(Pocket-lint) - For die-hard fans or those new to the series, each year's Football Manager game (nee Championship Manager) has been an essential purchase. After all, they always offer a few new features with each generation and an exhaustive database update with the very latest players, coaches and other team details.
However, it is rare that each game is that markedly different to the last. The uninitiated might even complain that they don't need to upgrade on a yearly basis, especially as up-to-date fan-made database updates are readily available. It is best to skip a year or two, they feel.
In that essence Sports Interactive is much like Apple. Genuine innovation for its product comes along on a broader schedule rather than annually. As fans we've always awaited each installation with bated breath, but can also understand those who aren't so inclined.
Football Manager 2015, however, is one of the rare ones - a complete refresh of the franchise that feels new and different, yet retains every element that makes the simulation game so appealing (and addictive) in the first place. So much is new and tweaked that it would take a year just to explain the details. So we'll focus on the highlights and leave the rest as tiny rewards for you to find yourself.
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Part of the overhaul is aesthetic. The user interface has been completely reworked, and the 3D match engine has been rebuilt from the ground up.
The new user interface actually reminds us of SI Games' Champ Man series of old. It looks similar but has more menus and accessible areas in order to make your managerial tasks as easy to complete as possible. The sidebar has returned, which presents the most commonly used zones in plain sight rather than drop-down menus as in more recent times, and there is much better use of the overall screen real-estate, especially in full screen mode.
If we're being picky, the default font is too small for people with less than perfect eyesight, most notably when on a darker background, but you can increase that in the preferences if needs be. At least by keeping things compact, more can be fitted on the screen itself.
The 3D match engine is greatly improved too. We've always been fans of the stick men approach adopted by Football Manager over the FIFA-style graphics as it both offers a better viewpoint tactically and the game movement ebbs and flows more like real football than be hamstrung by what looks better in animation terms.
Football Manager 2015 retains that approach, but has enhanced the look a lot for the latest iteration of the match engine. Many more animations have been added to make the players move a little more naturally - the goalkeepers especially - and the ball has been given better physics to increase the visual effect of gravity to more realistic levels. The tactical movement of the ball is similar to before, but the overall feel is better.
Stadiums have also been greatly enhanced, with better use of animated crowd members and club staff. And the pitch is more detailed, with a new lighting engine casting more accurate shadows on the field of play. As much of your time will be spent watching highlights of your team in play, it's important for it to look convincing, and this is the most convincing yet.
The graphics are not the only improvement for the 3D match engine, you can now shout commands (through an on-screen menu) to each and every player, in much the same way real managers do when they stand on the side of the pitch. It works like the halftime and full time team talks and could change the mood and therefore impact of a player while the action progresses.
Breaking the formula
That makes your role feel even more interactive, as do the new managerial style options. In a controversial move, Sports Interactive has added a new role-playing element to the series for the first time. Before you start a new career, you have to decide what kind of manager you want to be by either adjusting stat-based sliders for tracksuit and tactical management skills or simply determine your previous experience and FIFA coaching badges.
Admittedly, the decision is a tough one as the game can overly punish you for being a complete newbie to football management - say you don't have any coaching badges, for example, and your players will respect you less, which will cause problems further down the line. However, for us that adds an all-new layer to the game that we welcome.
We have played every iteration of Football Manager and Championship Manager before it, even having been one of a handful to have been invited to test the very first one long before its release, and while it has always been a part of our personal life as well as professional, there has always been one issue we've had with the game: find a winning tactic and no matter which division you start in, the career always pans out in similar fashion.
The new role-playing elements change that. Start one game as a fully-licensed superstar manager and you'll have a different experience to another career as a complete newbie to the sport. Some don't like this change, which is so central to your Football Manager experience this time out, but it's much welcomed round these parts.
There are plenty of other new elements we applaud too, such as the more pictorial scout reports that come back for a player you've assigned them to watch. You are now given a list of their pros and cons in icon form, with extra detail to tell you why. And these are often given in context with the rest of your team too - so you'll know whether that prospective new purchase will fit in with the rest of your players or maybe cause friction.
New player positions, tactical options, job interviews and media interaction improvements have been added too, with the latter also having an effect on match day as the press ask you one last question in the tunnel before kick off. And all have an overall effect on how your team performs week to week.
And that's the most important bit as it determines whether you become a Football Manager addict like the rest of us or not. Your significant other won't like it, but we feel you will with this year's edition.
Football Manager 2015, for us, continues the consistently high level of attention to detail that the series is synonymous with, yet feels fresh and distinct from the last couple of years' iterations.
The included, stripped-down Football Manager Classic mode is a great way to jump on board for newbies still, but they will perhaps find it easier to make the step up this time around thanks to the clearer layout of the menu system and more visual interface.
We do struggle to see the text on dark backgrounds, which is one of our few gripes, but the text enlargement service is there and there will no doubt be fan-made skins on the way that could make the font stand out more. And sticking to a similar subject, it must also be said that we like being able to use all the player faces, team kits, logos and modified graphics we had downloaded and accrued for FM2014 on FM2015 too, simply by moving a folder on our PC.
Football Manager 2015 genuinely feels like a new start to the franchise and is bound to dominate our lives for yet another year.