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It's time to take a week off work again - Sports Interactive's Football Manager is back in town...
- More refined match engine
- Streamlined new interface
- More tactical options
- Could've innovated more
- Some match engine bugs remain
- New interface won't suit everyone
Sports Interactive has done it again. The London based studio has been tinkering with Football Manager's interface for the second time in as many years. Last time this happened, in FM08, the sensation was something like going into your local supermarket only to find that the floor plan had been completely rearranged. This year, it's more like going to your usual place of work one morning to discover that the cubicle layout has been replaced by an open-plan office setup with empty spaces where racks of files used to be and a smiley faced young secretary in place of the withering old lady who looked like her next cigarette could be her last.
Football Manager's continual efforts to modernise have this time come at the expense of the game's navigational sidebar, which has been a staple of the series for decades, providing easy access to your team's squad interface, competition info, and manager options to name but a few. Navigating to these parts of the game is now catered for by tabs across the top of the interface, providing a setup that looks more like a Microsoft Office program than it does the FMs of old. Still, Sports Interactive has been gradually moving the interface in this direction for a few years now, so the transition is actually easier to get used to than you might initially think.
Joining these changes to the basic interface is an all-new setup for team tactics, which borrows from the Touchline Shouts feature of FM Live to produce a complete overhaul of the old tactics system. The new setup is confusing and frustrating at first - tactical sliders have been thrown out in favour of a team "philosophy" and "starting strategy", while the stalwart system of commanding player runs on the right mouse button is also a thing of the past. Replacing it is a system of micro-management for each player, which asks the manager whether their striker is a "complete forward" or "goal poacher", if their midfielder is of the "box to box" or "ball winning" archetypes, or whether a particular central defender should drop into cover while the other has the freedom to move forward.
Some of these man management options were possible in the old system (in some form at least), although it's worth acknowledging that the new tactics system brings a wealth of new options to the table as well. For those gamers who really can't stand the change though, there's always the option to turn off the new system and revert back, although doing this comes at the expense of the new Touchline Shouts feature. This goes hand in hand with the starting strategy we mentioned earlier, and allows you to make slight changes from within FM's 3D match engine while a game is playing out.
There are a wide variety of options from the list of shouts, from the likes of "exploit the flanks" to "push higher up" and "get stuck in". All of them will tweak your style of play slightly but perhaps in more subtle ways than was previously possible, allowing you to apply finer strokes than was possible with the old tactics system. All of this benefits a particular type of FM player - the sort of manager who hasn't indulged himself in the deeper side of FM's micro-management options until now. If you're the type of player who sets the team formation and strategy of your side at the start of a season, and then won't change them unless you're forced to by injuries, then we're talking about you.
FM2010 dishes out a much more streamlined entry into these areas of micro-management, encouraging players to tailor their tactics around each team they face rather than sticking with the same old routines. This is also the case with FM2010's backroom staff, the assistant manager of which will now arrange regular meetings for you to attend that coral all of the relevant staff issues and present them as simple yes or no answers for you to sign-off on. When you couple this with the improvements made to the tactical side of the game, it's fair to say that FM's interface is more user-friendly at its deeper levels this year. Even if it might raise a few eyebrows from seasoned players at first, it'll most definitely please more basic players of the game by easing them into the game's more complicated areas.
The headlining new addition to the series this year is the Match Analysis Tool, which provides a breakdown of how your team - and specific players within that team - have performed during a game. From a simple top-down pitch diagram, it's possible to view the range of passes, shots, and runs that a player has made during a game, where they've made them from, and how successful they were when they did. The tool is very similar in style to Champ Man's ProZone tool, which has been in the series for a few years now and we're inclined to think that Football Manager's tool doesn't quite have the level of statistical depth that ProZone has reached, although it's still a welcome addition to the FM series nonetheless.
