Thursday, January 8, 2009

Review: Football Manager 09

To help fill some of the down time before the season I'm going to add some reviews of soccer games, books, and movies. First up is this year's Football Manager release.

The Football Manager(FM) series is the continuation of the legendary Championship Manager series by SI Games. It is the most complete sports management simulation in the market today, with only Out Of The Park Baseball (Now also a SI Games property) approaching it. This is the 17th version of the game, dating back to 1992, and the series now includes a handheld version and a Live version played on-line. The series, for trademark and marketing reasons, is known as Worldwide Soccer Manager in the U.S. and is distributed by Sega.

In FM the player takes over as the manager of a soccer club. The current database includes over 5000 clubs from more than 50 countries. You can also take over any of the National Teams if you prefer to try your hand at international management. Every player currently on these clubs is included int eh database, with each player having around 20 visible stats and a number of ones only the system sees covering his ability to shoot, pass, tackle, lead, etc. Players can choose to manage teams at the top of the heap like Manchester United, all the way down to the semi-pro levels of football in the country, like Bishop's Stortford in England. For the U.S. only MLS teams are available, but all 14 of the 2008 MLS teams are int he database and it includes MLS specific rules like the SuperDraft and the Designated Player rule.

As manager you control everything on a day to day basis. From player acquisition and staff hirings to training schedules and tactics. On game day you set the lineup and tactical formation, watch the game, and decide when to make subs and change tactics. You also have the option to apply for other management positions. Tried of coaching Blackburn? Maybe Man City wants to hire you. (That's the Mark Hughes career strategy). Eventually when you get tired of your success (or nobody will hire you after you've been fired) you can retire into the Hall of Fame.

SI put in a number of improvements for the 2009 version of the game. First and foremost is the addition of a 3-D view for games. Prior to this the best representation of the game was a 2-D version of a pitch with the players moving on it. Even that was fairly recent as for most of the game's lifetime all players hat to work with was text commentary! The 3-D version is a nice bonus, but so far doesn't provide that much more than the 2-D version did. Right now its got some great animations but I'm not drawing that much more information from seeing play players in 3-D than I already was.

SI has also added a number of frills to the game that range from the helpful to the "eh, who cares" level. Added feedback in game from the Assistant Manager is great, as is the new TV View that stretches the game to take your whole screen while matches are being played. The added press conferences and board confidence is nice right away but probably not a huge change long-term. Press conferences in particular get old quickly. Adding the ability for your manager to be female is probably a nice touch for female players of the game, but has no real effect overall.

The biggest knock against this year's version is that the tactical engine has become much harder to figure out. I'm having a hard time translating what I want to happen into the settings that the game uses. Most of the tactical settings are controlled by slider bars. You can set your team Mentality from anywhere between Ultra-Defensive to All-Out Attack, your Passing Style from anywhere between Short and Long, etc. The interface doesn't make it clear how these sliders interact with each other, so when you think you're going Defensive if you don't change your player's Closing Down setting there's very little change in tactic. Its taken a good deal of testing just to get the basics worked out. SI needs to dial back the detail a little in next year's version.

Overall I think its a great game but I'm coming at it after having played the series off and on over the last 9 years and 4 different versions of the game. If you've played the series in the past I highly recommend upgrading to the new version. If you're new to the series I'd recommend it if you are willing to be patient and learn the game. If you just want to be able to jump into something I'd stay clear of this one. Either find an older version of the game (I upgraded from the 2006 version , which is more newbie-friendly) or try EA's FIFA Manager game, which is reportedly designed for a quick start.

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