Version tested: PC
With all the excitement surrounding Football Manager 2009 and Championship Manager 09's shiny new 3D match engines, it's been easy to overlook the fact that one footy management series has had one for years. It's the often unfairly maligned FIFA Manager, which showed enough promise last year to suggest that the battle for the genre's top spot is no longer a two-horse race between Sports Interactive and Beautiful Game Studios.
While this year's 3D match engine hasn't made quite the same strides as FIFA Manager 08's, improvements are again evident, most notably in the form of a superbly unobtrusive and intuitive menu system, which lets you issue orders without ever leaving the action. 3D matches can be viewed either in their entirety (with each match lasting about 10 minutes) or via a set of match highlights. While the action lacks the sublime realism of Football Manager, games are eminently watchable and, at times, even thrilling. Players move the ball around intelligently while there's a discernible difference in the playing styles of a darting winger and an intelligent playmaker. Sadly, the treacle-like player movements that dampened the excitement in FIFA Manager 08 is again present here, as is a lack of animation variety that restricts the number of skills players can perform.
While the match engine may not stack up to Football Manager 2009's, the same can't be said for the rest of the game. Developer Bright Future has managed to cram an impressive array of options into its latest creation, and if you're looking for a club rather than a team management simulation, then this is the most comprehensive option out there. Despite the game's enormity, you rarely feel overawed thanks to some quality customisation options that let you to define your level of your day-to-day involvement, whether you're looking to be a player/manager/chief executive hybrid or just someone who picks the team and tactics.
There's an impressive number of licensed leagues (over 150), clubs (over 3,500) and real world players (29,000), with player stats adequately reflecting real-world attributes, though on-pitch likenesses are minimal. If you're looking to truly test your club-management credentials then you can even create your own team, replete with a custom-made stadium, club badge and an auto-generated squad of journeymen that you must somehow lead to glory.
One striking difference from last year is just how much cleaner and more accessible everything is. A drop-down menu and tabbed screens allow instant access to every management option. Newcomers are likely to struggle initially, but it only takes a few hours to become accustomed to where everything is and how it all works, with the game moving along at a decent clip despite its complexity. Player feedback has also been bolstered and it's now clearer how your decisions and press comments are influencing your squad, chairman and fans' opinions of you.
Another marked change can be found on the match tactics screen. Whether you prefer this new layout is going to be very much a matter of personal taste. While the process of issuing individual and player orders has been streamlined, the downside is a somewhat diminished level of control over defensive and offensive phase strategies. Training remains as intuitive as it ever has, with a selection of mental and physical skills available for your players to perfect, with regular feedback updates informing you of who is training well and who's being a lazy git.
Keeping tabs on your personal progress is made simple by an excellent summary page that informs you of where you're falling short and which areas you need to address e.g. staff, player communication etc., with a single click transporting you to the associated screen. Other decent feedback features include confidence bars that display how your players, board and supporters feel about you while newspaper reports provide results roundups and transfer gossip. In fact it's testament to FIFA Manager 09's excellent levels of feedback that you're rarely left in any doubt as to how your career is progressing or where you need to improve.
Transfer and contract negotiations are decent though lack the depth of Football Manager, and there are also some valuation discrepancies, especially for players in the final year of their contracts. The good news is that a youth transfer market has been added, allowing you to concentrate on nurturing young blood in order to lay a foundation for future success.
As well as managing your team and club, you must also juggle your personal life. You can choose to get married and even have kids, but opt to be a family man and you're going to have to find a work/life balance unless you want to come home to find your wife straddling the gardener and little Tommy injecting heroin between his toes. You can also take up golf to improve your relationship with board members or learn a new language if you're planning on jumping ship to a team in another country. These lifestyle elements, while admittedly simplistic, imbue FIFA Manager 09 with a distinct personality, adding a personal dimension to the slew of more hardcore management options.
One of the game's quirkier features is the ability to control a single player during 3D matches. This can either be an existing squad member or a new player you've created in your own image, or more likely, in the image of someone far fitter, wittier, more skilful and attractive than you. In truth, this is more of a novelty than a key selling point as the level of player control is incredibly limited compared to the likes of FIFA 09, though some fun can be had if you persevere, despite the relatively clumsy controls.
FIFA Manager 09 is undoubtedly the most comprehensive club management simulation money can buy. While the 3D engine fails to capture the ebb and flow of matches with Football Manager 2009's aplomb, and despite a few tactical shortcomings, it's an excellent alternative with an exhaustive feature set. Football Manager may still be the benchmark against which all others are judged, but if Championship Manager 09 can live up to its promise and if FIFA Manager can continue to show the improvement of the of the past two years, then 2009 could see the most closely-fought battle the football management genre has ever witnessed.
7 / 10