Fireworks. That's what you expect when EA wheel out a blockbuster sequel, especially one featuring a fully licensed cast of footballing superstars. So it's a little odd that FIFA Manager 07 has arrived with barely a whimper, let alone a bang. EA didn't even confirm the game was on the cards until a matter of weeks before its release. It's the equivalent of a boss not just informing his players who's in the team ten minutes before kick-off, but not telling them there's a match until the stadium's half full.
So what has EA got to hide?
The game itself is as solid as ever, offering a far less hardcore impression of football management than the likes of Football Manager. But there's not much new stuff to get excited about here, which is undoubtedly why EA hasn't trumpeted FIFA Man's release. The feature list has expanded to encompass pretty much every aspect all the game's rivals boast, and then some. And that's the problem with FIFA Manager - it's a competent utility player that's not quite world class in a specific position.
Even the trademark great presentation of EA's title is let down by a user interface that forces you to detour via other screens to interact with players or, say, access scouting reports flagged up in news items. This managerial 'jack of all trades' betrays its German development roots with an economic bent that enables you to take control of all the finances, stadium development and even your relationship with your wife in anal levels of detail. But if the thought of wasting your time giving your missus a present to boost your personal happiness, or organising fan days to avoid the displeasure of the punters, seem odd, wait till you encounter the Career Mode.
This bizarre option enables you to take direct control of a player, albeit with unresponsive commands that can turn Ronaldinho into Ronnie Whelan in your jabbing fingers. The whole thing is clearly an afterthought, especially when you consider the manual doesn't even list your Career Mode control keys. This strange feature is typical of the tangents on which the game will send you, diversions that seem to have very little to do with the business of football management.
When you've explored and rejected the Career Mode you can lose yourself in FIFA Man's formidable recesses. Once you've negotiated personal sponsorship deals with FIFA.com, you can while away some time searching for new coaches who have a quantified impact on training. Setting up feeder clubs, establishing youth camps, reading reports on junior tournaments and sending players on morale-building tours are also on your 'to do' list as you juggle the short- and long-term needs of your squad. It's just a pity that all your hard work can be undone by the baffling decisions of club directors - none of which carry their real names, which is an odd anomaly in the otherwise brilliantly licensed game. You have to wonder just how realistic it is for your chairman to inform you, on the eve of the 06/07 season, that Wayne Rooney is up for sale with an asking price of £126m. Very odd.
That said, the usual aspects of a classy boss sim are all present and largely correct. Matches are in 3D and mostly feel authentic, players have a strange habit of sliding in like loons. Games are dirty, punctuated by piles of free-kicks and frequent play-on gestures by a virtual ref you have to pity in the centre of these bloodbaths. A few minor gripes aside, such as the tendency for players to hit long balls and the rarity of solo efforts, games look tasty and are a welcome alternative to the Subutteo/tiddlywinks stylings of Champ Manager and Football Manager respectively. It's a pity the well-presented matches are let down by bugged replays that, even in the final release version of the game, show out of date replays. Talk about killing the atmosphere.
The matches do stand up in terms of your influence, however. As well as a repertoire of touchline shouts, yon can tinker with a passable, if not FM-beating, range of tactical tweaks to change the pattern of play. These tactics have a visible effect on the game, and, combined with team-talks and the ability to offer a match bonus, leave you feeling reasonably empowered to push your lads to perform better.
Once the action of the game is done you can review the team's efforts using the new Match Analysis Tool, which is remarkably similar to Championship Manager's ProZone device, though slightly better presented it has to be said. This tool gives you the chance to breakdown games to see exactly where individual players made key contributions to a match. A graphic shows failed passes, runs and other actions and can be used to inform tactical alterations in the lead up to your next game. The MAT feature is typical of a title that, for all it's too ambitious in scope, can be rightly proud of attention to detail that helps to create a largely convincing football universe. Clicking on players such as Lee Bowyer and El-Hadji Diouf reveal them to be scandal prone, crowds chant team-specific warblings of support and the official pictures of top players give the whole experience a ring of authenticity, especially at the glamour end of the game.
There's no disguising the fact FIFA Manager 07 is a pretty lightweight update of the previous outing. EA hasn't bigged up the game because it does very little more than the 06 version that was released over a year ago. Any new additions to the squad are at best sidelines to the main action of the game and at worse pointless diversions. Luckily the core experience will still provide a welcome, lighter, and more accessible alternative to the hardcore Old Firm of Football Manager and Champ Man.