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Sports Interactive puts its hand to a rapidly changing Premier League in this year's Football Manager...
If last year's Football Manager brought around a complete overhaul of the game's backroom staff, with its Football Manager Live-style changes to the game's tactical options and the all-new user interface, then Sports Interactive has had a relatively quiet summer on the transfer market this year. It's not that there aren't advancements to the game, just that they're tweaks to the existing squad really; examples of evolution over revolution, which is a strategy that the SI team has tended to favour over its illustrious 13-year history. After all, the secret to successful football management is to gradually develop a team over time rather than make sweeping changes from one year to the next, so perhaps SI is just proving that it's the master of its own subject material by sticking to this development philosophy.
But perhaps we're being a little unfair with our assessment of the studio as a conservative, play for the clean sheet type of outfit. After all, last year's changes were a significant re-jig, while FM 2009 saw the introduction of a 3D match engine for the first time. Admittedly FM was the last major football management series to role-out a 3D engine - LMA Manager, FIFA Manager, and Champ Man all preceded it, but they all preceded it with fairly poor attempts (excepting Champ Man 2010). FM nailed it fairly well on a first attempt, albeit with some bugs, and then rectified many of the problems in FM 2010. This year's instalment then continues this evolution with a near faultless 3D engine at this stage in the game, albeit one that can still have heaps of detail layered onto it in the years to come.
The thing is, FM 2011 feels a bit like one of those in-between years where the improvements made aren't particularly evident but the game's depth of micro-management and customisable options gets wealthier nonetheless. Don't get us wrong, there are significant additions here across the game's training, tactical, and player interaction features - the Match Analysis Tool that debuted last year has been improved as well. It is, in terms of sheer depth, a better game than it was last year. But is it really enough of an improvement for the series to hold the 9/10 score we gave it last year? In terms of improvements, you do get the feeling that FM 2011 has more in common with a seasonal update than a game that builds extensively on its predecessor, so is it really worth 40 of your hard earned pounds?
That last question, as ever, will really depend on how much of a hardcore FM fan you are. Obsessives will find much to keep them happy, such as the new Match Preparation tab and deeper training options in general. Match Preparation now allows you to prepare your team for upcoming matches with a range of formations, while various accompanying stats then show how comfortable and familiar your team is with the different setups. Alongside this, it's also possible to alter how much of your players' training time is spent on Match Preparation and focus the team on areas such as 'Team Blend' or 'Attacking Movement'. Overall, the features add a lot of depth to what was already a quite daunting but ultimately very rewarding training suite.
Running in parallel with Match Preparation is a new Tactics Creator. This effectively groups all of the existing tactical options that were introduced last year (e.g. Team Philosophy, Starting Strategy, and Player Roles) and then allows you to save specific settings. Beyond this, the Tactics Creator also opens up access to what's arguably the headlining new feature for FM 2011, the Set Piece Creator. Using the interface, users can customise player assignments for corners, free-kicks, and thrown-ins through a range of different options. All in all though, the Set Piece Creator lacks the scope and level of control found in a similar feature from last year's Championship Manager.
In FM 2011, you're not so much crafting your own set pieces from scratch as you are giving players generalised commands. Whereas in Champ Man 2010 you literally had dictatorial control over all passing and movement, allowing you to form finely tuned drills, in FM 2011 you're issuing more generalised commands like 'play it short' for a corner or 'disrupt the wall' during free-kicks. You are able to control precisely how many players come up for a corner or the number of players in a wall, for example, but player movement within those confines is limited to traits like 'Attack Near Post' or 'Lurk Outside Area'. That said, the commands made in the creator are then well translated to the match engine itself, even if a bit more hands on control of player positioning and movement would've been more than welcome.
Other sizeable additions include the new player interactions. Put simply, when a petulant forward declares that he's unhappy (not mentioning any names, ahem! Wayne Rooney) you now have an avenue to approach them rather than trying to passively resolve the problem through performances and decisions on the pitch (as was the main solution previously). Conversations that operate similarly to the existing press conferences, with to and fro Q&As, now allow you to enter into discussions with a player and try to resolve the problem face-to-face. Be warned though, by trying to confront players you can just end up making the issue a whole lot worse, but the opportunity to at least try and resolve it directly is helpful nonetheless.
This is similarly the case when it comes down to re-negotiating player contracts or agreeing wages with new signings, as you'll now have to deal directly with an agent for many players. Previously the agents were distantly alluded to but now they are specific characters with their own personality traits (e.g. 'Patience') and client lists. From a gameplay point of view, these visible agents definitely improve the experience. No longer is signing players as simple as meeting their demands - now it seems there's a lot more scope for haggling but, on the other hand, if you do get on the wrong side of an agent then it can be months before they'll be willing to sit down and discuss a new contract for your star midfielder again. They'll also drive a harder bargain and attach pesky agent fees to a signing so, while the gameplay and depth is definitely improved, this doesn't stop the admin from getting the better of you at times.
Away from FM 2011's new features you'll find a game that feels more appropriately balanced. For example, player injuries had become alarmingly frequent over the last two years, leaving you playing with what was effectively a reserve team at times. Thankfully this has now been addressed and you'll usually only be dealing with two or three injuries at one time in your first team. Sports Interactive's proven ability to deal with real-world football debacles convincingly in its games continues this year too - just try playing as Liverpool amid constant takeover talks and £0 of transfer budget to see what we mean. The one inexplicable anomaly we might point out from our game experience was West Ham being at the top of the Premiership after 22 games played. However, as this is one of the few examples of such weirdness in any Football Manager game we've played, we'll let Sports Interactive off the hook this time.
Regardless of all of the positives we've mentioned though, there's still the persistent feeling throughout FM 2011 that it could do with one or two more headlining additions. The added depth and complexity is great, and it's what we love about the series when all's said and done, but perhaps we'd just have liked Sports Interactive to push the boat out a little more. The game's sound, for example, remains as stagnant as it has been for what seems like eons. Just the addition of team specific chants from the crowds, if only for the big sides, could greatly improve the match experience. This year's Set Piece Creator is undeniably the most ravishing prospect of all the new features, and even that comes up a touch short of what we'd hoped for. All in all then, hardcore Football Manager fans should receive the added depth in FM 2011 well, although if you're a bit more inconsistent in your FM purchases from one year to the next, then this year's version may hold less appeal for you.
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