It would be the easiest thing in the world for Sports Interactive to re-issue its footy management games every year with merely a data update and a few bug fixes. However mercenary that sounds, most of us wouldn't mind. At least you'd know what you were getting. Heck, the more cynical readers around here assume that's all the Islington-based team is doing anyway, but those closer to the project know that the changes and improvements never, ever stop rolling off the production line. It's become an obsession almost to match the compulsive nature of the game itself.
The issue isn't whether Football Manager is a good game or not anymore. Anyone who's lost literally years in Sports Interactive's life-sapping 'football RPG' series knows that no amount of FIFA Managers, LMA Managers or, ulp, Mickey Mouse Manager clones ever come close to approximating the depth and sense of immersion this lot routinely capture. It's a 9/10 game before you've even got it out of the shrink-wrapping, and whether you've given it a cursory 10, 20 or more hours, it's just tough - nigh on impossible in fact - to decide its true merits on the basis of a 'review's length' of time. Whether it deserves the elusive 10 out of 10 that the game ought to be getting is a subject that few can answer from the 'first impressions' of a debut season. This game that, after all, only reveals its charms, quirks and flaws after weeks and months of play, not hours. Let's be honest from the start - a review can only tell you so much about a game as oceanic as this, so cut us some slack on that basis.
What we can tell you, probably most helpfully, is what we made of the ton of new features and refinements ploughed into this year's version. First of all, it's important to stress that not all change is good. One of the mistakes SI has fallen into over the years is trying to sell each new version on the basis of so-called improvements. In assuming that more features makes for a better game, it has arguably made the game a fearsomely complex beast that's simply too daunting for the newcomer to fathom, and even a little confusing for the old hands making a comeback after a few seasons drying out their addiction.
Too many stats, too many options, and slightly superfluous layers of perceived realism have, at times, just cluttered up the experience and either never got used, or didn't seem to have a discernable effect. After a while, you begin to long for the days when it was slightly more stripped-down, and just let you get on with the business of worrying about tactics, picking the team and transfers. Of course, the vocal minority are the ones that scream for more of everything, and those are the people that have probably been listened to most. But how many ex-addicts have just quietly stopped playing it? Maybe more than you'd imagine.
As something of a tacit admission that it's becoming slightly too daunting for the newbie, the 2006 edition includes a comprehensive in-game tutorial for the first time. Hitting F1 at any time will allow you to find out what's happening on the screen, giving hints and tips in addition to the basic info. Shame it's not the 'FM For Dummies' that it might have been. Seriously, we're really dumb sometimes, and hope that next time a glossier step-by-step 'Introduction to...' guide that physically leads new players, returning players and experienced pros by example right from the start of the game would be ace, as opposed to the opt-in system on offer here. Not only would it help alleviate the initial sense of dumbstruck awe of having so many options and not quite knowing the significance of them, but it might help guide us into using bits of the game we might otherwise ignore. At it stands, coming back to Football Manager after a few years away is a bit like returning to the small town you grew up in, seeing the multiplex cinema, the gigantic shopping mall, the pedestrianised bits and the surly joint-smoking yoofs with their clever ring tones. It were all fields around here once, you know.
Dragging this review back into the realms of semi-sanity, here's an example: it's all very well introducing new training modules that give managers an even greater depth of control, and it sounds great to give managers the ability to deliver team talks at half and full-time, but what influence do they really have? Does playing Mind Games with rival managers help influence the result? Does giving your wantaway starlet a public rollicking in the local press really help or hinder the performance of your team? What's really makes your team tick? Is it the tactics you've chosen in the main, the backroom staff, or the myriad of little sliders? Do you tweak creative freedom? Marking style? What's best? Zonal or Man to Man marking? Should you go in hard in the tackle? You can't deny it's a tweaker's dream, but a lot of it will seem like a placebo effect that gives you the illusion of control. The fact is, when your 11 cloggers go out there on the pitch, pretty much anything can happen, and frequently does. Is that the beauty of football, or just a slightly random sequence of chance algorithms at work? Who the hell knows?
Hung in a bad place
To make it all seem like an utter lottery, the game crashed on us less than a month into the season, losing about six games (all of which were pretty convincing wins, incidentally) worth of data. Annoying, but not a huge problem. Replaying that chunk of the season, not only did I then manage to lose most of those fixtures, using the exact same teams, tactics and so on, but I lost confidence in whether what I was doing made any damned difference. And bizarrely, players which were having absolute blinders during this period suddenly turned into donkeys. What the hell?
