Football Manager, nee Championship Manager, has always been a voluminous beast of a management simulation. And, as each iteration has layered feature after feature on top of an already excellent engine in order to improve realism, it has become more in-depth and complex each year.
FM 2012 is the culmination, therefore, of 19 years of expansion and clever jiggery pokery by a development team that can not only crunch numbers better than a Mafia accountant, but probably knows more about football, its economics and on-pitch subtleties than the FA itself (in fact, we’re willing to put money on it).
However, while this may be excellent news for fans of Football Manager and the beautiful game alike, it’s a pig for a reviewer who’s trying to write an honest review of a form of entertainment that offers so many facets and factors that it takes weeks, not hours or days, to actually see them all. How can you objectively praise or criticise a game that, a) has no definitive ending, and b) hides plenty of surprises and foibles that only become apparent after an entire season’s play?
The answer is obvious; play an entire season. So we did.
That’s why our review is only now ready for public consumption. We have, to date, been playing Football Manager 2012 for over 168 hours of actual gameplay time - across an entire month, since its release on PC and Mac on 21 October. And if that doesn’t qualify us to give a reasoned, fair and definitive opinion on the latest effort from Sports Interactive, we don’t know what will.
The first thing that strikes you about Football Manager 2012, in contrast to former editions, is its user interface. You don’t need to have played the game for the combined total of seven entire days to notice that it has become rather more cluttered when it comes to statistics and information. In fact, it’s now so jam packed with stats that newcomers may be a tad bamboozled, and even feel overwhelmed.
Experienced players, however, will welcome the way a lot of necessary details have been presented in the same place, rather than on multiple screens that used to require numerous mouse clicks to navigate. For example, a player’s home screen has nigh-on everything you need to know about him in a selection of different tiles. In addition, each of the tiles that make up a specific screen can be customised to show different information; such as his form, contract details, a staff report, that kind of thing.
But the piece de resistance, of the UI anyway, is that it is adaptable depending on your desktop’s real estate. While FM 2012 can be played in full screen, it is our experience that it rarely is. Most FM fans we know play the game in a window (which it happily does on most PCs). And the clever stuff that SI Games has added this time around includes an “Adaptive Layout System” - the automated way that the tiles on screen fit whatever screen form you choose. If a window is small, you might only get seven tiles, for example. If big, around 12. It tries not to punish those playing on a laptop, yet rewards those on a desktop PC with a meaty graphics card.
If we were to be slightly critical of its charms we could say that, by adopting a clean, squared off style, the overall aesthetic comes across a bit business-like, in that it looks more like a spreadsheet or Powerpoint presentation than ever before. That’s nit-picking though, you don’t buy an in-depth management sim to look at the pretty borders.
Similarly, we’ve never been that bothered by the overblown 3D graphics of rival games. Indeed, we’ve even been put off them, because, in our experience, the prettier they are, the less likely they will offer a realistic game of football. That’s not to say that FM 2012’s match engine is ugly. In fact, it’s much improved this year, with extra camera angles, including a Director Cam which chooses the best viewpoint for different highlights, crowd characters that don’t look like cardboard cut-outs, and great stadium lighting and grass effects.
Sure, it isn’t in FIFA’s league graphically, but what it does offer is a game of football that you’ll recognise, with tactics and player AI being of utmost importance. The stick men players genuinely seem to make sensible footballing decisions in passing, shooting and tackling, while following your own pre- and during-match instructions.
They may not look as motion captured or natural than with some peers, but there’s a semblance of life in their actions, and that’s far more important, surely. Let’s just say, we’ve certainly come a long way from the text commentary of bygone years.
We’ve also come a long way in the interaction stakes, at least with the transfer market, contract negotiations, team talks and one-to-one discussions with players. And all of these things have also had the mighty magic wand of Miles Jacobson waved over them. The Sports Interactive studio director claims that there are over 800 new features – far too many to go into here, definitive review or not – and chatting to your squad is one of those most vitally tweaked.
In the past, while the ability to give pre- and half-time team talks looked good on paper, they ended up being a laborious task. You could get your assistant manager to take them, but we found that he’d more often than not incur the wrath of a star player or two. The alternative was to just select the same choice every match yourself, from a drop down menu. Once you knew what (roughly) made your team click, that was the option to choose each and every time, season after season.
