You never quite know what to expect from the Football Manager series. One year you're eulogising about major advancements like the top down 2D engine, or more recently its 3D successor; the next you're forced to scour the game, piecing together myriad tweaks and small new additions. This year's version looks like it's going to sit somewhere in the middle.
If you're one of the hundreds of thousands of players who've spent countless nights fluctuating between household item defenestration and skipping around your living room with hands aloft after an extended FM session, you'll know just how deep and complex this simulation series is.
In recent years, many fans have complained that FM has become prohibitively inaccessible, despite the presence of advisors. With Football Manager 2011, this could be about to change thanks to some of the most comprehensive and informative player assistance features to date. A new series of clearly explained and unobtrusive hints and tips have been added that cover everything from the game's core concept to its more complex workings.
But while accessibility is all well and good, you're probably itching for a rundown of FM2011's new features. If you're looking for something revolutionary, it's likely you could be a little disappointed. But the good news is this is a game stuffed with sizzling nuggets of potential.
If there's one word that best sums up Football Manager 2011's strides this year, it's communication. I've already touched on the more welcoming nature of FM11's player guidance system, but in addition to this there's a revamped player and board interaction feature.
Talking to your staff and employers is now a much more personal and engaging affair. Speak to someone and you now find yourself faced with numerous conversation options. Saying one thing to a player then reading their reaction in the press is a thing of the past.
To ask a first team player to take rookies under their wing you must first choose the manner in which you make the proposal. That's where knowing your players comes into effect. If you're dealing with an over paid prima donna, appealing to their ego to convince them to take on an up-and-coming kid is likely to reap greater dividends than taking a baseball bat to their kneecaps and telling them to lump it.
Giving players instructions how to play is another option. You can order them to start dropping deep to receive the ball more often or dribble down the left wing on a regular basis. Suggest something that's totally out of kilter with their playing style and you could be in for a bust-up.
Similarly, you can converse with your board to request more funds or time, or suggest affiliations with feeder clubs. As with player interactions, it's how you sell your argument that can be key.
Once you've made your conversation choices, you're presented with a full (if admittedly slightly simplistic) breakdown of your entire discourse. Press conferences have also been polished, with a more interesting set of questions posed to you and a greater, less black and white variety of responses at your disposal.
Sticking with the communications theme, a new improved contract and transfer negotiating system has been put in place which enables you to negotiate directly with player agents. This strips away much of the protracted back and forthing that usually takes several days to conclude, instead replacing it with a one screen negotiation solution that lets you thrash out a deal right there and then.
You and the agent put in offer and counter offer until you either agree a deal or you storm out, whipping the greedy bastard around the face with a calculator while screaming something about avarice and starving babies in Somalia.
Again, it's not revolutionary, but as with the new board and player interaction features, it does seem to inject an added human element to what has previously been a sterile transfer and contract related experience.
Next up is FM2011's vaunted new training system, which as yet, is not entirely convincing. To me the new system looks very much like a slightly embellished version of the old one, with copious sliders determining how long players spend practicing certain disciplines.
While there does appear to be a better selection of position-specific options that enable you to more clearly define training schedules based on players' positions, there doesn't seem to be enough here to suggest it'll transform the way you approach this part of the game.
What does impress however is just how much the match engine seems to have been polished and improved since last year. Again, it's nothing revolutionary, but there's enough here to suggest it could be the best 3D match engine to date.
Perhaps this'll even be the year when 2D purists abandon the top down view, especially now you can create your own free kick and corner routines with the new set-piece creator - another feature with bags of potential.
Players appear to move with greater fluidity than last year (there's still some rigidity but it's getting there), turning with more lifelike shuffles, lurching for the ball when they lose control and even peeling away to celebrate when the net bulges.
Crowds and stadia have also been improved slightly. While spectators may look a little like cardboard cutouts bobbing on waves, their movements and context sensitive reactions do add atmosphere and believability to match days.
Goalkeepers also appear improved (there's still work to be done before release as they do display occasional moments of inexplicable stupidity), diving and moving with greater realism. They also make saves and come for crosses with more conviction and their bodies now contort as though their spines are made from bones rather than a plank.
It's clear that Sports Interactive has been busy iterating on its already hugely successful model and the results, although not immediately apparent, reveal themselves more and more with every hour of play. The tweaks and polishes look as though they could add up to an embellished, clearer, deeper and more rewarding experience than FM2010.
However, the burning question remains: will it be enough to warrant another outlay just 12 months after purchasing FM2010? It's likely to be a close call this year, but we'll find out soon enough.
Football Manager 2011 is coming to PC, PSP and Mac on 5th November.