Version tested: PC
Back in the days before the games industry became the unceasing, year-long money-making juggernaut it is now and when Sports Interactive's football management games still went by the name Championship Manager, the series' yearly releases would vary between major full-price products that signified leaps forward for the series (Championship Manager 3, Championship Manager 4) and reduced-price offerings full of tweaks and data updates (Championship Manager: Season 02&03, etc.). Of course, that was a long time ago.
One of the complaints many Football Manager fans have these days is that they simply can't justify paying full price for each yearly FM release. After all, many of them argue, new match engines aside, each new version can't be all that much more evolved than the last, right? Well, usually that would be a valid argument. But this year, things are a little different.
When it comes to ground-breaking new features, Football Manager 2011 is unlikely to have your ticker skipping like a three year old with a lollipop shaped like a bear. But thanks to a truckload of intelligent tweaks and a generous shovelful of innovative and well-integrated additions, it turns out that this year's FM is the deepest, most complete and cohesive offering Sports Interactive has produced for some years.
Whether it's the added slickness and detail of the 3D match engine, the exponentially more realistic and flexible player, press and board interactions, or the added tactical depth, married to a new-found accessibility that partially succeeds in opening the experience up to newcomers and AWOL fans intimidated by the franchise's complexity – Football Manager 2011 is worthy of your attention.
Let's not get too carried away just yet, because Football Manager isn't perfect. With such magnitude come the now-obligatory irks and inconsistencies, though thankfully there are fewer than in some previous years. There are times when some of the features contradict each other, and moments when little glitches leap out at you. Navigation is also a slight problem, with some key features hard to locate. But these issues are rarely terminal and are more than made up for by the game's staggering depth and impressive cohesion.
Perhaps FM 2011's most noteworthy and intriguing new feature is the increased ability to communicate with players, the press, agents and your board. Through a series of conversation topics and options, you can generate entire conversations on subjects such as areas of improvement, praise or admonishment for attitude or performance, pleas for extra funds and tapping up players.
The way these new features seamlessly meld with the game's existing mechanics makes them particularly impressive. Advice from your back room staff on how a player can improve seamlessly transitions into conversations with said squad member. Your staff member's recommended approach is even highlighted for your convenience. Of course, you can choose to follow or ignore each piece of advice. After all, you're the one who lives and dies by their decisions.
Agents now play hardball as you hold face-to-face talks, while players provide more detailed reasons for rejecting deals than ever before, even taking their representative's feelings into consideration, like their need for a second harp-shaped swimming pool in their Hawaiian villa. Try to force a player out of your club against their will and they may launch a hate campaign against you, either in the press or in the dressing room.
Never before have the personal wants and feelings of players and agents played such a prominent role, nor has the feedback regarding their feelings been so pronounced. Throw in improved press interactions, and you've got yourself an experience that requires you to think more carefully than ever about every decision and manoeuvre. You can even forge friendships, or launch character assassinations against other managers.
These enhanced communication features are a great first step to bringing the world of Football Manager to life in an interesting new way. Sports Interactive's next challenge will be to build on this by taking FM 2011's often generic player responses and colouring them with the real-life personalities of each player – as well as providing more detailed information about their disposition, character and motivations to enable you to fully understand the best way of dealing with each personality.
Amongst FM2011's other new features is a revamped training system. While this isn't a stand-out, it does provide a little more control over the disciplines your players spend their time practising. More noteworthy is the added control you have over match preparation. You can train players to specialise in unique formations for each encounter and concentrate on honing attacking, defending or how your team blends together, with detailed info displaying how comfortable players are with each tactic. Meanwhile, the enhanced post-match feedback furnishes you with more info than ever before regarding who's playing well, who's failing and, more importantly, why.
After the success of Championship Manager 2010's set-piece creator last year, it's positive to see a similar feature debuting here. However, rather than a system that lets you create bespoke moves that often don't materialise in matches, FM 2011's intuitive set-piece creator allows you to set up offensive and defensive set-piece instructions for corners, free-kicks and throw-ins, giving you far more control and flexibility over a wider range of situations.
The 3D match has also made some noteworthy strides, despite a few lingering animation problems. Goalkeepers in particular are far more realistic, moving with an agility more closely associated with professional net-minders than sacks of potatoes with rigor mortis. The sheer amount of information during games is immense, making this the most complete match day experience to date, with tactical and player feedback particularly impressive. Even if you're just watching key highlights, you always feel impressively informed about how a match is unfolding.
Football Manager 2011 is a behemoth of a game, one which makes a concerted (if not always 100 per cent successful) effort to make itself more accessible in spite of its increased depth and complexity. Many of its new features are cleverly integrated into the existing mechanics, while the value of others, such as the Dynamic League Reputation, will only become apparent from more extended playing time than this review allows.
The sum of FM 2011's parts is the most organic but more importantly, most believable man- and team-management experience the series has provided. Don't be expecting perfection, because you won't find it – but even if you own last year's version you should seriously consider investing in this follow-up, a recommendation I certainly don't make every year. And if you've been holding off purchasing a Football Manager game for the last few years, then this is the year to get back in the game.
9 / 10