Now, however, not only are there the same options to select, you can intonate different emotions to say them in; for example, passionately or aggressively. There are five different themes, and different preambles in each. And, in our first season, we found that the right emotion, chosen with the right words, and at the right time, can make a world of difference to performance. Finally, this is a feature that’s not just there for show.
The same method of interaction is chosen with player meetings too, with their own emotion also listed along with their queries or demands. It adds an almost role playing game approach, and whereas the wrong words could sour relationships within your team in the past, at least this year you can make a valued guess at the right words to say.
There’s also a better flow to the internal communication within the game. You are far less likely to see the same emails and staff comments over and over again. Almost every mail has a click through that offers more details, depth or an option to respond. And you are now privy to the comments made by other managers in their press conferences.
Unfortunately however, your own press conferences are still a chore. It would have been nice to have seen the new emotional inflection system implemented here, or even a change in the answers you can give, but it’s almost identical to last year’s effort, and that was no superstar either.
Cheaters never prosper
Of course, it’s only after playing the game for more time than our families would have liked has that, and other minor foibles, really niggled. And experienced FM fanboys click through such issues on autopilot anyway. What’s slightly more alarming for hardcore Football Manager aficionados is that we seem to have discovered, what is known in certain circles as, a “cheat tactic”.
To give you a little background, we have been playing Sports Interactive’s footy management game religiously since the very beginning in 1992. A forced name change hasn’t deterred us - nor sent us into the arms of the failed rival that emerged in the process - nor has marriage, kids, new computers or a short period of apathy. Indeed, we were one of the first to see the Domark release of Championship Manager, and subsequent editions. And recently even guested on the official Football Manager podcast.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that we have a little nous when it comes to creating our own tactics for each year’s edition. However, little did we expect that, after crafting a 4-3-2-1 system (actually, more like 4-1-2-2-1) through the in-game wizard this time (which is similar to our tactic used last year), that we’ve have quite such success.
Yes, we chose to play as West Ham, who is fully expected (in the game, at least) to win the Championship. And, yes, we loaned Danny Wilson and bought Jay Spearing from Liverpool. But, we’ve genuinely never gone through an entire season unbeaten before. Nor have we ended with 124 points, 100 goals scored, and won the League and FA Cups, beating Tottenham 3-0 away from home and Arsenal in the process.
And, just to further illustrate the point, we’ve also just won the Olympics with Team GB using the same tactic – including a 6-0 drubbing of Kuwait.
Admittedly, we’ve yet to start a new season in the Premier League properly (pre-season, it must be warned, can takes hours to get through, especially if you’re asked to be the manager of Great Britain’s under-23s), but those are impressive and somewhat skewed results, no matter how good West Ham are in the game or real life.
It’s no cause for panic, however. While the discovery of a cheat tactic could devalue the realism of the game, it’s not a particularly new phenomenon for the franchise. And Sports Interactive has always been at the forefront of continuing to support its own product, with patches and data updates released throughout its life, not just the initial month or so. We’d be willing to bet, therefore, that Miles will be on the phone to us the moment he reads this review in order to find a way to halt our good, if not surreal, fortune. Either that, or we’ll now be inundated with requests for us to share our tactic with the FM community. Form an orderly queue, please.
The fluke and extremely rare creation of an all-conquering tactic aside, Football Manager 2012 gets many more things right than it does wrong. The 800-plus alterations and improvements are, on the whole, not only warranted but highly welcomed. Many of them are so subtle that you’ll never even know about them, but the game does feel more in-depth, and you feel more in control of your own destiny than ever before.
A few of the changes have also been made to appease the massive fan base, and include the ability to switch on and play a separate league within a save game. Previously, you could only play leagues that were predetermined during the initial set-up, so this is a massive bonus this year, especially for those who like to hop across nations throughout their management tenure.
Aesthetically, there’s been a trade-off for content over style, and that might put-off some. But, to be completely honest, those fair weather managers would be best advised to stick with their FIFAs and the like. Football Manager has always catered to those who are willing to be in it for the long haul, and, for those, the 2012 edition is the most intense experience yet.
Viewing the highlights during the 3D match engine is like watching Match of the Day, not graphically, but in the way the game ebbs and flows. The players genuinely look like they are professional footballers in their actions, and your tactical decisions have more weight. But the greatest compliment we could give Football Manager 2012 is that it gets the “manager” part spot on. Yes, at times it’s like controlling a spreadsheet, but it’s a gargantuan game of numbers and statistics that will suck away 168 hours of your life without you even noticing.