And then there's the all-important 3D match engine, which added so much to last year's game but, in hindsight (once we'd played over 30 hours of FM2009 in the weeks following its release), also took so much away. Annoying glitches, such as inactive goalkeepers during penalties, players that dawdled for long periods at set-pieces, and a tendency for players to take excessive amounts of over-optimistic long shots, didn't help the long-term appeal of an engine that was still very much in its infancy. This year, player animations have seen the most sizeable improvement overall. With Champ Man taking such huge strides forward with its match engine this year, it was important for Football Manager to compete on the same level and it has certainly achieved this in FM2010.
Player animations are perhaps not quite as detailed as their Champ Man counterparts, although FM's 3D engine is animated in a more refined form for the most part. FM2010 avoids the overly floppy legs of players when shooting or hyper-acute dribbling turns that were sometimes suffered in Champ Man's 2010's engine, although it's got to be said that there are marked similarities between the two engines as well. In an interview with TVG earlier this year, Champ Man's General Manager, Roy Meredith revealed that one of the lead animators on their team was poached by Sports Interactive at some point along the line this year, which is no doubt a sizeable factor in the marked improvement to FM's engine. However, there's still evidence of teething problems with it as well.
When we've been playing through FM2010 matches, we've noticed that most opposition sides will regularly send up only three or four attackers for a corner. Conversely, when we had a corner ourselves, our team would send up six or seven players, which is the standard amount for a corner (with the fullbacks and a defensive midfielder hanging back). Hopefully this is the sort of problem that can be rectified with patches because we'd hate to see the improvements of this year's engine be marred by simple errors, which was arguably the game's main problem last year. Nonetheless, while FM's engine may not be as detailed and dynamic as Champ Man's this year, it's more simplistic animation arguably makes it perform more solidly in some key areas (such as in-and-around-the-box when the action gets dense).
Although Sports Interactive has added Touchline Shouts and the Match Analysis Tool this year, we can't help but think that the series is still crying out for more innovation. Perhaps we wouldn't be saying this if Champ Man hadn't done such a sterling job of delivering new ideas and features in this year's game. Maybe we're being a bit unfair on a series that's always taken the wise path of gradual evolution over revolutionary back-of-the-box features. Still, Champ Man has raised the bar this year with features such as creating your own set-pieces and Eidos has certainly placed the ball firmly in Sports Interactive's court for next year's round of games. As always though, Football Manager's superior database and transfer market still make it the most well-founded footie management sim available.
Football Manager Handheld 2010
It's still the best solution for Football Manager addicts who simply have to play the game at every available opportunity, and it's still a good source for on-the-go scouting of FM's database that you can then apply to the main game when you get home. However, there's no avoiding the fact that FM Handheld still plays suspiciously like a Championship Manager game from the turn of the century.
The PSP's lack of internal memory, processing power, and RAM are the main factors that will limit the FM Handheld series from ever becoming a substantial complement to its much bigger brother on PC. Thinly veiled gameplay that seems to react more to your decisions like a random throw of the dice than a complex set of stats, as well as sweet-spot formation settings that encourage a rinse-and-repeat action from one game to the next, make FM Handheld's formula thoroughly outdated (albeit one that retains the classic addiction levels of late nineties/early noughties Champ Man sessions).
This year's instalment remains largely the same as last year's game, although you will find slight improvements here and there. Player comparison screens have been implemented, while scouting and coach reports have been more tightly bound into the game, but Sports Interactive's claims that the AI of its 2D match engine is much improved are vastly overstated. The engine (which still doesn't run continuously and is only available at specified goal scoring opportunities) will still throw up crazy anomalies, such as a striker only having the keeper to beat and then passing the ball 20 yards back to a teammate. Similarly, goal scoring opportunities tend to be formulaic with set-piece templates that crop up overly frequently and players that simply stop moving on the pitch once they've passed the ball on.
In a few words, if you simply have to play Football Manager at any given opportunity (or you own a PSP but not a PC) then FM handheld 2010 might be worth a punt. Otherwise, stick to the main PC game.
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