Other odd things crept into the game, too. Resting most of my key first team players in a league cup match, I tripped up and lost 3-2 on penalties to a League Two side. Except the game then told us we'd won the match 2-0 on pens, and all that after we'd royally slagged the team off for being an 'embarrassment'. Obviously I'd been watching the wrong game or something. Bonkers.
Now, bugs are always commonplace is such a complicated piece of software, and seasoned SI followers take most of them with a pinch of salt. No amount of pre-release testing can pick up on every permutation, and the nature of infinite possible PC configurations makes it exponentially harder for the team to combat flaws. But still, how can you lose and game and not lose? A fairly easy thing to compute for a mature piece of software, no? Let's just hope it was an isolated incident. Imagine how annoyed you’d be if you'd won on pens then 'lost'.
Just call me boss
So, anyway. The things we like: Team Talks, media manipulation and player interactions - definitely high on the list of 'stuff we like doing'. For all three, multiple choice responses give you much more of a chance to shape what kind of manager you want to be, and it's consistently fun to be able to do so. To hell with whether it makes any difference, though; it makes us feel important and powerful, though it'd be fun for the game to report their reaction in terms of some sort of identifiable manager, team and media relations stat. At the moment, morale is too woolly a means of measuring how team members feel, because it encompasses an enormous number of factors that could be literally nothing to do with you or your managerial decisions. For example, it's enormously galling to see a player demand to leave, when - in real life- he's the type to stick it out with his mentor and manager, and possibly even his home town.
Slightly-less-interesting-but-nevertheless-important improvements include the revamped injury system, and general enhancements to training. Again, a multiple choice system prompts you with the option to rush players back to fitness with those dreaded pain-killing injections at the risk of injuring them further (but vital if you need them for a crucial cup final, or all-or-nothing relegation dogfight). Even some of the little tweaks, like being able to issue quick tactics from the touchline keep the game flowing where once it would have involved ducking out of the game altogether, and help make it a better all-round experience.
But many of the tweaks and changes won't necessarily become apparent for a while. For example, having ref profiles could easily be ignored for ages, until you realise that you could instruct your tough tackling midfielder to go in a little harder on a one-off basis, safe in the knowledge that Mr Softie will let you get away with it. It's one of those rare games where the investment of time really feels like it pays off, so bothering to check out height and weight of potential signings might just make all the difference. It is a little stat heavy for the sake of it, though. As good an idea as it is to constantly layer on new stats in theory, there comes a point when all you really want to know is whether or not a player is - or potentially could be - 'any good'. To an extent the game does this for you in terms of their average rating, and so on, but there's always a nagging sense that you're missing something by not paying close attention to every single stat. After a while you've got stats coming out of your face.
Where's (the) Wally?
As much as SI has tried (and to a great extent succeeded) in making the interface as slick, intuitive and easy to use as possible, we still found ourselves tripping up on occasion. Part of that is simply a lack of familiarity, and certainly we found things much more user-friendly after a few days of messing around, but there's still room for improvement. Drop down menus are all well and good when you know where to find something, but it can be horrendously frustrating to do even the simplest things to begin with. You'll feel a bit of an idiot once you realise where things are, and how easy they are to get to, but that's part of the problem: the knowledge that it must be around here somewhere.
You certainly can't knock all the little things added in, though. Being able to tell just by looking at the line-up that your player has picked up a niggling knock is great, and the variation in commentary during the instant replays is a great way of enhancing the immersion. Again, stuff like real-life player pictures, and customisable skins is nothing major, but things that add up to delivering something that's a little notch above the last release. It's hard to tell if the game's any quicker than before, but we certainly had no trouble running multiple leagues on a medium-specced PC, and the minimum requirements suggest that even ancient rigs won't have any issue. Nice work.
As before, a lot of the truly anal levels of detail (such as the control over the youth team, and coaching regimes) are all a bit unnecessary, but you can't really knock something that you don't have to get involved with. Possibly the best part of Football Manager's structure is the amount of automation it allows, letting you - to a large extent - get as involved as you want without too much in the way of penalty. But like we said, that nagging doubt of not knowing what happens if you don't take full control is something we've never been entirely comfortable with. But that's just us.
A proud addict
But what you really want to know at the end of this dissection is whether it's worth shelling out for all over again? Yes, if you want the best version of the best football management game ever made. It would be wrong to expect some kind of radical reinvention, and once again we're firmly in 'incremental update' territory. As with almost all annual game franchises, it's a game of spot the difference, and as many changes as SI can reel off, the differences really aren’t hugely significant. That said, and curious bugs aside (that doubtlessly will be patched over and over), the best just got better. Again. Abandon hope, all ye that enters here. Let's compare addictedness ratings by Christmas...