a review of Winning Eleven: Pro Evolution Soccer 2007 (Pro Evolution Soccer 6)
a videogame developed by KCET
and published by Konami
for Microsoft Windows, the microsoft xbox 360, the nintendo DS, the sony playstation 2 computer entertainment system and the sony playstation portable
text by Thom Moyles
Winning Eleven is soccer that doesn’t actually play like soccer. Yet it feels more like soccer than games that play more like soccer. This is because making a videogame that actually plays like soccer would never in a million years actually work as a piece of entertainment. Soccer involves far too much randomness and loss of control over a long period of time to create a 1:1 interactive experience that, and this is the important bit here, Such That it would still be fun to play. So, the problem becomes how to condense the experience in a temporal sense and also in an experiential sense. That is, you have be able to make a game that can be played in 10-15 minutes that also still feels like a regular 90-minute game of soccer.
Of course, achieving this is impossible. If you want that, you have to go play or watch soccer yourself. Of course, you’re never going to be able to recreate the experience of playing a game or even that of watching it. There are too many little details, too many foibles inherent in human existence for any existing computer to be able to track them, let alone generate graphics and sound and animations to represent them. So, games have to bridge the gap and allow the player to at least dream that what’s going on is real and try not to brutally jolt him out of this daydream.
Where FIFA and most of the other soccer games get it wrong is when they try and recreate how a soccer game actually plays out on the field. What happens then is that you get a game that gets a lot of the micro-scale correct and creates a game that feels wrong on the macro scale. Players will kick the ball, goals will be scored and everything will by the book. It also feels like some aliens came down and tried to put together a simulation of the sport using only a scratchy audio recording done by a drunk man who’s only ever seen the Champion’s League. Part of this is the lack of doom, or angst if you prefer. Although the German word “angst” pre-dates fussball, it’s probably at its most appropriate when applied to the experience of kicking a small round ball around a field, or at least the experience of watching somebody else kick a small round ball around a field while attaching a ridiculous amount of emotion to what happens out there. The Germans also have a saying that can be summarized as “the ball is round”, which basically means that the shape of the ball is the only thing you can count on. Every match is spent in an eternity of dread. The funny thing is that the other fans probably feel very similarly. It’s a brotherhood of despair and anguish, broken up by the occasional convincing victory. And it is this fan’s view that is crucial to the experience of a soccer match.
One common assumption is that sports games are intended to recreate the experience of playing the sport. This is dead wrong. After all, how many sports games only allow you to control one player over the course of the game, the camera following the lonely figure as he spends most of the game without the ball at his feet? Instead, sports games create the experience that all fans wish they had, which is the ability to control the actions of “their” team. These games create fan-gods that can possess each of their players, sometimes even more than one at a time and finally allows them to scratch the itch they have when they yell “Why did that idiot do that?” For a sport dominated by helplessness, this control is liberation. It’s not like Winning Eleven doesn’t yank away the attention of the player with issues like not having certain teams, or having players blatantly “regenerate” in the franchise mode or the ongoing troubles with choosing which player you’re passing to in certain situatons; it doesn’t matter at all because it delivers the experience of playing a crucial cup tie on the road, the match sitting on a knife edge and each attack has your heart in your throat. Whether it ends in despair or elation (and Winning Eleven is the only game to cause me to pull my shirt over my head and run around like an idiot until I barked my shin on the coffee table), it feels right. It might not feel real; it’s close enough to the spirit of soccer that we don’t care.
Most people who don’t play sports games will tell you that each update to a yearly franchise is really just a set of updated rosters and other such minimal changes. In some extreme cases, this is close to what’s happening; however, while I do wish this was the case because it would make following sports games a lot cheaper, it’s really not true. Instead, you get incremental changes, along the lines of a team tweaking how a fighting engine plays, with new mechanics here, with a different code base there, and often times, with a cynical new feature that seems like it’s been added just so that the developers can point to the back of the box and say “see, we’re adding new things”, even if the time spent working on it would have been better put toward improving the core of the game. And while I know that Winning Eleven 8 isn’t structurally so different than Winning Eleven 10 (which is what this game probably should have been called except that marketing had to make themselves feel important, I guess), that I could pick up the old games for a song and not have a wildly different experience, I can tell. I can tell that there have been tweaks here and there, beyond even whatever new features they’ve made out of pieces of old ones, tweaks so subtle that it would be hard to vocalize them and even harder to vocalize them and be correct, except that I can still feel them, still know that they’re there.
While WE still suffers from the Curse of the Yearly Sports Game, it doesn’t really matter. It gets it. It makes me feel like I’m standing on a concrete terrace, never minding the cold, willing my team on and by gum, it’s working. It’s a fan’s god-fantasy and an example of how it’s just as important to have developers who know about the feeling that the game’s trying to evoke as it is to have somebody with a great skillset.