After what's felt like the longest beta test in history, Sports Interactive's MMO management game finally kicks off in earnest this week. For the uninitiated, here's the deal: Football Manager Live is a simplified and more accessible online version of the Football Manager series. Much of the detailed micromanagement has been stripped out, and replaced with fun community features that aim to add momentum to the series' legendary addictive qualities. Oh, and there's a monthly subscription, which is paid in advance for three (GBP 22.99), six (GBP 43.99) or twelve (GBP 72.99) months as part of the purchase price from the Football Manager Live website.
One of the most striking differences between FM Live and the series to date is in how squads are formed and players purchased. Once you've signed up, submitted your team name and picked the kit that you think will make your players look imposing, you're given the opportunity to manually select a squad from a gargantuan pool of real-life players. As we've come to expect from Football Manager games, the selection is exhaustive, so if you're feeling a little overawed, you can have the game automatically pick a squad for you. However, there's a catch. A minuscule wage budget prevents you from stocking up on marquee superstars, meaning you'll start out with a bunch of grafters you've probably never heard of.
To bolster your squad, you're going to have to start wheeling and dealing. You do this via an auction system that's a bit like eBay. When a player is put up for sale, you and your fellow managers have a predefined time limit to lodge bids. When the deadline arrives, the highest bidder gets to stand next to the player while holding aloft the club's flag and waving vacantly at the cameras. Battling it out in the transfer market is surprisingly addictive, and you'll even find yourself logging on at 3am to check that no one has gazumped your bids. But the transfer list isn't the only way to bolster your squad. Any player not already signed to a team is subject to wage auctions: a 24-hour bidding period during which any manager can offer the player the weekly wage they deem appropriate (or necessary) to sign them.
Once your squad is ready, you can use an intuitive match-finding tool to track down an opponent. Depending on how many players are online (and how anal your match requirements are), this can take anything from two seconds to ten minutes. When an opponent has been found, you're given five minutes to submit your team sheet and tactics.
Diehard Football Manager fans may want to look away now. FM Live starts out as a pretty threadbare tactical experience, as you must first learn new skills to unlock tactical options. Want to use a playmaker and target man? Then you'll have to learn both skills by selecting them in the Skills menu, and waiting until they're unlocked.
Learning a new skill can take anywhere between twenty minutes and several days. You can choose to specialise in a specific skill category (Fast Learner, Club Doctor, Blackboard Manager, Tracksuit Manager, Talent Spotter or Strictly Business) or opt to become a jack-of-all-trades. While the need to unlock new tactical options and bonuses is initially more irritating than a scrotal rash in summer, this RPG-style system does slowly make a case for itself, adding depth and longevity while allowing newcomers to slowly learn the finer points of match-day tactics.
Once you and your opponent have finished setting up your teams, you get to watch a series of match highlights. Unlike Football Manager 2009, Football Manager Live doesn't use Sports Interactive's new 3D match engine, instead sticking to the more traditional 2D view. Again, this is a minor disappointment, but the truth is that this return to 2D does nothing to hinder matches, thanks to the engine's stunningly realistic depiction of football. Match highlights often strike the perfect balance between excitement and tension while always providing you with enough information to discern where your team is struggling, and what changes need to be made.
Each match typically lasts between ten and fifteen minutes, depending on which of the three match speeds you and your opponent agree to use. This means you can play several games in a very short space of time, allowing you to dip in and out of FM Live for a quick match, rather than having to spend hours endangering your marriage to play a single, protracted game.
Substitutions and tactical tweaks can be made at any time, although with only a limited number of Time Outs per team most of your tweaks will need to be made in real time. Thankfully a mini pitch view on the tactics screen lets you keep an eye on the action. Any enforced substitutions trigger an extra one-minute hiatus. There's a genuine sense that your tactical changes make a difference to the way your team plays, which can make for some thrilling cat-and-mouse matches if you're up against a tactically savvy opponent. You're free to converse with your opposite number during a match thanks to some decent chat options, though it seems most players' idea of banter consists of 'gg', 'gl' and 'wp'. Who said conversation was dead?
The irritation of the regular and severe player injuries that blighted Football Manager 2009 on its release, and which was so prominent during FM Live's beta phase, has thankfully been dealt with. If a squad member does pick up a knock, you're informed of how long their real-time recovery will be, ranging from an hour to a couple of days. Such speedy recuperation is possible thanks to the game's impressive pace, with each season lasting four weeks, three of which are spent taking part in competitions, and one acting as a pre-season.
Along with the numerous official league and cup competitions - some of which you're automatically entered into - you can also set up your own league or cup and invite your mates, or throw down a challenge to anyone on your server. Once a competition gets under way, each match is allocated a date by which it must be played, otherwise the most active manager gets to play the game against an AI opponent. This keeps the game moving at an excellent pace and makes for some thrilling contests. And if you don't succeed in one season, there's always another one just around the corner.
Achieve success in a competition and you're rewarded with cash and ranking points. The higher your rank, the more money you earn on a daily basis. Your successes are also rewarded with achievement badges, awarded to you when your team attains certain levels of excellence. Every time you're awarded a badge you're informed of how many other managers have earned it, enabling you to compare your prowess against your rivals. The sense of reward throughout the game is first class.
One of Sports Interactive's key aims with the development of Football Manager Live was to make the game accessible to newcomers yet still engrossing for existing FM fans. It's fairly successful, although FM Live does struggle at times to reconcile two such divergent audiences. The look of the game and its navigation system is typically FM, although menus and screens lack the sheen of Football Manager 2009 and often look overly text-heavy and unwelcoming. The stripped-down managerial options - there are no media bods to contend with and no board to appease - also suggest that FM Live may struggle in the longevity department, as the quick-fire seasons can result in a whiff of repetition. However, this is offset by the game's excellent pace, superb match realism and fiendishly addictive transfer options.
There's also a suspicion that casual players will struggle to compete with more committed FM Live enthusiasts, with those entering a server late or simply lacking enough time to play every day likely to miss out on the best players, who are quickly snapped up. None of these problems prevent FM Live from being highly engaging and addictive, they're just worth bearing in mind before shelling out GBP 72.99 for the game and a year's subscription. I'd recommend opting for the GBP 22.99 three-month option to start off with.
Football Manager Live has been worth the prolonged wait. Sports Interactive has massive experience in creating single-player management games, but this is the developer's first stab at an MMO - and for the most part, it's a genuine success. While it never quite scales the heady heights of the single-player games, it's still an experience that every Football Manager fan should try, while budding managers intimidated by the demands of Football Manager 2009 are likely to find this a much more enjoyable and accessible entry point to the world of management.
8 / 10