Football Manager 2009
Another football season, another Football Manager. This year Sports Interactive have the added accolade of the recent data-sharing deal with Everton Football Club, showing that the game has the approval of the professionals. Rumour has it the Toffees will use information from the game for recruiting purposes. Make of that what you will, but there's no denying the size of the database - the number of individuals included is comparable to the population of Malta.
I must admit, it has been a while since I last immersed myself in the world of virtual football management; a brief spell on the Football Manager Live beta was my last effort. Given my lack of match practice, was I really ready to tackle the latest incarnation of Sports Interactive's tactical behemoth? I made myself a strong coffee before fetching my copy of A Beginners Guide to Excel, and inserted the game disc.
The big news this year is the game's shiny new 3D match engine, a feature that has been tested rigorously with some help from the recent Football Manager Live beta. The game engine was put through its paces on FM Live before the 3D aesthetics were lovingly bolted on. The classic 2D option is still available for those who can't cope with the multiple camera angles, but the 3D does add an extra element of realism. There's also a new TV mode, whereby you can view the match full screen. The match statistics can then be opened in windowed widgets that you can drag around the screen.
But hey, we can't go playing matches just yet, there's a whole load of pre-season to get through first. The game interface is largely familiar, with a few extra bits and bobs here and there. There's also a help box that pops up in the corner of the screen every time you try to do anything. It is informative, but you certainly deserve a prize if you can play the game for longer than ten minutes without turning the thing off. Think of the Microsoft Word paper clip character and you'll get the idea.
Veterans of the FM series will definitely be at an advantage when navigating through the screens as it's all too easy to get lost if you don't know what you're doing. Call it a side-effect of having such an open interface. If you decide to go exploring, you'll need to find your way back to the right page in order to make the game progress.
After selecting your team and setting up the game, you are thrown into the thick of it by having to respond to board expectations and press questions. The media involvement in the game has been tweaked and, more noticeably, increased. Questions fired at you from different newspapers and publications will tempt you into the infamous world of mind games adopted by our favourite managers in modern times. Indeed, it's not just your own team you'll be asked about, you'll be presented with a plethora of opportunities to comment on absolutely everything.
The pages displaying team squads and player profiles offer familiarity to those who are not new to FM. All the numbers and player attributes are there for you to spend weeks examining. Once you've finally picked your players and given your team talk it's on with the show and the 3D experience. Before beginning the game, I had decided I would not have time to witness all matches in glorious 3D. However, once I tried it I found the TV view rather addictive and found myself watching most of the action using the game's new engine. Yes, there are a few little glitches such as players standing when they should be running and running when they are still standing, but it generally works well. It's worth mentioning that the minor problems with the 3D matches are likely to cause managers ten times the frustration when their team is losing; so don't lose too often. All the same, it's fantastic when your midfielder curls one in from the edge of the box. The way the players look is also quite accurate in regard to their correct size, hair and skin tone.
The matches play as well as they ever have with all the fouls, penalties and last minute winners that you could hope for. Indeed, the team I was playing as (which I will not name) were frighteningly realistic, mimicking their real-life habit of losing matches in the dying minutes of every game (I'm sure no manager can do anything about that; it's not my fault). Never fear though, the assistant manager is here. Your assistant has lots of advice for you, prior and during every match. He'll tell you who to tackle hard on the opposing team, who is underperforming and when to put a new striker on. This is a vast improvement from FM08, where the assistant manager only arranged friendlies, offered to pick the team, made tea and stuff like that.
When it comes to deciding which of your players are for the chop there's even more excitement in store. The player-rating system has been expanded to include a decimal point, providing a far bigger scope than the 1-10 rating model. Okay, maybe it's not life-changing, but any alterations to the way the spreadsheets work is enormous news to those of us investing months of our lives in this.
The player transfer system in the game has apparently been reworked, which is possibly why it was relatively simple for me to ship out some unwanted squad members (there's absolutely no room for dead wood in my team). Speaking of transfers, I was unpleasantly surprised to see an offer for one of my midfielders accepted by the club chairman before I could refuse it. Apparently the board deemed the sale necessary to cover some of the club's debt. Oh well, I suppose we did ask for realistic gameplay.
All things considered FM 2009 delivers what players expect, along with one or two newly realistic moments that might afford them a smile. The 3D match view can be somewhat gawky, but it still carries enough benefit to warrant use. Also, a patch for the game is reportedly on the way and hopefully the next title in the series will have the 3D aspect perfected. If football management is your thing and you have a whole load of free time, you don't really need to look further than the new Football Manager.