Thursday, 21 January 2010

Game Review - Football Manager 2010

I hate West Ham. Virtual West Ham mind, not the real life club. They are my nemesis. Every time I’m drawn against them in a cup, I lose. If I play them in the league while on a good run of form, I lose. It’s maddening but I always say to myself, “next time, West Ham, next time.”

Football Manager 2010 fuels the fantasy that every football fan holds, that he/she is a motivational and tactical genius capable of winning trophies with any club, even Accrington Stanley. The romantic vision of prowling the touchline in a tracksuit whilst shouting at millionaires is alluring to almost every fan. Sports Interactive know this which is why they've even incorporated actual shouting into the game. Yes, SHOUTING. Sadly the shouts are not the same as the four letter curses I fling at my screen.

The latest version, FM2010, does have one major change that represents progress from the last incarnation – the new tactics screen. No longer do you have to fiddle with sliders in order to set just the right frequency of long balls, crosses or shots. Now you simply assign roles to your players. You choose a formation to suit; 4-4-2, 4-3-3, or 4-5-1 (if you’re some kind of beautiful game hating troglodyte.) Within that formation you select the role each player will take. Fullbacks, for example, can be assigned as purely defensive or attacking wingbacks that charge up and down the pitch. The new system then assigns the slider settings in the background so you don’t have to worry about number crunching in your tactic. The new system is a lot friendlier and encourages experimentation of your own rather than dashing off to certain Football Manager websites and hoping that a killer tactic has been posted which will do all the tedious slider work for you.

So the new tactics system is a winner, but what about the 3D match engine? The inclusion of 3D to the traditionally text based match engine was always a controversial topic amongst fans. This year’s iteration is an improvement on the ropey looking effort from last year. Players now have a wider variety of animations and the stadium has now been improved to include a crowd. The match engine still looks primitive but behind the 3D players is the same complex and rewarding simulation of matchday. And if you can't stand the 3D chaps then you can always go back to the old 2D engine with floating disc men.

The game provides a frankly ridiculous amount of statistics and numbers on almost every player on the entire planet. The research and care taken in accurately reproducing every league is obvious on each screen of endless, mind boggling statistics. Once you become a veteran player though, the information is rapidly consumed and processed via a mere glance. Before you reach that level of expertise there is a collection of backroom staff who can advise you on what tactics to use, who to buy, and how to train your squad. This is all very useful for new players and jaded veterans alike.

One major niggle I have with this new version is the new way in which news is presented to you. In an effort to scale back on the sheer amount of information given to the average manager there is a separate news page complete with filters. These filters are designed to reduce the amount of in game mail you receive and avoid filling your head with useless information on obscure events in the gameworld. It's a great idea in principle but it doesn't really work. The filter now hides a lot of information in its news section, including stories about your shortlisted transfer targets. This is news that should go straight to your inbox rather than on a different news page, buried under reams of less important info. Also, the game now seems to avoid informing you about job losses for other managers, maybe it doesn't want to demoralise you or have you worry for your own job safety, but I miss knowing when a manager of a major club has been shown the door (so I can then immediately jump into their shoes.)

Transfers are largely simple affairs of bidding and counterbidding but what does seem to have changed in this version is that players are a little more fickle about which clubs they'll play for. In my experience players don't always choose the most famous club or the one that offers the most money. Loans seem to have become an expensive habit now, I don't know if this is a real change in the actual football leagues but every club wants a cash sum up front before they'll lend you their inexperienced 18 year old striker or grizzled 35 year old goalkeeper. I've always thought loans were free deals where it was accepted that the club taking the loaned player would cover the wages. Not anymore it seems. This can make managing struggling lower division teams a struggle as you now have to scrape together the funds to afford the loan fee.

No other game is as adept at fashioning stories out of spreadsheets. Epic masterpieces are told via a collection of numbers and tables. Triumph, betrayal, friendship, incompetence, noble failure, mind games; they’re all there in the stats. This being the 21st Century Football Manager has attempted to sexify the stat lines with alluring features such as a 3D match engine, press conferences and flashy new skins. The attempted sexiness is unnecessary though; we play Football Manager for its intelligence and personality, not its looks.

Grumbles and niggles aside, FM2010 is still the same management sim that has built an empire. The game is still as accurate and enthralling as it has always been and the addiction can still take hold like an angry python. I've wasted so many days of my life on this game but the stories I could tell about European glory, last minute winners, and glorious defeats are all worth it. In fact I'm sure I can squeeze in a couple of games now. Excuse me...

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