It's been a long wait. A looooong wait. We could be talking about a number of things at this point; the summer football drought, Norwich City's unjust nine year exile from the Premiership, or the chance to play Sports Interactive's latest footballing creation. In all cases the wait is over. While all of the above are cause for shirt over the head scenes of mass celebration (except for Ipswich fans), from the perspective of most women anything involving football, real or imagined, is most definitely a bad thing. Missing persons' reports will be filed, celibacy declarations signed, strops thrown. We're not going to see daylight for months.
Much to our delight and with a guilty sense of doom of the long nights and inevitable fights to come, we had a chance earlier this week to sit down with Sports Interactive's irrepressible managing director Miles Jacobson, admire the collection of cuddly toys adorning his office, and generally chew the fat about how Football Manager is shaping up as the Islington-based company approaches the last few months of development before its December launch.
From the makers of...
Building on the phenomenon that is Championship Manager isn't going to be easy. Jacobson freely admits that the audience will take a fair bit of re-educating. Indeed the ad creative posted up on his office window reveals the thinking behind their forthcoming campaign, which leaves the audience in no doubt what the creators of Football Manager did before!
Taking us through some of the enhancements of the new game barely even scratches the surface of what there is to experience in Football Manager. Needless to say, the instant impression is that the team has gone all out once again to effectively fill in any gaps in what has gone before while maintaining a level of clean simplicity in the interface so as to not scare off the more casual player.
Without question, the whole game could collapse under the weight of its own feature set were it not for the intuitive interface. Comparisons with Operating Systems are inevitable - because to all intents and purposes Football Manager is modelling on one (Jacobson acknowledges, "Football Manager is like the leap from Windows 98 to XP,") and as a result SI can now hide incredible layers of complexity with what, to the end user, looks clean and refined.
It sounds like a bizarre thing to talk about in the context of a game, but even the change of font makes a difference, making it feel cleaner and uncluttered. Everything in the front end is logically positioned, and picking it up for the first time was a breeze, with every conceivable task seemingly available within one or two button presses, and any question you might have, any filter you might want to set up, is exactly where you think it should be. It's as intuitive as it could be, but hiding so much background information it's almost scary to see how far they've come in a relatively short space of time.
Chairman of the bored
Once we'd had a general mess around, one of the first really noticeable enhancements became apparent - the amount of detail added to the board, player and media involvement. Previously, the game might report that the board were satisfied with your performance and give some rough expectations, but now the real club personnel address you very much how you'd expect in real life, kicking off with a message from the club's real-life chairman. Throughout the game, via the emails or newspaper reports, you're constantly given feedback of what the club expects from you, how the fans and players feel about your actions, and even what other managers' reactions are.
Regularly, the game pipes up with interview opportunities. In our experiences with Norwich City, The Observer approached with the loaded question of our inevitable relegation, which you're given around seven different responses ranging from barbed annoyance, to consummate diplomacy. Whatever your response, though, you have to be mindful that your squad is hanging on your every word, and may be affected positively or negatively. Shooting your mouth off may well be your style, but you have to be consistent, Jacobson advises, as confusing your squad could be the worst possible scenario.
Mind games, meanwhile, crop up just as they do in real life, and - as you'd expect - old red-faced Alex Ferguson piped up early in the season to slag off Norwich's chances against Man Utd. Happily you're given the chance to respond, and knowing his game, we elected publicly to declare our unwillingness to get involved in his mind games - to which our squad responded positively. On the other hand, getting another manager narked in advance of a big match could end up working both ways, depending on who you're up against. If he shirks an offensive remark, his response might well upset his own squad if they think he's not strong enough, or indeed, a fired up response could galvanise his troops for a big push against you.
Playing styles can accordingly be modified on the fly with five slide bars now included to enable you to tweak your attacking bent just so, or tackling, man marking style and so on - so maybe in that vital relegation battle you'll decide that the best bet is to up the tempo, tackle hard and play an attacking game. Go too far, though, and you might well end up in the ref's notebook. Discipline, naturally, plays a key part of any manager's lot, and FM gives you all manner of ways to kick a player into line. If they've had a shocker, or lost you the game by recklessly getting sent off you can drag them into line with a series of fines. You can even fine them two week's wages for no reason at all you feel like being a complete arse.
