As the drone of the vuvuzela fades from our consciousness and the pain of another abject English capitulation loosens its grip around our throttled pride, we come once again to that time of year where the FIFA bandwagon begins accelerating towards its annual release.
When Sports Interactive announced it was resetting the Football Manager Live servers and ostensibly re-starting the game from scratch, there was understandable uproar within some sections of the FML community. Why, after 15 months of commitment, should die-hard subscribers have to forfeit the majority of their hard work? Sports Interactive's answer was that the game had become overly imbalanced towards early birds with a half-decent knowledge of the Football Manager player database. Once top teams had hoarded the majority of the best players, they became almost impossible to catch.
With each passing year the Football Manager series raises the bar, every annual release proving more complex than its predecessor. The ability to micromanage every facet of your team has ultimately been the factor that's made the PC series so compelling. But such impressive depth also runs the risk of making handheld ports feel increasingly watered-down. So while Football Manager Handheld 2010 on iPhone and iPod Touch is undoubtedly an entertaining management experience, it's hard to escape the limitations of the format.
With the world's biggest football tournament approaching like a juggernaut, it's comforting to know that, in the likelihood our national team fails to hold aloft the trophy, we can always play out our World Cup fantasies with EA's inevitable pre-tournament footy release. We caught up with 2010 FIFA World Cup's line producer Simon Humber to find out all the details he couldn't tell us last month and to get our hands on all-but-finished PS3 and Xbox 360 code.
Over the past couple of months we've been banging on about how FIFA 10 is the undisputed king of footy games on PS3 and Xbox 360, how it's the most realistic and complete virtual rendition of the beautiful game your cash can buy. Pro Evo has remained the more forgiving, free-flowing choice for those with a penchant for pitch-long dribbles and 40-yard scorchers into the top corner, though the series' lack of innovation in recent years has been a concern. But that's the story on PS3 and 360. What we have on Wii is an almost complete role reversal for the two franchises.
After Championship Manager 2010 and Football Manager 2010's titanic clash for football management bragging rights, chances are you may have forgotten all about the third contestant in the annual genre superiority playoff. Traditionally, the FIFA Manager series is written off by many as an also-ran, but with the franchise having made steady progress over the past few years, such a dismissive attitude is tinged with myopia.
With Championship Manager 2010 having sent a warning shot across Sports Interactive's bow, the pressure has been on for the legendary developer to deliver, a pressure exemplified by mutterings of discontent from certain quarters of the online community that last year's Football Manager 2009 didn't deliver quite the leap forward for which we'd all been hoping.
With Championship Manager 2010 having laid down an impressive challenge to the Football Manager series, I've been keen to spend some hands-on time with the latest FM2010 pre-release code to see how it compares to its nearest rival. And luckily for me, I've had the opportunity to do just that.
Every year we ask ourselves the same question: will we finally witness a genuine two-horse race for the football management title? Historically, the answer has been a resounding no. But that changes this year, because in Championship Manager 2010 developer Beautiful Game Studios has created a game that has impressively rejuvenated the stuttering franchise. What's more, thanks to an array of new features and excellent refinements, CM2010 actually turns out to be a genuine and viable alternative to Sports Interactive's all-conquering Football Manager series.
With just days remaining before the big Premier League kick off, I've been given the opportunity to test the latest pre-release code of Championship Manager 2010 (formerly known as Championship Manager 2009). It's been almost two years since this traditionally annual series' last appearance - the hit and miss Championship Manager 2008 - but in a daring attempt to close the gap on Sports Interactive's all-dominant Football Manager franchise, developer Beautiful Game Studios has spent the last 20-odd months revamping CM with a number of high profile additions and innovations.
Transforming any star performer into a true champion can often come down to the minor details: tweaking, polishing and refining an existing set of skills to eke out that extra couple of per cent. It's a challenge that now faces EA Canada, the development team behind the current undisputed king of football simulations, the FIFA franchise. After FIFA 09 cemented the series' dominance over the increasingly identikit Pro Evolution Soccer, EA Canada finds itself faced with the unenviable task of improving its already excellent football formula.
