I'm assuming you've seen Aliens. No, not the small grey men with engorged craniums that suck you up into their ships, prod your erogenous zones then spit you back to earth like a globule of hacked up phlegm. No, I'm talking about the James Cameron sci-fi masterpiece in which large black monsters with engorged craniums chop up an elite marine taskforce in about two hours. I'm also going to assume you've seen Aliens: Special Edition (AKA Director's Cut). If not, go watch them, then come back when you're done and we'll pick things up from there.
Right, you're probably wondering what all this has to do with Football Manager 2008? Have SI infused their hardcore, tactical footy management franchise with a sci-fi alien blasting mini-game? Is James Cameron directing a Football Manager movie? Well, no, but fear not, as all will be revealed later on. Trust me...
If you've played it, you'll already know that last year's FM was yet another confident stride along the series' evolutionary path. Boasting some beefed up player interaction features, FM2007 made you feel more like a real manager than ever before, allowing you to tap up and destabilise the players you wanted and vent your spleen at opposition managers while contending with boardroom machinations.
So, moving on to this year's version. Boasting over 100 new features, FM2008 is without doubt the most comprehensive, entertaining and involving FM to date. Everywhere you look there are new tweaks complementing last year's additions. Natty new shortcuts make navigation easier, the skin looks slicker (though admittedly this is very much a matter of personal taste) and you can play around with your wage and transfer budgets to eke out those extra few pennies for that player you just have to have. Match day has also become a more involved affair, with some tactical features now moved to the front end.
Other new additions include uniquely generated faces for new players, more detailed reports on your progress and squad, and a decent if hardly groundbreaking revamp of international management that makes it more appealing, without ever coming close to matching the sheer depth of its club-based counterpart.
Many of the new features aren't instantly apparent and you'll find yourself stumbling across them almost without realising and using them as though they've always been part of the FM furniture. Tweaks of particular note include more convincing and satisfying transfer negotiations that now see you haggling over fees with far more chance of compromise, and pitch size and bonus alterations that affect tactics and player motivation.
As well as the new features, FM2008 also possesses the usual cornucopia of unrivalled management features and options. The incredibly lifelike match engine simulates games with breathtaking realism and you can now make tactical changes on the fly without pausing, by watching the action on a mini pitch situated on the tactics screen. However, you'll probably find yourself forgoing this option unless you're playing in real time. The player database is as humongous and impressive as ever, as is the selection of leagues to manage in. If you've never played FM before (admittedly unlikely) or if you've been AWOL from the series for a few seasons, then you really shouldn't hesitate to buy this game.
Of course if you're a fan of the series, you'll already know just how great and consistent FM games have proved over the years. What you're probably more interested in right now is whether FM2008 warrants you heading down to your local game emporium and handing over another thirty-odd quid to the sarky adolescent assistant behind the counter who looks like he's just had his face gnawed by a bear. So let's do away with the superlatives for a moment and get down to the burning questions. Is FM2008 worth another outlay and what has a James Cameron sci-fi movie got to do with a Football Manager review?
Thankfully, we can deal with both questions at once. You see, if FM2007 was Aliens (the pinnacle of its genre at the time of its release), then FM2008 is Aliens: Special Edition. Just like Cameron's extended vision added numerous tweaks to a masterful movie (and in turn made it that little bit better), it was still ostensibly the same film. Ultimately, you'd have to be a diehard film fanatic to fork out another umpteen quid for the sake of seeing the same film embellished with twenty minutes of extra footage and a handful of bonus features, despite the original's quality. In the same way, Football Manager 2008 feels very much like the same game with a few nice but hardly groundbreaking features embellishing the already excellent FM experience. The question you need to ask yourself is, are you willing to part with this much green for a game that fails to display any really serious innovations over its predecessor?
As you play FM2008, you almost start to feel as though the series could do with a revamp on the scale of the one we saw back in 2003 when Championship Manager 4's 2D match engine injected new life into the franchise. While FM2008 is better than Fm2007, its new feature set simply doesn't excite enough to seriously raise your pulse. After a few hours play, you'll find yourself wishing for some new, innovative features to tinker with, like decent team talks (which still feel very threadbare and tacked on) or real time training that uses the match engine, rather than the cumbersome and under whelming bar shifting mechanic that you're still lumbered with.
There are also a few niggles and glitches on show, such as a bug that sporadically prevents you from making any tactical changes during a match and some overdramatic descriptions on the new feedback pages (as Liverpool I drew 0-0 away to Portsmouth and was informed it was a result that the fans would take a long time to recover from). Admittedly, these aren't deal breakers, but they still stand out in an otherwise superbly polished product.
If you take FM2008 at face value, you're left standing eyeball to eyeball with the finest football management game ever made. But just like Aliens: Special Edition was fleetingly more engaging than the cinema release, this year's FM feels like a game that further polishes an already highly buffed formula but fails to take it to a genuinely higher level. It's still a winner, but it's a champion that's unlikely to be remembered with moist-eyed fondness for years to come.