Reviews  |  Wii

Winning Eleven: Play Maker 2008

By Raphael Azcueta / April 2, 2008

The Wii version of Winning Eleven 2008 reinvents sports gaming. There, that's it. When other sports games churn out new versions year after year playing the same way they've played pretty much since the days of the Famicom, Play Maker reimagines what it's like to control a sports team and lead them to glory.

Winning Eleven has been around for over a decade. As far as I know it's the most popular footie game in Europe and Asia [Raphael is from the US. --Ed], and rightfully so. Winning Eleven separated the footballer from the ball and focused on what it felt like to make the decisions that he makes. Hit the turbo button and kick the ball far ahead of you; hit the secondary turbo button and slow down the pace. Each installment added new moves that real footie players used. It was like an ingrained language -- push the shoot button to see what shooting at that exact moment would do. Did you trap the ball? Are you running with the ball? How fast are you running? Is the ball falling from a long pass or is it rolling on the ground? All of these factors affected what your player would do. It made you feel like the player felt while making all of his decisions.

But it was all just the player.

Playing real sports gives you a sense of communication with your teammates. Quarterbacks call out plays in the huddle; point guards shout plays from the key, fingers pointed to teammates telling them where to go; leaders lock eyes with their friends and they know exactly what is needed. A few sports games have tried implementing play calling and varying offensive and defensive strategy, but not until Play Maker have you been able to point and talk to your teammates. "Hey you, run down the wing to cross. And you, cut through the middle for the header."

Play Maker lets you say these things to your players. It's a bit like "Soccer: the RTS". If you want to tell a player to move downfield you point at him, hold A, and drag an arrow to the spot you want him to go. If you want him to catch a ball at a specific spot you point at him, hold B, and drag an arrow to the spot you want him to catch it. And the whole time you're setting up plays you use the joystick to move the ball holder, keeping him away from defenders. Either that or you point at an empty spot on the field, click A, and do a faster click-dribble. In the end you jerk the nunchuck for a shot on the goal.

Defense works similarly. Click and drag players to specific points, or drag them on top of the offense to set up man-to-man situations. Holding A tells them to go for the ball, while holding Z tells them to go for the pass. Double clicking sets up two on ones. Some people seem to dislike the remote controls on defense, but I found no problem with them, and I think they encourage a different way of thinking about defense. Instead of focusing on just the ball handler, you choose the level of pressure you want to put on him, and focus more on trying to predict the plays of the other team. It's more strategic. What really gets me into the control scheme is that there is a fluidity of motion for the whole team. It's like when you watch the great teams play perfectly together because every player is thinking the same thing as every other player.

And that's all you need to know if you don't want to get too deep into Play Maker -- the basics of setting up formations and plays, while watching your team run up and down the field executing them. For the first ten minutes I thought that's all there was to do, actually, and was able to pull off interesting new plays that I've never been able to do before in Winning Eleven. It wasn't until playing through the one-player mode and unlocking tutorials that I found out that every little move and trick you could do in previous games you can also do in this one. Side dribbling, varying dribbling speeds, headers.

There are a few things they did leave out though. The kick meter is gone. Crossing is done automatically by passing further down the field. Shooting the ball is done by either jerking the nunchuck for the blast or flipping up on the remote for the pop. It's motion-sensitive control for something that used to be handled with a meter.

There are a few modes differing from the other versions of WE2008. There's still the exhibition Match mode, the Cup and League modes, and Wi-Fi online play, but The Edit mode and the main game have been changed. Edit mode flatout suffers in the Wii version -- there's only player name/number and team name editing, and in the latter's case only unlicensed teams can be edited. Obviously, that's meant for fans to edit the unlicensed teams to the real licensed teams, but even then, you can't trade players. And they left out Create-A-Player altogether.

Champions Road replaces the Master League from the other versions of the game. Master League was the franchise mode of other games -- you played games, traded players, and beat everyone. Hopefully along the way you developed a franchise that let you play more games, trade more players, and beat everyone more handily than you had before. It's a pretty standard mode. Strangely, standard doesn't seem to be the case for Play Maker.

Champions Road is a series of tournaments that feels like a campaign mode in an RTS. You start with the starter team (the same one you start with in the PS2 version) and play games in tournaments. After every game your players develop experience in different categories to level up and gain skills. You are also semi-randomly awarded players from each team you beat, and awards from achievements you accomplished during the game. You pick cards from a deck representing the other team. The game gives you hints as to the skills of the player behind the card, but you never know exactly who you're getting. Achievements unlock team bonuses like increased XP for players and the ability to acquire more players per game. It works very much the same as Master League, except simpler. There's no negotiations, no cap limit, no bureaucratic filler crap.

Play Maker very obviously focuses on the casual fan. When I acquire skills for my players, I just pick "auto select". When I acquire players for my team, since I don't know many footie players, I pick based on the needs of my team. It works for me, but I'm a pretty casual sports fan. And you know what? I like it this way. I root for these players I've never heard of before because they're doing so much for my team. I've even made plans to watch some games with my real life friends to watch the real life versions of my players play some real ball.

Anyways, your Champions Road team can be played multiplayer a few ways. There's the match mode where you can pick your team (you can even transfer it to a remote to play at a friend's house -- in fact I think the reason Create-A-Player was left out was because the data you'd have to store for created players is so much more, and perhaps the remote memory couldn't handle it) and there's online. Multiplayer on a single console gets a little cluttered. It's limited to two players, but even then their play arrows still get a little confusing. You can also play it online versus friends (Wi-Fi Free matches are limited to normal teams). I've heard bad things about online from a few people, but I played a handful of games and all but one played at a passable level. You can also play your Champions Road team against your friends' Champions Road teams offline, which is interesting. Collecting players and doing battle with your friends' players? Yeah, it's a little like Pokemon. Take that how you may.

This is the kind of thing I expected. It's the Wii and it's casual. But it's also Winning Eleven, and it's intuitive and deep. The only things missing are Master League, player trades, Create-A-Player, and online tournaments, cups, and leagues. But all that's for next year, isn't it.