even more insanely sensitive than it is in the other versions and it somehow amazingly lives up to the “Final Evolution” moniker, feeling like a tool that has been endlessly sharpened, weighed, reshaped, weighed again and finally covered in shiny chrome. That said, the game that we choose to specifically mention here, X AMOUNTS OF paragraphs into the review, must be Winning Eleven Seven, simply because Final Evolution, by dint of being exclusive to both Japan and the Gamecube, is not really representative of the series, which fit into the PlayStation 2’s hipness pie graph in much the same way that WipeOut did on the original PlayStation. This is not an idly-made comparison, as WE is undoubtedly and rightfully associated with the PlayStation brand, not only because it was an exclusive for so long or because the Xbox versions, when they did come, were uniformly pale shades of the versions that appeared on Sony console; also because the game actually was synergistic with the PlayStation hardware (really).
The primary (and only one cited in this article) reason for why this is true is that WE is the ultimate game when it comes to the usage of the DualShock’s pressure-sensitive buttons (Metal Gear Solid 3 is the penultimate game for this). The correlation of the button pressure to in-game action is deliciously simple: press the button hard, you kick the ball hard; press it delicately and the players onscreen will tap the ball gently. The pressure-sensitivity is used for a number of the controls, the most important of which being the act of shooting. Shooting a soccer ball hard and accurately is far more difficult that it seems to the layman. The most-repeated piece of advice about shooting, usually proffered by avuncular Scotsmen beamed live into my living room on Saturday mornings, is “‘e was leanin’ back on that one.” This refers to the position of your torso in relation to the ball. More specifically, this refers to how your torso needs to be over the ball, as this is how you strike the ball both powerfully and accurately. Lean back, and the ball will be sailing into the crowd. Seeing the digital players enact this same dance of futility every time the shoot button is held down remotely too long is a powerful thrill for a fan of the sport. It’s cruel enough that it usually takes several games for the new player to reliably get shots on target and many more before they, like professional strikers the world over, develop the nerve such that a glorious sight of a scoring opportunity doesn’t fill them with screaming excitement, excitement that jams the button down, throws the shoulders backwards and eventually leads to some poor kid in row ZZ dropping his meat pie.
It is this fidelity to feeling that gives WE its heady reputation. When the game transcends kicking a ball around a field and you can change a match by realizing that your team is better suited for counter-attacking, that your opponent’s over-lapping fullbacks could be exploited by Ajax-style wingforwards, when a single substitution can turn an entire match, all without the action on the field ever corresponding directly to what you see in a stadium or broadcast to your television, is magical, an act of digital alchemy that is made even more astonishing by the fact that the development team behind these games is operating under the insane deadline of producing a game every single calendar year, every year. Yet the game is not evocative of what a death march this is. The game is drenched in a ridiculous love for the sport, to the point where the music is appropriately football-y, in that it is throughly twee to the point of nausea and exists mainly for the hardcore football fan to wonder aloud who exactly thinks this sort of thing is a good idea (note: may not actually be true; if true, it is possibly the greatest act of dedication to craft in the entire medium). The feel of the game is so strong that even though the game lacks a large amount of the licenses, so that you’re playing the Champion’s Cup with North London instead of the Champion’s League with Arsenal, it still feels better to beat Manchester Reds than it would if the players were actually named correctly (besides, it is ridiculously simple to find a save file that will get you correct everything, even moreso than FIFA).
Legend tells that playing WE is actually a viable girl-winning (or at least girl-retaining) activity in Korean internet cafes, which is not completely beyond the pale. Football/soccer, after all, is the number one hip and trendy sport for the world’s youth, no matter what the NBA or NFL like to trot out about global participation or worldwide viewing audiences. European teams regularly make preseason tours of what they call the Far East because even if they’re playing at glorified warm-ups, there are thousands upon thousands of people who are perfectly willing to shell out for a ticket, a team shirt and a chance to scream at people in an airport. It is this totally, completely, ridiculously stupid and insane feeling that is transmitted up into your brain when playing Winning Eleven, the only game that has ever caused me physical harm. My shin still has a dark hard patch roughly halfway up it from when I barked it on a coffee table after scoring an extra-time goal to win the WE equivalent of the Champions League. It wasn’t even a true test of my skill, since I was the only player involved.