With Championship Manager 2010 having sent a warning shot across Sports Interactive's bow, the pressure has been on for the legendary developer to deliver, a pressure exemplified by mutterings of discontent from certain quarters of the online community that last year's Football Manager 2009 didn't deliver quite the leap forward for which we'd all been hoping.
Over the past few years it's become increasingly clear that SI has been attempting to open the series to a broader audience, no easy feat considering the franchise's unparalleled depth and realism. First there were loading screen tips, then an increasingly honed advisor system. This year, the series introduces a complete navigational and visual overhaul that utilises a tabbed interface and cleaner screen layouts, which bear more than a passing resemblance to EA's FIFA Manager franchise.
First impressions are mixed. As your eyes scan the new visual style your mind churns, first rejecting the startlingly uncommon visual approach, then, just hours later, welcoming the overhaul as it begins proving its worth. Never before has it been this simple to navigate the game's myriad screens, which themselves are more pleasing on the eye.
Whether this redesign will help acclimatise newcomers more quickly is debateable, as under the shiny new chassis remains a game of brilliant though daunting depth. But to its credit, Sports Interactive hasn't stopped there, with the developer also injecting FM2010 with far greater levels of player feedback that will undoubtedly prove as useful to veterans as to Football Manager virgins.
Your backroom staff members now have an opinion on just about everything, from how certain players can raise their game to which coaches you should target to improve your coaching set-up. Pre and post match feedback has also been improved, notably the latter thanks to a solid new match analysis tool that enables you to analyse every kick, tackle, pass and shot that your team has performed during a match, then watch each instance in all its 3D real-time glory. While this tool may not be as advanced as CM2010's ProZone, it's a solid and welcome addition, and it's almost ironic that FM2010's match analysis tool would feel more at home in the more forgiving and accessible Championship Manager 2010 and ProZone more useful here.
As has become the annual tradition for the Football Manager franchise, this year's offering is again rammed with small polishes that help hone and refine the series' tried and tested template. A quality, easily customisable media page helps keep you abreast of football-related developments from across the globe, while setting up your team's tactics is a far more intuitive process than before thanks to a step-by-step tactics creator, though veterans may not find much need for it. Of greater use is the ability to define player roles more easily than in previous years. Stick a pair of central midfielders in front of your back four and you can order one to play as a holding midfielder and the other to adopt the role of a playmaker or box-to-box dynamo.
But it's not all good news, as several key weaknesses from the series' past remain unaddressed. Press conferences have received little attention, with your choice of answers as unsubtly tiered as ever, while team talks still feel throwaway. For a game that allows you to stamp your personality on so many aspects of football management it remains baffling that this series (along with the Championship Manager franchise) has failed to bring this level of personalisation into these departments.