Version tested: PC
The Football Manager series enters yet another season, and this year, expectations are higher than ever. Strength in depth has been added with around 80 new features, hype has been spread in a promising pre-season and a new superstar performer - a 3D match engine - has transformed the look of the series. But has Football Manager 2009's squad of old and new had enough time to gel in order to create yet another championship-winning combination? [And why aren't there any Liverpool references in this intro? I was quite specific. - Ed]
Revolutionary leaps are always tricky transitions for any series. On one hand they bring about much-needed progress, on the other they throw up a number of new challenges. Cast your mind back to the release of Championship Manager 4, when the new 2D match engine was greeted with a mix of triumphant cheers and disgruntled groans caused by copious bugs that marred the new match-day experience. In many ways, Football Manager 2009 is just like its venerated predecessor.
Of the eighty-or-so new additions, by far the most groundbreaking is the 3D match engine, without a doubt the finest new feature any FM game has ever possessed. It's striking just how much added excitement and immersion the extra dimension provides, with matches transformed from entertaining tactical battles between top-down spheres to genuinely lifelike battles between human-looking players. Further heightening immersion is the full-screen depiction of the action, which can be viewed from several diverse camera angles. Thanks to some fairly lifelike animations, you almost feel as though you're watching a real game, with the action perfectly complemented by an array of optional match information widgets.
What was already the most realistic match engine around suddenly discovers a link you never realised was missing - player realism. While the match engine's visuals are clearly more Sensible Soccer than FIFA, seeing players tackle, dribble, pass, dive for headers and tussle for the ball is terrific. Watching a period of possession rounded off by an incisive through-ball and a sublime chip over the keeper will have you whooping and leaping like a toddler at Christmas. Other small yet welcome additions include correct hair and skin colour for each player and a stamina bar when a player is in possession.
The 3D match engine still has plenty of scope for improvement, though the quality of this first attempt certainly shows promise for the future. But while the added dimension adds immersion, the 3D engine is also riddled with bugbears and lacks polish. Goalkeepers are particularly suspect, often failing to dive for shots and resembling a sack of spuds when they do. In the main they only seem to pull off impressive saves if the ball is fired straight at them, often preferring to run after shots rather than leap for them, while diving seems virtually redundant when facing penalties.
The 3D match engine also suffers from copious other niggling issues, such as players sometimes taking over half a minute to take a throw-in or goal-kick, with the action appearing to stick for a short period of time. Injuries are another problem. There are simply too many of them and it's often your star players that get knackered for months on end. Thirty- or forty-yard shorts also seem rather too commonplace. Other irritants include no visible crowds in the stand (though you can hear supporters cheering and singing), while players and the ball freely pass through advertising boards. Of course if you're a Football Manager purist, you can always revert to the 2D or commentary-only perspective if you wish, but that doesn't so much rectify the problems as mask them.
Unlike Football Manager 2008, where many of the new features didn't feel as though they substantially impacted on the way you played or viewed the game, Football Manager 2009's additions do genuinely enrich your management experience. If you're a newcomer, you can now rely on your assistant manager to provide pointers as to where you're going wrong, as he'll give you feedback on player performances and the effectiveness of your tactics.
More seasoned players will be pleased to know that press conferences have been added this year, with media sessions before and after games, as well as at key stages of the season. Press conferences help provide an extra layer of immersion and realism, despite some questions tending to be repeated and your selection of answers lacking charisma. You really feel as though you can use the media to send out messages to your squad, whether it's praising a player or admonishing your team for a gutless performance. You can even storm out of a session, or ask your assistant manager to take your place, though you risk them saying something that could compromise your team's morale. Transfer rumours also raise a smile, particularly when a hack starts grilling you about a player you've never even considered buying, while transfer negotiations feel more flexible and satisfying. The ability to teach your players new special skills is another welcome addition. Just don't expect that up and coming midfielder to turn into Maradona overnight.
Clearly, there's plenty to be excited about, but your fervour will be compromised somewhat by another smattering of glitches and shortfalls. You start to notice them as early as the profile creation screen, with anything but the faintest of key strokes resulting in letter repetition. The new manager of Liverpool FC was very nearly MMaaarrttiinn Koorddaa. Try getting that into a pithy headline! Other teams' transfer dealings seem a little erratic at times, while ordering your players to interchange positions can wreak havoc, as they sometimes appear to make bizarre switches you never sanctioned. The press also gets a little confused on certain issues, such as asking whether a youth player who's never even made the bench will be back in the team for a key game after recovering from injury. On a lesser note, navigation isn't the most intuitive (especially for newbs), there's little or no time to read loading tips if you possess a more powerful computer, and team talk options still feel underdeveloped and unclear.
All of which means Football Manager 2009 is a mixture of good and bad. On one hand it's the finest, most complete and visually fulfilling game the series has ever enjoyed, but on the other it contains so many niggles you'll feel irritated almost as often as you feel elated. The good news is that a patch has been promised soon after release, but in the meantime we have no choice but to mark it down accordingly. Strip away the hiccups and this is a must-have game, with the added excitement provided by the 3D match engine worthy of the entrance fee alone. And while it may not be quite the finished article, Football Manager 2009 still has more than enough quality and strength in depth to be considered championship-winning material.
8 / 10