It's been a memorable year in the life of Jack Arnott, football manager. After an astonishing run of five promotions in seven seasons he brought Premier League football to Rivacre Park for the first time in Vauxhall Motors' history. He developed an innovative 4-3-2-1 formation that so suited some of his early signings they remained integral parts of the team throughout his tenure - including an Irish regen, Jimmy Burns, who never once fell below an average 7.3 rating in his combined wide target-man/set-piece specialist role. When Arnott resigned in a fit of pique midway through his second year in the top flight, frustrated by his squad's perennial unhappiness with the stature of the club and the failure of his record signing - a £23m Brazilian wonderkid plucked from Real Madrid's B-team - to produce any kind of form, there was not a man or woman in Ellesmore Port who would begrudge it being described as the end of an era.
I have never been to Ellesmere Port, or anywhere along the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal, for that matter. Yet, now, I feel strangely attached to the area. This is the magic of Football Manager. And I begin in this way not just for the sheer pleasure of sharing Football Manager stories, but also to serve as something of a disclaimer for what lies ahead. For a football fan, Football Manager enables you to create stories and knit together memorable experiences that are simply unparalleled in modern gaming. Regardless of new features, design changes, graphical overhauls and so on, this enduring quality should never be forgotten.
Still, as a product on an annual release cycle that asks players to shell out a not insignificant amount of money each year, even if all they really want is updated squads, the changes that are made must stand up to a certain amount of scrutiny. Particularly if they jeopardise the very thing that makes the game so special. Sadly this is the first edition in quite a few years where I fear this may be the case.
The first thing that strikes you when you load up Football Manager 15 is the attractive "new" user interface. I say "new" because the most significant part of it is that it restores the left-hand vertical navigation bar that was ditched, we thought permanently, in Football Manager 10. Why Sports Interactive have decided on this volte-face after five years is a bit of a mystery - your average Football Manager's screen size and resolution won't have changed greatly in that time, and the move smacks of difference for difference's sake. After all, it's much easier to sell an "improved" interface when it looks so starkly different.
Even if I did prefer the sidebar - which, as a Champ Man nostalgist, I admit does hold a certain misty-eyed appeal - its supposed purpose as a series of handy shortcuts is compromised somewhat by the illogical selection of menu items it offers. It's handy to switch between the tactics and scouting screens, sure, but why would I need my under-18 team or finances to be accessible in the same way? These inconsistencies in between what you feel should take one or two clicks and what actually does speaks either of a rushed job or flawed user testing, and while you can, eventually, flick between the key functions of the game faster than in previous versions, it seems a small benefit after the pain of having to freshly work out where everything is.
The design changes to the screens themselves, too, are a real mixed bag. Scouting - one aspect of the game which has a had a genuinely positive overhaul, with reports much more helpful and human - has enveloped Player Search to encourage you to do all your transfer business with the help of your staff, much more like the workings of a real-life club. But then on the other hand the Tactics and team selections screens, similarly incorporated, just feel broken to me, not working in the way I want or expect them to. Even after hours and hours of play over the last week I still struggle to pick my substitutes. Googling suggests a downloadable skin or fiddling with custom menu items might fix the problem - but why should this be necessary for something so basic?
Developer SI could well respond by saying that once I get my head around these changes, just like the navbar, I'll be able to use them more quickly and efficiently. But I shouldn't feel this level of resistance when I pick up a new Football Manager. Good design must involve a certain amount of fluency, and while FM shouldn't be held up to the standards of Adobe or Apple software, it should at least aspire to some of their basic tenets.
Moving away from the UI, the new feature that's probably been talked about most is the managerial style settings. This is in fact the basis of the game's tagline, "How will you manage?" (well, it's either that or they're wondering if people will cope with the new menus) and it sees you, for the first time, appearing as a member of coaching staff with attributes you define depending upon your imaginary approach to the game - Tracksuit or Tactical.
While I think the basic idea is a good one, the implementation, much like some of the aforementioned design choices, seems ill thought-out. Being asked to say how good you are at, say, defence coaching or maintaining a level of discipline is all well and good for PE teachers or office managers that play the game, but for the large majority of us its a completely arbitrary choice and one that either feels like cheating or simply like being presented with a problem that you don't understand why you have to solve.
Let me give you an example. I load up a new game to manage Weston-super-Mare. Weston-super-Mare have terrible coaching staff. When I create myself as a manager I can either say I'm an former international who's studied all his coaching badges - and unfairly soup up my coaching team. Or I can be honest, say I'm a Sunday League footballer (well, even that is stretching the truth) that has never even set foot on a FIFA-approved coaching pathway, and watch as my players squabble and fall out, affected by my poor mental attributes. Even putting aside that fact that it feels absurd to decide if I'm a 7 or 8 at motivating, its lose-lose.
This idea that you aren't, in fact, just a football nerd with some free time and a laptop, but are a character within the game just like a player, or director of football, or chairman, jars with the sense of identity that I feel has been maintained, game to game, since the series' inception. It reminded me of all the meta Abstergo nonsense in Assassins Creed. With an existing mechanic that people already find so immersive, why even risk spoiling the illusion?
Not only is this feature discordant, it's also yet another set of variables to worry about each time your team loses, or a player drops out of form. I felt some kind of balance had been struck in Football Manager 14 but now, again, it seems that there's no limit to the amount of ways SI want you to eventually be able to interact with the engine. In Football Manager 15 you can even give team talks mid-match, so each time you let a lead slip or suffer a shock result, you'll not only be worrying about your tactics, team selection, touchline shouts, opposition instructions and training routines - or even the existing three team talks you have to give - you'll be wondering if a 30th minute, aggressive "Just go out there and relax" might have swung things your way.
Talking of the match engine, being a pre-release version it's always difficult to know how much to say given that the patched full release will fix some of the problems I've encountered. Nevertheless, it feels like the incorporation of new player animations - still requiring some polish - might have unbalanced things again, something that would be a real shame after the progress made in Football Manager 14. If that is the case, then it does raise questions about SI's priorities.
So, we're left with a game whose main improvements are all disappointments. And yet I'd still I'd put money on me pouring hundreds of hours into it. That's Football Manager. I'm sure that once a few patches have been released and a few things have been tweaked I'll discover that magic again. I just expect it might be a little bit harder to find than last year.