With Championship Manager 2010 having laid down an impressive challenge to the Football Manager series, I've been keen to spend some hands-on time with the latest FM2010 pre-release code to see how it compares to its nearest rival. And luckily for me, I've had the opportunity to do just that.
New features and tweaks abound. First off, there's been a complete visual revamp. When I first fired up the game I almost thought I'd loaded the wrong football management sim, with the new tabbed navigational system and multi-windowed presentation more akin to the FIFA Manager franchise than previous Football Manager offerings. Clearly, this cleaner, leaner presentation is meant to create a more user-friendly path through the game's myriad features and screens, but it was only after a couple of hours of trial and error that the new layout started to show its true worth.
After its hit-and-miss debut last year, the 3D match engine makes a return with a number of key enhancements. There are a hundred new animations, resulting in more believable player movements, though the action still appears to lack the level of visual detail and animation variety possessed by CM2010's debuting 3D action. Animated crowds fill the stadiums, with attendances seemingly reliant on match importance, while some decent weather effects help add variety. Perhaps the most noteworthy on-pitch improvement is goalkeeper animations, as net-minders now appear more mobile than Football Manager 2009's cumbersome keepers. The action, whether viewed in real time or as a set of highlights, proves as realistic as ever, once again displaying its dominance over its rivals.
One particularly praiseworthy addition is the ability to shout commands to your players from the touchline. Selecting your orders from a drop-down list, you can yell instructions such as retain possession, get the ball forward, pass into space and look for the overlap. These instructions stay active until you decide to cancel them and you can issue a number of orders at any one time. After some intense testing, this new on-the-fly tactical tool proves a real winner, with players visibly responding to my barked commands.
Backroom assistance is another area that's been improved, and you can now call meetings with your coaching staff to ascertain their opinions on any number of club-related topics. One coach may believe that your wing-back spends too much time cutting inside rather than hugging the touchline, and if you agree, you can simply click a single button to start training that player to be more disciplined. Some decent feedback then informs you of how well the player is adapting to your new orders. Your coaches can also recommend new scouts or coaches who they believe would benefit the club, and you can choose to either follow their recommendations or totally ignore them. It's a neat new touch that has the potential to exponentially boost the game's level of player feedback, which is never a bad thing for a game as complex as this.
One new feature that I'm reserving judgement on until I get my mitts on finished code is the new match tactics designer tool. This involves a series of steps that lead you through the creation of a bespoke tactic. On the one hand, it's likely to help newcomers get to grips with the complexities and intricacies of creating detailed match strategies, yet there's also a lingering suspicion that veteran users may find the whole process a tad patronising. New tactics are created by choosing a formation and playing philosophy (very rigid, rigid, balanced, fluid and very fluid), then defining player roles (wing-back or full-back, target man or poacher), duties (support, attack, defend), the level of creative freedom and how much your players close down the opposition. Adding clarity to each option is a detailed description of what every role and selection entails, meaning you're never left wondering how your decisions will impact the on-pitch action.
Having spent a fair amount of time previewing and reviewing Championship Manager 2010 over the past few weeks, it's striking how threadbare FM2010's slider training options feel in comparison, while the limited set-piece instructions feel positively underwhelming compared to CM's excellent set-piece creator. However, Sports Interactive has certainly stepped up when it comes to news reports, with a dedicated news section offering you a wealth of football-related information from across the globe, ranging from key transfers to informative match-related snippets. Better still, some excellent filter features allow you to define exactly which stories you're sent and which ones are discarded.
In a clear bid to rival Championship Manager 2010's ProZone, Sports Interactive has created its very own match analysis tool. While it may lack the intricate feedback of its rival, FM2010's breakdown of each match is shaping up to be an invaluable tool when it comes to discerning where your players are succeeding and coming up short. By selecting any player, you can identify every header, tackle, pass, shot and cross that they performed in a game, and view each instance in all its real-time 3D glory.
Two slight disappointments are that little or no work seems to have been put into team talks and media interaction. The former still seems unclear when it comes to gauging how your comments affect your players, while the latter remains rather hit-and-miss. Once a press conference is called you're bombarded with questions, some of which are impressively probing, but it's your choice of answers that sometimes disappoints, often feeling like tiered and rather generic responses rather than the genuinely distinctive, even off-the-wall answers that a manager might offer.
With its fresh new look and several key additional features, coupled with an improved level of player feedback and further enhanced delegation tools, Football Manager 2010 is shaping up to be another quality addition to a franchise that is likely to continue its dominance over the football management genre. However, with Championship Manager 2010 making such impressive strides, it'll be interesting to see exactly how these two great rivals compare when we get our hands on the final FM2010 review code over the next couple of weeks.