Another issue that managers have to deal with day after day is player injuries. A recent deal with PhysioRoom.com has resulted in much more realistic injury reports occurring, and consequently their recovery time. And, given that you've got a full roster of backroom staff you can hire and fire, the quality of your physio may well also have a distinct bearing on their recovery period. You're kept informed of your player's progress from injury, and have to use your judgement over when to bring them back. A player is no longer simply fit or unfit - the real-life grey area over when the right time is to bring them back into the squad will keep you on your toes throughout FM.
Again, more non match-day elements have been a massive overhaul - the transfer system is evidently an area that the average player spends a huge amount of time searching for the next Zidane or Beckham. With such an overwhelming number of teams and leagues (over 3,000 teams to manage in over 140 divisions from more than 40 countries, including all of the world's top leagues, we're told), a decent search system is paramount. If, for example, you want to a new English right back who has to have at least 15 skill points in tackling and pace, then you can set up your own filters that keep tabs on exactly what you're looking for - with the ability to further customize filters to determine which your 'active' ones are so that you don't end up deluged with news on every single one.
Contract and transfer negotiations are once again incredibly detailed and flexible affairs, with even the ability to demand a response the next day - making sure you're not caught out by the problems associated with looming transfer windows. But just like real life, players can be mystifying in their demands and closing a deal will involve arguably far more failure than success.
In terms of squad selection and so on, you could, if in a rush, simply leave the entire job up to your assistant once again - something Jacobson assures is decided entirely based on the AI of your assistant. Presumably you'll want the best assistant you can hire, but any pretensions of having Wenger as your No.2 were swiftly ruled out by Jacobson, who asserts that someone of Wenger's stature wouldn't join you no matter what. However, poaching a top League One manager might be a possibility, so you could, if you wanted to, leave the whole business of team affairs to someone else if you preferred not to get involved in that side of things.
Onto the actual Match Day itself, the overall look and feel is largely based on previous SI efforts, with the 2D match engine ostensibly the same as before, although there is the welcome option to go for a split pane to allow you to monitor whatever stats and watch the match at the same time. Interestingly, players will be able to mod the game to enable them to change the usual player blobs on the 2D match engine to a more Kick Off/Sensible style.
Meanwhile, SI has improved the commentary, again, making it even more detailed and radio-esque than ever, while goals can be replayed to allow you to study who provided the killer pass or made the defensive blunder. Licensed players in the game (leagues to be announced) will now come with their real-life picture attached to their profile - and as of today, SI has announced that gamers can enter their own picture to be included in a bank of made up players, who get introduced to the player database as others retire and young players get introduced. Imagine checking on a player's performance, clicking on their profile and realising that your mugshot's been used for that player.
Another neat although possibly superfluous addition is player videos, which those filthy money grabbing slimeballs, also known as agents, offer to you in an attempt to get you interested in their client. But as we all know, the magic of the highlights video can make practically anyone look good. Still, Jacobson felt that this was another one of those real-life factors that should be represented in the game.
A lot of this added detail and embellishment is all well and good for those with the time to take advantage of it, but, as ever, there's always a quicker way to play FM - and those on a time budget will be delighted to learn that all these extra features have not come at the usual "time for a cup of tea" price. Jacobson insists that speed improvements of around 40 per cent have been made since CM 03/04 arrived, and for anyone with lesser machines that insist on running multiple leagues that will come as a godsend. Playing it with just one active league on a fairly average P4 2.4GHz was incredibly quick, and if you're not the obsessive type that has to have everything switched on, FM has the right balance of detail, shortcuts and speed going for it to nullify the competition's claims of being the faster, more accessible pick up and play experience.
Perhaps the telling feature of FM is the addition of an 'addictedness' rating. Quite how much of a statto-obsessed loon you are will be reflected by that above all else. We could probably write a dictionary on the new features in FM, but for now that's your lot. Our three hour hands-on, as you'd expect, barely took us into the league season, and we'll have a hell of a task giving a definitive report on FM in time for its eventual release. For now, though, we're impressed with the fluidity of the whole package, we love the new features, and far from feeling like an old game with a few new tweaks, the additions make a big difference to the whole feeling of being a manager. Even at this unfinished stage it's going to be an exciting prospect for any long term CM fan looking to migrate with SI, with the added bonus of having a more streamlined interface that newcomers won't feel daunted about. Now for some real football action!
Football Manager will be released by Sega on PC in December.