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The phenomenon that is Football Manager returns with new features and shinier visuals...
Another year, another list of refinements to rattle through and tell you how they make Football Manager slightly better. It's another year of evolution over revolution for the series and, given that the last major revolution took place in 2008 when a 3D match engine was added, you'd be forgiven for feeling like Sports Interactive owes us all a brand new back-of-the-box feature that pimps up the experience a bit. But let's take a long view of this for a second: over the past couple of instalments, there hasn't been a new feature that we've been able to criticise significantly; that we think is great in theory but underwhelming in practice, or merely feels a bit like empty padding. Such is the methodical approach that Sports Interactive has to developing its games, you always know that when something is added, it's been rigorously thought through and tested. The studio doesn't do anything on a whim, its feature-sets are the anti-thesis of needless fluff, and they go through continued refinement year-on-year until the developer's exacting standards are met.
Looking at the major improvements over the last couple of years, no one advancement is particularly significant by itself but, when all of them are stacked together, they make for a much deeper and more engrossing gameplay experience. Through FMs 2010 and 2011 we've seen the introduction of a new Match Analysis tool, backroom staff meetings, a revamped tactical interface, the introduction of player conversations, much improved contract negotiations featuring agents for the first time, a Tactics Creator that houses a set-piece editor of sorts, and a Match Preparation tab that allows you to prepare multiple formations at a time. Each new feature sounds fairly dry by itself but, as a suite, they're pretty formidable. And you can add to that this year with a new Team Report hub and a revamped team talk interface, to name the two most significant additions.
Our personal favourite of the two is the changes to team talks. Taking a cue from Champ Man 2010 – the last instalment in the series for PC – managers can now address the team not only as a whole or individually, but as specific units (i.e. defence, midfield, and forwards). You can also issue talks with a specific tone – be it 'Assertive', 'Cautious', 'Calm', or 'Aggressive' etc. – and the selectable lines of managerial encouragement have been diversified to cater for this. There are still gaps in the lines on offer – sometimes you're left grasping for a specific comment that the interface fails to touch on, and often you end up resorting to the same tired options – but overall they're pretty well dished out. The real crowd pleaser, however, comes from the addition of player reactions to your comments. In previous years it's been hard to gauge whether players actually respond to what you're saying in the team talks, but now you're treated to reactions such as 'seemed motivated' or 'looked pleased' following your words of wisdom. Similarly, there are also brief assessments of players' match performance alongside their standard rating: 'looked complacent', 'had a good game' etc. Away from matches, you can then take this new team talk system into separate Team Meetings – if you've got grievances that need to be aired at any time, this is the place to do it.
Team Reports, on the other hand, offer an insight into how well your players have been performing in recent matches and whether they fit well into a specific formation. Star ratings out of five show you how a player is currently stacking up against their full potential or how well they'll play in various positions, and it's particularly useful to see how their ratings drop as you move them out of their 'natural' slots. In previous years, you could never fully tell how much it affected a player's performance when you played them in positions they were merely 'competent' or 'accomplished' in, but now the Team Reports offer you a window into that conundrum and show how much ability you might be losing out on. Similarly, it's all too easy to give up on an out of favour striker who goes through goal droughts like they do petulant comments to the press, but when you see they've got four star potential and you're only getting two-and-a-half out of them, it provides an impetus to put your counselling hat on and coax them back to form. Much like the backroom meetings and tactical overhaul that were introduced two years ago, these Team Reports are just another way that Sports Interactive is adding depth while also making the finer points of the game more accessible, and that's no easy tightrope to walk.
There's a treasure trove of statistical info in these Team Reports too, from goal breakdowns (when and where they're scored) to how well your team compares to the rest of the league in key areas such as strength or speed. If you get your scout to report on an upcoming opposition, then you'll receive a detailed breakdown in this Team Report interface as opposed to the one-line scouting reports offered last year. Essentially this all replaces the pre-match meetings of FM 2011 and brings a lot more data to your fingertips in the process. Going beyond the new Team Reports and team talks there's a smattering of other peripheral improvements too: the tactical interface has been further refined and brought into closer alignment with the Match Preparation tab (which is less glitchy now), and new standalone tutorials offer help to the completely uninitiated but don't offer much to anybody who's played the game previously.
The 3D match engine has been given some special attention as well: two camera angles come in the form of a 'Behind Goal' angle and a 'Director Cam' – the latter splices together different views into a TV-style production and does relatively well in its attempts, all things considered. SEGA assures us that the match engine has been given a lick of paint this year too and, to our eye, this is most evident in the improved stadiums/crowds. Unlike FM 2011, where 2D sprites stood statically in the stands until a goal was scored and then jittered like toddlers on a sugar buzz, FM 2012's stadiums have been adorned with 3D supporters who fidget in the winter cold and punch the air in ecstasy when you go one up. Honestly, it's not something you'll instantly notice and you do have to compare the two games side-by-side to see the full extent of the difference, but it does add a fair whack to the presentation's overall sheen when you actually take the time to notice it. Inevitably this all adds to the hardware demands of your rig, and admittedly the match engine's frame-rate isn't quite as robust as it was last year because of this, but the sacrifice is definitely worth the result.
So it's another year of new 'wonderkids' to search out and sign, updated stats and transfers, tweaked formulas for success, and a couple of new toys to play with in FM 2012 – nothing to write home about, but certainly nothing to complain about either. There's no reason for those of you who buy Football Manager every year not to fork out the £40 RRP for this year's iteration, but those of you with more of a passing fancy might want to think twice. Beyond a couple of significant advancements, it's more or less the same core experience that it's been for the past two years. Football Manager is undeniably a better and deeper game than it's ever been, but perhaps not better and deeper enough to prise away your hard-earned cash if you're still engrossed in a game from FM 2011. It just feels like there are many more big opportunities for the series that are yet to be explored and genuinely game-changing features that could be implemented in the years to come. Until that happens, it's still going to feel like more of a seasonal update than a new game altogether.
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