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Football Manager 2010 Review [PC]

29 Oct 2009  by
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Confession time: I’ve been somewhat estranged from the Sports Interactive series of management titles. We’ve been apart for so long in fact, that the last one I played for any prolonged period was almost certainly Championship Manager 01/02 – released long before the split with Eidos and the loss of the “Championship Manager” name. Even the most half-hearted follower of management sims knows what happened after that. The re-christened Football Manager stayed top of the pile, while the Championship Manager brand drifted into a few difficult years in the wilderness. Oh yes, and FIFA Manager occasionally popped up on the sidelines looking pretty.

However, now seems like a great time to be re-exploring Sports Interactive’s work. Their 3D match engine is making its second appearance here, meaning there’s been ample time for any early issues to be ironed out and improvements made. There’s talk, too, of a new user interface – something which diehards will presumably have to get used to, but which returning players like myself can simply dive straight into. Finally, with Championship Manager 2010 showing some interesting touches and signs of life, there’s the hope that Sports Interactive will have shaken off any lingering complacency from a recent lack of competition and given their all to this latest incarnation.

It certainly seems as though some effort is being made to ease new players into the game with this release. A handy guidance feature is (optionally) available to give run-downs on the overall function of pages, or to help out with specifics like how to sign a new player or re-jig some tactics. The ‘backroom advice’ area, despite sounding like an uneasy meeting with the mafia, is another useful addition for managers who need a hand. In here, the assistant manager and coaches will offer their opinions on various matters – from who they feel should be taking corners for the team, to whether the opposition in the next fixture are likely to have a height advantage. It’s entirely up to the player how much of this advice he chooses to heed (or even look at), but as a quick guide to things which need immediate attention, it’s great to have. SI should be congratulated for trying to give new players a sporting chance of getting into the game.

Of course, there is still a fearsome amount of depth on offer here. Realistically, anybody approaching this game needs to at least have an understanding of the basic way in which football management titles have evolved over the last few years. Namely; towards information overload. As the data storage and number crunching abilities of PC processors have increased, so too have the amounts of data and statistics in management sims. As a result the genre has become increasingly self-contained, appealing predominantly to players already familiar with the mechanics of these titles. Looking at the sheer number of menus, stats, information and options available in FM 2010, you have to wonder if these games are now simply too far away from ever being accessible to the completely uninitiated.

That said, further efforts to streamline the experience have been made with the tactics interface, which now allows the quick creation of tactics in text-based footballing terminology (purists need not worry, ‘classic’ mode still exists too.) With the new system it’s possible to, for instance, directly assign a wide midfielder the role of an attacking winger, rather than having to move a bunch of sliders around to approximate that effect. Instead of fiddling about with individual positional details, you have the ability to simply assign an overall ‘rigid’ or ‘expressive’ philosophy to give your players the general idea. Now yes, it’s likely that these textual terms will simply be moving multiple sliders around underneath the surface, but it’s a positive step forwards. It provides a smoother level of access for players (new and old) who want to set up tactics with the everyday language they would use to describe the sport. Essentially, it seems to offer the best of both worlds – the chance to set up an overall tactic base, followed by some ‘advanced’ slider-tweaking in order to make the most of specific player skills.

In a broader sense, this option to use a more language-based interface marks an important step away from bare statistics and numerical values – something which the management genre has desperately needed. It’s true that numbers will always be controlling the action somewhere underneath the hood, but football management games are one of the few genres (alongside RPGs) to wear their statistics on their sleeves, and this has always felt totally at odds with how the sport is discussed in real life. Supporters have never watched their new signing dash about the pitch and remarked ‘he’s got pace of at least 18, that lad.’ {PAGE TITLE=Football Manager 2010 Review Page 2}

