For true football fanatics, like us, there are two distinct dates every year that have us all in a froth: the start of the new league season after a long period without any matches (or worse, after another risible England display in an international tournament), and the day that the latest Football Manager hits the shops.
Frankly, it’s hard to explain the hold that Football Manager has on our lives, or why its gameplay mix of constant repetition and database management is so compelling, but it is. It is the only game that we’re happy to play almost every single day. And, with no ending or structured storyline other than yearly league and cup runs, it can be, and often is, never-ending. Until the next annual update arrives, of course. It defies logic. It’s like real football.
This year’s edition, the prophetically-titled Football Manager 2011, is a by-product of a massive overhaul that was undertaken for last season. Its menu systems have been fiddled with and rejigged, but are essentially the same, and the feel of the game, including the match engine, are as familiar to regular players as a favoured pair of socks. However, certain minor and major tweaks to features, functions and footballer animations make for an even more immersive and realistic experience this time around. And that’s no mean feat.
Overtly, the first tweak you come across - regularly - is the addition of agents into the game as fleshed-out, stat-rendered characters. They will hawk players at you like cotton merchants in an Egyptian bazaar, and will be the voice of players during any contract negotiation.
In previous Football Managers, the transfer and contract process was simplified: agree fee, offer contract, they either accept or not, and Bob’s your uncle, Fanny’s a rude word. This time, an agent will propose a contract to you, which you can either accept or counteroffer. It’s not a massive advancement on the old method, and, in the long term, may make little difference to your club’s performance, but it helps this little corner of the game world seem that bit more realistic.
Another change for the sake of enhanced realism is an improvement in the way you interact with players, journalists and the board. Rather than just choose an option from a drop down menu, you are now presented with a running dialogue, answering questions or choosing statements that you feel best suit the situation. Be careful though, answers can have serious implications, especially with morale. Telling a player to put up or shut up may find him and his allies in the team turning against you publicly.
The 3D match engine has had a very minor facelift in comparison. The crowds and grounds look better, with backgrounds, such as rows of houses, beyond the stands. And evening matches now look like they’re played at night, with floodlighting and shading enforcing the effect. But the biggest and most welcome graphical augmentation is with goal celebrations and the like.
Players now have more personality, from grinding their hips at the corner flag after a goal to putting their heads in their hands when they give away a penalty. Admittedly, SI Games’ match engine isn’t as sumptuous looking as others on the market, such as that found in EA’s FIFA Manager series, but said little things make it a joy to watch. And it has always ebbed and flowed like a genuine game of football, which is what matters.
There is one weird new feature of the new 3D graphic engine that’s worth pointing out, however. In FM 2010, the players would stand still on the pitch in the speeded-up moments between highlights. Now, they fade in and out of an empty pitch, looking like ghosts or the sort of memory flashback you get in a TV movie. It certainly takes some getting used to.
Another less well-received new tweak, in this camp at least, is the way in which pre- and post-match press conferences now take place. While they have been refined by the elimination of a confirm button after each selection, thereby speeding up the process, they are still as repetitive and, ultimately, tortuous as before. You can get your assistant manager to automatically take part instead, but that has ramifications on the way your players can perceive you, and their overall morale. In some ways, we wish the events weren’t part of the process at all. Maybe that’s something to address for next year’s edition?
These are minor niggles, though. It would take much more space and time than we can afford to list all the beneficial minor revisions in comparison. Training has been made more intuitive, as has tactic creation (so much so that, for the first time ever, we won our first five games in the league with a homemade tactic). And, there is still one major addition to highlight, the grandstand new feature for FM 2011; dynamic league reputation...
Rather than update you and your team’s stature at the end of each season, like with every Football Manager game that has come before, reputation is a rolling, morphing concept. As you do better in the league, so your team will be able to attract better players and be regarded as a better prospect. Similarly, you might be offered a better job halfway through the season, based on your new found fame and excellent performance levels.
It was always frustrating to find that, although you had taken Northampton Town through consecutive promotions and into the Europa League in merely 5 years, you were still regarded as no better than a low-league club when it came to the best player. Now, no longer.
The last new feature we’ll mention doesn’t add anything to the gameplay at all, but has gotten a fair amount of press since its announcement - social networking. Well, Twitter and YouTube, anyway. Linking your account with either allows you to post achievements and boasts, one in just text and one in video form (greatest goals, replayed moments, etc). That is essentially it, it is pretty basic at the moment.
We could even see the feature becoming less and less used as time goes on, especially in automatic mode. Would you follow someone who’s Twitter stream is constantly peppered with the descriptions of his accomplishments in the lower rungs of the Korean league? Us neither.
It doesn’t mean that this is a bad feature per se, just one in its infancy. Maybe the future will behold meatier integration.
Football Manager 2011 rises above its flaws and, if nothing else, proves that it still has a massive place in the modern gaming world. It moves with the times and is both accessible enough for new fans to hop on board the most addictive bus in the genre, and full of hidden wonders for regular players.
It has no equals, and hasn’t for a considerable while. And although competition is often healthy, the lack of any of note never hampers Sports Interactive’s drive or ambition for perfection. This latest iteration of the best sports coaching game out there may not be 100 per cent perfect, but it’s damn damn close.