When Sports Interactive announced it was resetting the Football Manager Live servers and ostensibly re-starting the game from scratch, there was understandable uproar within some sections of the FML community. Why, after 15 months of commitment, should die-hard subscribers have to forfeit the majority of their hard work? Sports Interactive's answer was that the game had become overly imbalanced towards early birds with a half-decent knowledge of the Football Manager player database. Once top teams had hoarded the majority of the best players, they became almost impossible to catch.
The decision to reset the servers was a bold and highly risky one, with the game's loyal fan-base ultimately the ones who've been the most penalised. Clearly, Sports Interactive is hoping to welcome a new wave of subscribers buoyed by the reset's more level playing field. But with the reset in full swing and with the game having undergone numerous tweaks and changes since we first reviewed it in January 2009, is Football Manager Live still worth investing your precious time and money into - especially if you've just had 15 months of work wiped away?
If you're one of the many players who've dedicated themselves to FML over the past year, the good news is that Sports Interactive hasn't forgotten about you. But whether you'll consider their efforts to placate you enough to warrant your continued loyalty, well, that's something only you can decide.
Your short-lists, match-plans, club name, tactics and most importantly, Skill Points have all been retained. However, there's a catch. Your Skill Points can only be spent on a limited number of specialist skills, meaning your attributes will be considerably less impressive than you're used to. The upside is that Football Manager Live does now feel far more even and balanced, and as a result has become a more skill-based managerial challenge, despite a few lingering loopholes. The downside is that you've pretty much lost everything else you've worked for, including your budding youth academies and expensive stadium improvements.
What is surprising is the timing of the reset. With the recent announcement that the 3D match engine is on its way to FML, it seems odd that Sports Interactive hasn't waited a little while longer before resetting. For all of the new, improved balancing and the more even playing field, there's an underlying suspicion that more could have been done to keep the attention of loyal fans other than a change of price - you can now pay a monthly fee of £4.99 rather than paying a lump sum for several months' subscription - and a few carried-over Skill Points.
It's also surprising that no attempt has been made to overhaul the game's puzzlingly ugly and, at times, confusing layout. A streamlined interface and the introduction of the 3D engine could have at least encouraged more subscribers to hang around while also proving more attractive to newcomers. Compared to the streamlined, polished presentation of Football Manager 2010, FML almost has the appearance of a hardcore indie project. Even veteran fans of the single-player series coming to FML for the first time could find themselves fumbling around as they attempt to decipher confusing interfaces that lack adequate player guidance.
It would seem that many long-term players are split between the bile-spitting disillusioned and the stoic die-hards intent on rebuilding their empires. However, while the chagrin of many is understandable, truth be told, FML has certainly become a better game since its reboot.
Perhaps the most compelling factor is that with the reduced influence of star players, you now feel that your management skills are a far more important factor in achieving success. Thankfully, it's no longer possible to sign a team of superstars, leaving precious little talent for those who either arrive late or aren't as familiar with who the world's most talented players are outside of a Nike advert. Since the reboot, even the top teams appear to have a far more balanced mix between household names and those whose own households struggle to recognise them.
Whatever your personal thoughts about the reboot, FML remains a compelling and entertaining game in its own right, one that has certainly evolved since its launch. If you're coming to it for the first time, chances are you won't care about the reset. All you want to know is whether it warrants your time and subscription. So let's look at the game now and see what it offers to the budding online manager.
You start off by selecting a starting squad from a pre-selected pool of players. A stringent wage limit means you begin with a collection of journeymen, though your squad can be quickly added to via clever wheeling and dealing in the transfer market. You must also pick which football association you think is best suited to how often you'll be playing, to ensure you're competing against like-minded players.
Transfers remain one of Football Manager Live's most entertaining features. Players are put up for sale in an eBay-style auction with a minimum starting price. These auctions can last anything from a day to a week. Some players also have an 'Instant Buy' price, and if you're ready to meet the valuation, you can purchase the player right there and then.
There are numerous ways to improve your club, both on and off the field. Youth academies can be created all over the world in a bid to unearth new, cheap talent. There are different levels of academies, ranging from the lowly to the grandiose. While larger schools provide more graduates, they're also far more expensive to run. An academy's location is also key. Construct one in Brazil and the pool of talent you'll be fishing from is far larger than in most other countries. However, this is offset by greater competition as numerous other clubs also scout the beaches of Brazil for the next Pele or Kaka.
You can also pump your cash into stadium improvements. Capacity, maintenance and executive boxes can all be constructed to bolster income. However, as is the case with the youth set-up, Sports Interactive has done an admirable job of balancing this side of the game, as you must carefully weigh your team's on-pitch results and its past success against the rate of stadium expansion. Build too many new seats too soon and your home matches will be more akin to a group of hikers trapped in an underground cavern than a roaring wall of noise that acts as the twelfth man.
Football Manager Live possesses an impressive number of skills to learn, ranging from coaching talents to the ability to lessen player recovery times after injuries. There's an exhaustive list of sub-skills for each of six main skill categories. While the interface for choosing and queuing these abilities leaves a lot to be desired, the sheer number of them ensures you can mould your skill-set to the type of management style you prefer to employ.
One of the most striking differences between today's FML and its original launch is just how much more the game feels like a traditional MMO. Whereas in its early days it was overly reliant on human players competing against each other, there's now far more flexibility if you're looking to mix in solo challenges.
If you don't fancy playing against a real-life player or if there aren't any willing opponents around, you can undertake a series of increasingly taxing challenges against AI opposition. There's also more room to set up bespoke strategies for competitive games that take place while you're offline (fail to play a tournament game by a certain date and your team will play the game under the control of an AI manager). You can even define when you want to make substitutions and under what circumstances as well as when tactical changes are made.
The 2D matches remain as realistic as we've come to expect from a Football Manager game. Played out as a series of highlights and lasting somewhere between 10 and 15 minutes, you and your opponent can make tactical and player changes on the fly without ever seriously breaking the flow of the action. Compared to when the game launched, you now have far more tactical control over your team, while the tactics interface has been revamped and feels more powerful, striking an excellent middle ground between Football Manager's hardcore depth and intuitive accessibility.
Football Manager Live is certainly a game that's improved over the past 15 months. However, it feels like it's evolved at the steady pace befitting a solid MMO rather than leaping forward in any major way. FML is undoubtedly more entertaining and deeper than it was a year ago, but the overall lack of visual finesse, coupled with a general lack of polish and a few lingering balancing issues and bugs, can make the game look and feel less impressive than it actually is.
If you're new to FML, then I'd highly recommend trying the game out for a month, then assessing how much fun you're having on a month-by-month basis. At under a fiver, you have everything to gain and little to lose. But for those of you who've invested over a year of your life into FML only to have the rug pulled from under your feet, the idea of having to start almost from scratch might be just too much to bear.
As it stands, thanks to its continued evolution and improved post-reboot balancing, Football Manager Live still just about warrants an eight and your attention - though it's more than likely that if you're a veteran who's just lost out big time, you'll see it more as a seven, for the time being at least.
8 / 10
Since this re-review was written, Sports Interactive has informed us that Football Manager Live's 3D match engine is in the "advanced stages of testing" and will go live in the next major update, 1.6. It includes advances on FM10's match engine, including night matches based on your local time.