It’s a story that the football world will talk about for years to come. After two back to back promotions culminating in a return to the highest echelon of English football, Paul Lambert has been sacked by Norwich City and replaced by Gaz Plant, a man who has absolutely no prior management experience, proven by 11 heavy defeats in the first 15 games of the season. No matter how many times you play a Football Manager game, the opening day with a top flight club is always slightly surreal, with the club inexplicably sacking their old manager to replace him with a complete novice, naturally to the annoyance of the fans. Football Manager returns once again for the 2011-12 season, and despite that all too familiar opening, the changes made to this year’s iteration will probably make you think twice about that planned New Year’s Resolution of less Football Manager next year.
Sports Interactive have adopted the often cited approach of evolution over revolution for this iteration of the popular football management sim, and to be fair to them, there’s no reason to try and fix something that isn’t broken. Looking at the way the FIFA fanbase has been fundamentally divided over the enforced changes brought in by EA this year, it’s clear to see why Sports Interactive adopted a more conservative approach. Despite the similarities to previous years though, the additions provide a crucial new aspect to the game that can potentially change the course of your entire season.
This year more than any other is a good time for new players to join the football management game, as the development team have added in a clever new tutorial mode that brings you quickly up to speed on how to navigate around the many menus and complete an actual game of football. The tutorials themselves will provide nothing new to seasoned players, but for newcomers to the series, this really couldn’t be better, especially given that the game comes with no physical instruction manual. Each tutorial focuses on a particular aspect of the game, be it transfers or tactics, and gives you an interactive run down of how each part works. It’s simple, effective, and will no doubt help broaden the audience for the game further.
Formations, tactics and a LOT of information. Welcome to Football Manager
But of course, once you’re up to speed with how the game works, the much more complicated task of being a manager begins, and as ever there are practically limitless possibilities as to how you will approach the game. At its most basic, you can simply pick the squads and watch the game unfold, while you let your Assistant Manager and the coaches take care of the rest. The level of support you get from your assistants can be tuned up or down using the handy Team Policy page, which allows you to assign tasks to the backroom staff to ease or increase your personal workload. In the end, the more hands-on you are with everything in game, the more you will get out of it. It just depends just how long you are willing to spend looking through stats and menu screens – at its heart it is still a very sterile game for the football purist.
One of the big new additions to the game this year is the ability to add and remove leagues from your database as you progress through the game, meaning you are no longer locked into whatever leagues you began the game with. Long time Football Manager fans will be relieved to discover this change, as it’s refreshing to be able to suddenly decide you fancy a management role in Australia and to simply be able to add that into your game.
There is also a greater focus on you customising the experience in your own way this year, and that is achieved through a multitude of new interactive options at your disposal. The most obvious is the new speaking tone system, which allows you to inject your own brand of management into what were before simply cut-and-paste situations. Take the half time team talk for example. If your team are 1-0 up, you might want to calm everyone down, so you would pick a calm response from the menu. However, if you’re 3-0 down and looking set for a record defeat, then you’ll want to go aggressive, and really start flinging the boots around the dressing room. Players will also come to you with grievances which are intoned with their current emotions towards the situation too. Players who are unhappy will appear aggressive while players with an innocent query will come to you with a calm personality state. It’s an interesting and simple new addition to the game that not only adds more of your personality into the game, but also creates more realistic scenarios.
Your interaction with the squad and backroom staff on the whole have also been given a tweak, with Team Meetings allowing you to address the entire squad and bring up any issues that have arisen. The meetings are particularly noteworthy because of the back and forth you can have with multiple players in them, as they will often interject with their own opinion on the current discussion which you will need to deal with. The backroom staff are also more vocal in their reports, with Team Reports in particular being much more thorough and useful than before, although the lack of a weekly report on who is progressing well in training is an issue for those of us who are hands-off in that area, especially if you’re trying to pick an in-form squad.
The new match engine is better, but you’ll probably still prefer 2D
The already slick and responsive transfer system has also been improved, with scouts now returning regular, and much more informative, reports on players that you may be interested in, although the viability of these signings do vary wildly, so tread with caution. The big change here though is in the contract negotiations, where you can now lock down areas of the contract you will not negotiate on. This makes dealing with agents a lot easier, as you can stop them forcing a high appearance fee by locking it out, and move the money around to benefit you the most. A small change, but one that will make a big difference on the end of month financial report.
Of course the action that you will talk about the most happens on the pitch, and this is the area that has had the least refinement since the last iteration. The absolute plethora of tactical options open to you are still easily accessible via quick menus in game or the main tactics screen, and at first it is frightening the level of change you can make to your play - whether or not the changes work in the game is often as much up to chance as judgement though. The 3D match engine has been tweaked once again to provide a slightly more realistic set of animations, but in the end, it still doesn’t look great as players run isometrically towards goal. Many years since its inception, it is still preferable to watch the 2D match engine, if only for that wonderful imagination factor it brings with it. It’s amazing what your mind can do with coloured circles on a pitch.
Of course, the frustration is still there. There will always come a time when no matter what you do will have no impact on the game whatsoever, and your team will inexplicably get 6 put past them, despite defeating Chelsea the week before. It’s part of the game, and in some ways it is part of the charm that your bubble could burst at any moment. Nonetheless, it remains frustrating that the game gives you little to no pointers on how to improve a poor run of form, a feature that would be especially helpful for newcomers; or for those of us who lose 10 in a row. Newcomers will also surely be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of options in the game, and despite a brilliant new “How To…” system, even seasoned veterans will eventually stumble across a feature they had not seen before a few months down the line. Simply put, it’s a big game and you need time and dedication to see it all.
For football fans, Football Manager 2012 really is a no-brainer. It’s got everything an armchair manager could want and the improvements to the game this year put you and your particular brand of (mis)management in the dugout like no other version of the game has yet. It’s also a great jumping in point for anyone curious about the world of football management thanks to a brilliant new tutorial system and a helpful “How To…” guide to send you on your way. The options are overwhelming at times, and you may get stuck in the worst run of form in football history, but the sheer addictiveness of the game will keep you coming back time after time. Let’s face it, that player you just got on loan could turn your season around, and one more game won’t hurt will it?