Developer: Sports Interactive
I didn't get any sleep last night. It's not because there were workmen filling the morning air with blue language and searing drilling, it's not because I accidentally left the window open and a light spot of rain turned my comfy bed into a cushion of synthetic marshland. No, it's November and that can only mean one thing: the GSCE/A-level/Degree/Career Killer is back. It's time for a new Football Manager game.
Mention the name Football Manager to certain people and you'll met with an expression of wide eyed fear, the understanding of former addicts who've seen the results of a database overdose - angry and disgruntled wives and girlfriends, neglected pets, exorbitant pizza bills and piles of unanswered mail being just some of the side effects. It's something that Eidos' Championship Manager (since SI's exit) and EA's FIFA Manager have never quite been able to tap into, preferring gloss and gimmickry over depth and substance.
The flip side of that has been that in certain areas, Football Manager has often seemed a little too afraid of showing off some style, although that changed recently with the addition of a 3D match engine in 2009's edition, and that engine's refinement and the ability to 'shout' out tactics from the touchline in FM 2010. But such is the quality of the franchise that one of the largest criticisms - that which plagues all yearly sports titles, is that there's arguably not necessarily enough to warrant forking out the money year in and year out.
Sports Interactive have tried to combat that this year with a host of little tweaks and new additions. First up: the unctious role of middlemen. The contract process is now a lot more gritty and realistic, largely thanks to the elevated role of agents in the game. There are a handful of varying agent personalities that you'll encounter, from friendly people-persons to Machiavellian penny pinchers. It makes the process of trying to keep your star players that little bit more difficult, injecting a realistic sense of the mercenary into contract dealings and rewarding smooth operators. Hired a temperamental yet skilful firebrand? You might well pay for it down the line.
They'll play hardball a lot more, there's a quicker tennis-rally of offers and counter offers, mind games and trickster ploys. Do something that they don't like and they'll try to smear your name in the press or ruffle some feathers in the dressing room. Some will try to aggressively pimp out their stars, others taking a more relaxed approach. It's a lot of fun.
Everything feels that little bit more interconnected - selling the lie, as it were. Advice from your backroom staff feeds smoothly into conversations with your squad, who'll raise concerns more, presenting issues and starting dialogues in a conversational manner. The advice of your coaching staff is highlighted, more often than not, purely for convenience, which you can of course choose to ignore. But, as per usual, it's in the little details where FM 2011 really shines.
There's more character involved here, making the game seem a lot less cold, with particular improvement when it comes to player and managerial personalities. Some players will surprise you with their tantrums and egos, demanding transfers after you've given asked them to pick up their game, or hustling for higher wages off of the back of one good game.
There's more variety in other areas of the game too. Take the training ground, for example, it hasn't been completely overhauled but rather expanded upon. There are fourteen new areas to train players, you can train your team to specialise and thrive in specific formations, honing players' individual skills to suit a more attacking style or a more cautious approach depending on your own preference. And, as always, there's detailed feedback on player preferences and styles: it's no good trying to get Cristiano Ronaldo to play a defensive game...it just won't work. Tweak it so you've got him spearheading counter-attacks though, and you're onto a winner. This goes hand in hand with more match feedback, more statistical analysis than ever before, but SI are still mindful of accessibility. They've managed to perfectly increased depth with a moderately user friendly interface.
This is especially true of the new Set Piece Creator, nicking the idea from last year's Championship Manager, but presenting it in a wholly user friendly fashion similar to the streamlined Tactics Creator we saw in FM 2010. Obviously you can go in and tweak every single individual player's instructions for a given situation, but the game's also surprisingly adept at producing a basic template from a few design choices.
It's still not perfect, mind. Sometimes the mask slips and, for all of the personality and character the new tweaks and enhancements brought in to remedy what's sometimes been a slightly austere experience for the newcomer and sell management rather than data manipulation, there are some clunky moments that break the spell. Press junkets are still repetitive, boring and mechanical. Team talks are still basically the same handful of throwaway lines and still have no real discernible feedback. For a game that seems so very pedantic at times, it's an area that seems kind of arbitrary.
The 3D match engine, although it's been updated with more traits, bells and whistles, still looks a little like someone ate a football match, partly digested it and then vomited it up again. It's functional, but pretty disappointing all the same. For a game that's been polished so much in other departments, the thrill of match day can seem a little like a damp squib. You're unlikely to be watching it very much, keeping an eye on the real-time stats, but it's still an area that could do with some serious improvement.
Football Manager 2011 doesn't break the mould, it doesn't need to just yet, but it does bring to the table an enhanced, more personable experience than in previous years. True, it's still quite firmly a niche game, there'll come a time soon when the series will need a new direction to prevent mere treading water and yes, the match engine is still ugly as sin, but you won't find a more engrossing, addictive, life-consuming football game than this one this Christmas. It's worth every penny, although it might not be worth your marriage/job/grades...but then again....
- Contract negotiations and meddling agents are brilliant
- More character and personality than ever before
- You'll be measuring your playing time in months
- Match engine could still be improved
- Press exchanges and team talks still largely cosmetic
- It will steal your life away
The Short Version: Even if you've already got FM2010 you should seriously consider investing in this year's title. It has more depth than ever but is by far the most approachable Football Manager to date. With its constant chatter, superb feedback and improved profiling, it's certainly the most 'human' game of the series to date and all the better for it. No, it's not perfect and it will need shaking up in the near future, but it's worth every penny, although it might not be worth your marriage/job/grades...but then again....