Version tested: PC
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.
As an example, take a look at the incredible diversity of each manager's approach to press conferences in the real world, with surly pensioner Ferguson glowering at the first sign of a challenging question, Rafa shoehorning the words, "We have confidence" into every sentence and Mourinho proclaiming himself to be divine. While the successful execution of this might be a design conundrum, if either SI or Beautiful Game Studios can crack it, they could potentially take the management genre to another level.
If we're being honest, FM2009's debuting 3D match engine was a bit of a letdown. After so many years of hankering for the series' unparalleled match realism to be complemented by lifelike player models and stadiums, the result was underwhelming. Thankfully, Sports Interactive has taken this criticism onboard as this year's match engine contains a number of key improvements and quality additions.
Around a hundred new player animations make for a more pleasing viewing experience, with games looking even more lifelike than ever before, though a smattering of bugs and glitches, most notably the action occasionally jamming for protracted periods, do slightly sully your enjoyment. Goalkeepers have been transformed from cumbersome to athletic, now leaping for shots with far more believability. At times, matches look so realistic you almost forget they're not the real thing, and while the animated crowds may look a little crude, they do at least add an extra layer of atmosphere to proceedings. And for any purists amongst you, fear not, the 2D match view remains an option.
Perhaps the most striking addition to the match action is the new touchline command system with which you can bellow orders at your players without ever exiting the pitch view. A simple drop-down menu allows you to quickly and easily tweak your strategy. Should you find your goal besieged you can order your men to sit deeper to deal with the threat, or if they're failing in the final third, make tweaks to your attack tactics that you can often see coming to fruition in-front of your eyes.
While Football Manager 2010 is certainly more stable and less bug-ridden than its processor, some problems are present, such as minor contradictions from your backroom staff or your players throwing their toys out of their designer prams unless they're lavished with praise on a regular basis. Let's hope the inevitable post-release patch will eradicate these minor foibles.
In many ways, FM2010 feels like the game FM2009 should have been. Its revamped navigational system is a triumph, while additions such as the match analysis tool and touchline orders are both welcome and adeptly executed. But as has been the case over recent years, you can't help but feel that once again the series has failed to introduce enough major gameplay shake-ups, a fact exacerbated by the impressive leaps made this year by Championship Manager 2010, which took the risk of attempting something new in the scouting, training and set-piece departments and for the most part, succeeded.
Make no mistake, Football Manager 2010 is the best football management game on the market by some stretch, a game of unrivalled realism, depth and longevity, and the most accessible FM game we've seen for many years. For these reasons it just about scrapes a 9, just like Championship Manager 2010 scraped an 8. If you held off buying FM2009 then I wholeheartedly recommend you go out and buy this. However, while the series remains top dog, the gap between it and its nearest rival is most certainly narrowing.
9 / 10