Speaking of watching the action, the 3D match engine is pretty solid. Graphically, it’s nothing to get excited about – but as a visual representation of tactics and player movement it does a good job. Fluid, realistic plays can be seen to develop, especially if the viewpoint is fixed to ‘elevated’ – which results in a kind of ‘middle tier of the Nou Camp’ vantage point. Most pleasing of all, in the multiple matches I watched my battling Harrogate Town side play there were very few ludicrous player decisions or immersion-breaking errors of the sort seen in Championship Manager 2010. Goalkeepers occasionally seem a little lazy about trying to stop close-range shots, and there also seemed to be a dubiously high frequency of shots which hit the post and bounce back onto the ‘keeper and then into the net. That aside, the action portrayed was pretty convincing, and it’s terrific to witness the ebb and flow of a game in driving rain on a total quagmire of a pitch. In one particular match, my side had taken a 2-0 lead only to concede a late goal. As I nervously ordered my team to try to keep possession, get defensive and play on the break, the highlights became ever more nerve-wracking as my defence dropped deeper and deeper, inviting the eager opposition forwards into a host of chances. We clung on. Barely.

The addition of Touchline Instructions makes it quick and simple to issue on-the-fly commands to the team in situations like the above. Specific tactics like ‘exploit the flanks’ or ‘take more risks’ are available from a drop-down menu of commands – and, assuming your players are skilled enough to follow your advice, will subsequently play out on the pitch. One problem the match engine does have, however, is that it will infrequently decide to pause the action, leaving players of both sides doing some jogging on the spot for a few seconds before it resumes. This is different to the pauses in action which occur between key highlights and can happen during a flowing move. Whether this is related to PC specs, it’s hard to say – it affected my game every ten matches or so, which is not exactly a major setback. Needless to say, with all this talk of the 3D engine, lovers of the 2D representation can still view their games in classic overhead fashion. A quick word too about the hilariously bad crowd representations, which look like fuzzy, flickering cardboard throwbacks to the era of mid-90s football titles.

Off the field, FM 2010 deals with the media side of football via a multi-response press conference system. While these are fun for a bit, it seems highly unlikely that anybody outside the most dedicated of roleplayers will select any of the obvious ‘bad’ response to questions. Selecting a reply along the lines of ‘No, I think my new signing is probably going to be terrible. In fact I hate him already, he stinks.’ is clearly only going to cause trouble. Once this realisation dawns, the press conferences become a bit of a bore – but one which has to be endured, as sending the assistant manager instead can lead to some foolish answers being given. Training too is a bit uninspiring, with a bunch of sliders (yep, them again) being used to dictate the time being spent on improving attacking, set-pieces and so on. Although as training can often be the most tedious part of a football management sim, it’s nice that FM 2010’s system is quick to deal with.

Inevitably, for such an in-depth piece of software, there are also a few lingering bugs. When trying to assign one of my fresh substitutes to the role of ‘inside forward’ during a match, the tactics screen got a little confused and defaulted to a list of roles available to defenders rather than wide midfielders. Elsewhere, opposition players sometimes disappeared completely from the ‘opposition instructions’ page – meaning it was temporarily impossible to issue any commands to ‘always close down’ or ‘tightly mark’ certain dangerous players. When the opposition players were present (clicking around a few screens would often bring them back), certain targeting commands would sometimes affect players beyond the one selected. The additional ‘tight marking’ (or whatever) instruction could subsequently be removed, but having to do so several times was a bit of a pain. There are also a few textual anomalies in match reports and news items, but frankly a football management game without these would be something of an anomaly in itself.

Overall, FM 2010 is an accomplished and responsive management sim. The user interface feels sensible, with almost every piece of information just a few clicks away. Due to the complexity of the title it can sometimes take some searching around to find exactly what you need, but once located it’s often possible to customise a screen or menu to always show that detail in future. The default white skin also gets a bit strenuous on the eyes, likely making the darker skin the preferred option for most. Whether there is enough on offer here that’s substantially different from FM2009 or even going back to ’08 or ’07, I’m unfortunately not really in a position to say. I do think that anybody completely new to football management would find the levels of information totally daunting; even with the welcome addition of text-based tactical options and backroom advice. For those familiar with the genre though, or for those completists who simply have to buy every single iteration of this series, the believable match engine and a myriad of other in-depth features should provide more than enough managerial satisfaction.

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