With the footy season racing towards a climactic finale and the first shoots of spring poking out of the frosty soil like a puppy peeking through a letterbox, it won't be long before we're dusting off grandpa's old wooden tennis racket and golf clubs and heading out to thwack a few balls around (badly), then retreating home to nurse chapped hands and tennis elbow. This year, however, we're going to have a couple of home-based alternatives to choose from thanks to EA's Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10 and the publisher's first foray into the world of Henman Hill, Grand Slam Tennis. With both games employing MotionPlus for extra control, we could be in for the most realistic sporting experiences ever witnessed on Wii.
The deluge of downloadable content for Xbox 360 and PS3 continues unabated, and EA Canada is the latest to throw its hat into the arena with this add-on for FIFA 09. Ultimate Team is actually a rehash of the hit-and-miss Ultimate Team feature that debuted in UEFA Champions League 2006/2007, and is ostensibly a concoction of vanilla FIFA and a trading card game with a hint of Pro Evolution Soccer's Master League thrown in for good measure.
So what do we already know about Championship Manager 2009? Well, we know that for the first time in the series' history the game will feature a 3D match engine sporting 450 unique player animations (350 for goalkeepers) and player tendencies such as Ronaldo stepping over the ball 116 times before pretending he's stepped on a landmine. What else? How about the fact that most parts of the game have either been revamped or redesigned, such as the tactics screen that now features rotating info buttons, or the ability to set separate formations for attacking and defensive phases of play? There's also an all-new newspaper feature capable of generating 500,000 unique stories with the ability to filter the information that's of interest to you while discarding the guff you couldn't give a toss about.
After the disappointing Pro Evolution Soccer 2009 (360 and PS3) gave us a grazing kick to the ball bags, we've been hoping that the Wii translation would finally give us something to smile about, especially after last year's version proved to be the only genuinely innovative offering from the otherwise ailing series.
With all the excitement surrounding Football Manager 2009 and Championship Manager 09's shiny new 3D match engines, it's been easy to overlook the fact that one footy management series has had one for years. It's the often unfairly maligned FIFA Manager, which showed enough promise last year to suggest that the battle for the genre's top spot is no longer a two-horse race between Sports Interactive and Beautiful Game Studios.
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.
The Football Manager series enters yet another season, and this year, expectations are higher than ever. Strength in depth has been added with around 80 new features, hype has been spread in a promising pre-season and a new superstar performer - a 3D match engine - has transformed the look of the series. But has Football Manager 2009's squad of old and new had enough time to gel in order to create yet another championship-winning combination? [And why aren't there any Liverpool references in this intro? I was quite specific. - Ed]
So round one to FIFA then. A hard fought victory it may have been, but FIFA's superior player fluidity, robustness and buffed visuals gave it the edge in the single-player and local multiplayer department over its more rigid, aesthetically inferior rival. Time then for the return leg, only this time it's PES's Legends mode taking on FIFA's 10 vs. 10 online multiplayer.
We're offering 10,000 guaranteed spots on the beta test for the football MMO, Football Superstars, via entry in the exclusive Eurogamer Cup, a knockout competition with a GBP 3000 prize. You can read more about how to get on the beta here. Meanwhile, read on for our own hands-on impressions of the game.
First there was text commentary. Then a top-down 2D engine. Now, finally, after years of patient waiting, Football Manager's match engine is entering the third dimension on PC and Mac. Utilising motion capture footage borrowed from SEGA Japan's Virtua Striker, Football Manager 2009 is promising to deliver the visual realism that its stunningly detailed match engine so richly deserves.
Following on from last month's in-depth previews of the next-gen and Wii versions of FIFA 09, we were recently given hands-on time with the latest next-gen and PC code, the latter of which proved to be the surprise package of the afternoon.
As the shame of England's failure to qualify for Euro 2008 still tugs at the entrails of our eviscerated pride, EA readies itself to roll out the latest iteration of FIFA in the form of UEFA Euro 2008.
I know, I know, we say it every year, but that's only because it's true, so here goes: Sports Interactive's Football Manager series is the definitive football management experience there is. No other management series comes close to matching its sheer depth, exhaustive attention to detail and impressive levels of realism.
Just imagine... You've just spent the last six hours attached to your PC, navigating your team to the summit of the Premier League in the latest release of Football Manager. The championship is finely balanced, glory awaits and your team's fans, starved of success for a generation, wait in breathless anticipation to see if their underachieving team can finally bring joy to their otherwise soul destroying lives.