First there was text commentary. Then a top-down 2D engine. Now, finally, after years of patient waiting, Football Manager's match engine is entering the third dimension on PC and Mac. Utilising motion capture footage borrowed from SEGA Japan's Virtua Striker, Football Manager 2009 is promising to deliver the visual realism that its stunningly detailed match engine so richly deserves.
The build that we see during the game's London launch party is still very much a work in progress, with just over 40 of the promised 100 player animations in place. The footage shows an isometric 3D viewpoint that encompasses the entire pitch, allowing for the easy monitoring of your team's performance (as with the 2D match engine). Purists will still be able to play FM09 entirely from the 2D match engine viewpoint, while developer Sports Interactive is also considering retaining the original text-only commentary option.
"We've been working on it [the 3D match engine] for about three years and we've had a couple of attempts that we abandoned," Sports Interactive MD Miles Jacobson reveals. "Late last year we were confident that we could do a 3D match engine properly. But even up until a couple of months ago we didn't know we were going to be delivering it this year."
Other new 3D match engine features include a time bar borrowed from Football Manager Live, allowing you to rewind the action. There'll also be a new TV-style view that provides full-screen options and a customisable selection of widgets such as player ratings.
While the action will be viewed from a fixed distance (zooming in and player cams won't feature) Jacobson promises that SI is attempting to cram as much detail as possible into the new match engine. "We're trying to make sure that each player will have the correct skin and hair colour," he says. "We have eighteen different skin tones to make it as accurate as possible. We're trying to get a really good level of detail right down to players raising their hands for offsides and animated referees and linesmen too."
Jacobson also says that players will have preferred moves to help distinguish a tricky step-over-loving winger from a towering central defensive bruiser. While preferred move animations will be generic rather than modelled on the playing style of each player's real-life counterpart, the scope for advancements of the 3D match engine over the coming years is clear to see.
As well as the revolutionary match engine, FM09 will also possess plenty of evolutionary features. Assistant managers will provide exhaustive feedback about how you and the opposition are playing, a feature that hardcore players will no doubt snort at, but one which could prove invaluable to newcomers.
"This [the assistant manager option] is something that has consistently come up when we've spoken to new users," explained Jacobson. "During a match your assistant manager will give you feedback in two specific areas: a player's motivation during a match and general feedback on whether your tactics are working, how the opposition is exploiting your tactics and what you can be doing to exploit their tactics."
Media interaction is also being revamped, with press conferences taking place before and after each match and when starting out at a new club. Press conferences will involve journalists firing questions at you, to which you'll respond from a selection of five replies. However, make too many unsubstantiated statements and those pesky journos will quickly and gleefully remind you of your predications should you fail to deliver on your promises. If it all gets too much, you'll even be able to throw a hissy fit and storm out.
Other new features that Jacobson reveals include the ability to ask your players to stay back after training to learn special moves, and bolstered board-confidence feedback that will keep you better informed of how you're progressing. All of the fifty-one countries' leagues are receiving an update with the player and staff database set to tip the 350,000 mark for the first time, while the transfer system is also being rewritten in the hope that the game's transfer activity will more realistically reflect what's happening in the real world.
Finally, good news for female fans as for the first time you'll no longer have to pretend to be a boy (unless you really want to), thanks to a new female manager option. Or should that be manageress?
Before finishing his presentation, Jacobson talks about FM09 on PSP, which will ship simultaneously with the PC and Mac versions. "For the PSP version you can now have multiple leagues," he reveals. "You start off with one country's leagues and you can then add up to three top-tiered European divisions on top, so you can move around your career just like you can in the PC game." The biggest reveal, however, is the announcement that FM09 on PSP will feature the 2D match engine, with the action viewable from both the full pitch and a more zoomed-in perspective. Sadly, SI has no plans to release FM09 on PS3 or Xbox 360, citing the need to improve the control interface before having another crack at a home console version.
With more reveals promised over the coming months via a series of podcasts and with a demo in the works (set for public release a few weeks before FM09 ships), there's more than a little to be getting excited about. After one too many years of evolutionary shuffles, it seems the Football Manager series could be about to take that all important revolutionary leap we've all been waiting for.
Football Manager 2009 is due out on PC, Mac and PSP on 14th November.