Version tested: iPhone
With each passing year the Football Manager series raises the bar, every annual release proving more complex than its predecessor. The ability to micromanage every facet of your team has ultimately been the factor that's made the PC series so compelling. But such impressive depth also runs the risk of making handheld ports feel increasingly watered-down. So while Football Manager Handheld 2010 on iPhone and iPod Touch is undoubtedly an entertaining management experience, it's hard to escape the limitations of the format.
The first challenge the game faces is the size of the iPhone's screen. With the game's spreadsheet- and stat-heavy nature, attempting to make on-screen selections is definitely not the domain of stubby-fingered jabbing, making the acquisition of a stylus a necessity. Simple tasks such as team selections can turn into unnecessarily challenging and time-consuming chores, though to the game's credit, an icon-driven navigational system and an ability to scroll between screens with a flick of your finger alleviate the problem somewhat.
Developer Sports Interactive has managed to pack in an impressive feature set, such as the ability to manage any team from 34 leagues in 11 countries. Each player possesses comprehensive stats that can be viewed with a single touch, while training schedules can be defined and assigned to each position with consummate ease.
Two of Football Manager Handheld's greatest assets are its scouting and player search features. The latter is particularly impressive, allowing you to filter players with detailed, customisable searches. There's an impressively comprehensive player database on show containing around 20,000 players. However, perhaps best of all is the ability to clearly see at a glance which areas of the pitch a player is suited to, as this makes it easier to distinguish a versatile player from an inflexible one.
Transfer negotiations possess much of the political and economic wrangling we've come to know and love from the FM series. Agreeing a transfer fee is only the start, and you'll soon be receiving countless reasons why a player cannot or won't join your team. These include a club being reluctant to sell to a rival team or a player having no wish to join your cause, no matter how many truck loads of money you dump on their front porch. It's this level of detail that really brings transfer dealings to life and injects the game with some genuine personality.
Scouting is another solid feature. While scouts cannot be sent to individual countries to uncover the next big thing, they can be sent to regions such as Scandinavia, South America or Eastern Europe. Once you've sent out your spies they return with lists of potential targets and a brief overview of each player's abilities. The scout also compares each target to one of your squad members, enabling you to gauge their potential and worth far more easily than having to wade through and manually cross-reference a deluge of stats.
Other noteworthy features include player interactions and board confidence. While the former is rather basic (public or private praising or rebuking), the latter is satisfyingly detailed, clearly laying out your employer's thoughts on your progress. There's even an option to approach the board and request higher transfer or wage budgets, or ask for more time to mould your squad. Again, it's basic, but it's a nice touch.
Of course, the true test of any FM game is the quality of its tactical and match day options. For all the franchise's impressive depth, it's always been the incredible levels of control you have over on-field affairs that has ultimately defined the series. And it's here that Football Manager Handheld starts to betray its true limitations.
While most of the restrictions are admittedly down to the iPhone's technical shortcomings as a gaming platform, it's hard to escape the feeling that Football Manager Handheld could have given us more in the team and player tactics departments. Your limited strategic options include the ability to define your team's formation, line-up, mentality, passing and tackling styles and overarching tactical ethos, for example counter-attack, or getting men behind the ball. While such a basic breakdown may work well for a more casual audience, it just doesn't feel adequate for a game carrying the Football Manager emblem. Now I'm not suggesting I'm expecting anywhere near the level of depth of the PC version, but a few more tactical options and a little more control over individual player tactics could have made such a difference.
As it stands, it only takes a few matches to realise that other than substitutions, formation changes and a few broad strategic sweeps, there's little you can do to turn the tide of a match. You often feel more like an interested spectator than an all-powerful tactical puppet master.
Matches can be viewed either as commentary or via a combination of commentary and 2D highlights. While the 2D perspective offers a decent representation of the action both from a full pitch view or zoomed-in perspective, highlights often boil down to a series of short, unsatisfying snippets that reveal little or nothing about how your tactical choices are influencing the game. Rather than being shown passages of impressive play or seeing extensive build-ups before shots are unleashed, most 2D clips involve little more than a pass or short dribble, followed by a shot.
There are also a number of irritating bugs on show, with the action sometimes suddenly freezing mid-highlight or players embarking on strange, meandering runs to the byline, then either inexplicably standing still or running along the line without purpose or end product. So while the essence of FM's matches is present and correct, substance and realism are somewhat lacking.
Given the PC version's gargantuan scope, Sports Interactive should be commended for having a decent stab at transporting the series to such a limited format, with the game's slick presentation and fluid gameplay (you rarely have to suffer protracted waits while the game calculates results) worthy of particular praise. The game's watered-down nature is likely to appeal to those of a casual gaming disposition looking for a quick game on the commute to work - but if you're hoping to carry around the FM experience you know and love in your pocket, be prepared to be left feeling slightly underwhelmed.
7 / 10