Football Manager 2010
Bedroom managers rejoice, girlfriends mourn - a new Football Manager has arrived, no doubt ushering in a wave of broken relationships, neglected jobs and a general lack of hygiene. If there's a gaming franchise out there that can boast levels of addiction equivalent to Sports Interactive's management sim then I've not experienced it (and yes, I've played World of Warcraft). So strong is the risk of becoming socially isolated upon starting out on the long road to virtual footballing fame that each release is, on my part, met with a sense of apprehension at least equal to that of excitement.
This year is a little different from the norm however, with Championship Manager 2010 providing the kind of quality competition FM hasn't experienced since it went by that very title itself, it's important that this instalment reminds us why it has been considered the pinnacle of the genre for such an extended period. Well, the long and short of it is that FM 2010 does not disappoint, offering the same insane level of statistical detail whilst finding room to add some very welcome new features and refining existing ones.
For starters, last year's much touted, much anticipated and ultimately disappointing 3D match engine has undergone some major renovation work, transforming it into something genuinely impressive and entertaining. New animations galore create a much more fluid and realistic feel to watching the games and, combined with a much smoother frame-rate, largely removes the repetitious, recycled feel that last year's game suffered from after only a couple of matches. The visuals themselves have also been given a bit of a facelift and, while not quite comparable to FIFA 10 just yet, go along way to creating a more engaging experience.
It's such a relief that SI has taken big steps in improving the 3D matches; it creates an extra sense of familiarity and attachment to your players that you don't really get with the text alone. Of course, if you prefer to blast through your games at lightning speed, or the 3D thing doesn't interested you, the classic text-alone match option remains as does the top-down, coloured-dots on a pitch, 2D viewpoint - both of which are unchanged from years past.
Changed from years past however, are the options at your disposal for issuing tactical commands. The new 'touchline instructions' menu can be utilised during matches, allowing you to select from a list of preset, tactical commands and bark them at your team, removing the need to delve into the decidedly more complex realm of the tactics screen; removing yourself from the on-screen action in the process. If play is getting clogged up through the centre of the pitch, for example, simply instruct your team to play with greater width or, with 85 minutes on the clock and down by a goal, the ever delicate 'pump ball into box' strategy might just be the answer.
Perhaps FM 2010's biggest success, amidst all the vast amounts of data and depth on offer, is that it's a much more accessible and streamlined experienced than it has ever been. For new players, each and every screen has a selection of help text, detailing what data the page is showing, and how it's important to your role as club manager. Your backroom staff (assistant manager, coaches, physios, etc) are also much more helpful when it comes to planning tactics, setting training schedules and generally providing any useful information relating to your players health and happiness.
It's no exaggeration to say that this is the most user-friendly FM yet, and anyone who has previously steered clear of the series on the grounds that it's much too complex for its own good should rethink that perception. For returning players too, the tweaked menu layout and various new shortcut options should be received with open arms. The team tactics screen for example, gives you a whole range of shortcuts for defining each player's role within their overall position. Right-click on an attacking midfielder for example and you can define whether you want them to play as a supporting playmaker, a deep-laying forward or any number of other pre-defined roles.
The same applies to every other outfield position, full-backs can be set to play a purely defensive role or to bound up and down the wings Patrice Evra-style, and defensive midfielders can be instructed to sit deep and concentrate solely on disrupting any opposition attacks or to sneak up from the back become an extra playmaker in attacking situations. If you'd prefer to define each player's role on a more detailed, personalised level you still have the option of adjusting various sliders for each player that effect their passing style, attacking mentality and the like but, aside from only the most serious and 'purest' of players, the preset roles available provide more than enough choice and flexibility.
Still, despite the many improvements, there are a number of returning problems that rear their ugly head once more. In particular the interaction options between you as manager and virtually everyone else in the game are still nowhere near up to scratch, and seem to have been entirely overlooked in terms of refinement or change. Team talks, press conferences and individual player interactions (i.e. praising, disciplining or asking advice) don't seem to yield any worthwhile results and you'll mostly disregard those portions of the game almost entirely well before the end of your debut season. The only reason I select one of the mundane team talk options at all anymore is purely down to the fear that if I don't the game is going to penalise me somehow, but I'm still not convinced it has any impact on the teams performance.
There's also a problem with the sensitivity levels of a small number of players. Wayne Bridge, during a game playing as Manchester City, was unhappy for an entire season because he thought the team suffered from a serious discipline problem as a result of Micah Richards getting sent off in the first game of the season. His views would have been understandable if that was the fifth red card in ten games, but to declare yourself disgruntled for an entire season purely because of a single red card is somewhat unusual and does raise a few questions about just what is going on underneath the glossy veneer of the various game screens. I ended up selling Bridge by the way, he's Fulham's problem now.
No matter how you look at it though, FM 2010 is the finest football management sim available today. It's not without its problems but, in the long run, these are far outweighed by new features and gameplay refinements that further the level of immersion and help make you feel more like the gaffer than ever before. If you're a fan of football, or the previous games in this series of management games in general then you owe it to yourself to give it a shot.