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.