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Writing a Football Manager review is hard for me. That might seem like a strange way to look at a living which involves playing computer games, but it is because I hate to appear like a gushing fan boy and the trouble with the latest edition of this stunning series was for a few weeks I was convinced I was going to sound like one. Then something rather more sobering dawned on me…
While the rest of the industry predictably swoons once again to its favourite son I’ve developed a major gripe. So much so, that I’m going to dedicate a large portion of this review to it. Ready? *Drum Roll* ”It’s Too Real”. Confused? Let me explain. With every incarnation of Football Manager (or Championship Manager as it was before the blah de blah…) it seems more is added and nothing is taken away. For instance, in the 2006 edition we have half time team talks, touchline commands, one-on-one player interaction, direct board level contact, a more detailed tactics screen, more in-depth training, extra stats and greater media interaction. Fine.
The problem with all this, unless you’re a decade long aficionado, is that it has become rather too bloated to just load up and play. In fact, I’ve owned every Sports Interactive coded game under both CM and FM brands and even I’ve come to feel rather daunted by each new release. There is a certain reticence that presses upon me to leave behind a version I have finally mastered to be swamped by even greater depths of number crunching and day-to-day responsibility.
Take my first two days with the game. I only got through pre-season. That’s over 12 hours playing before I reached a competitive game. It is not insignificant either to point out the last time I managed to have a regular two player game of Football Manager was three editions back and even then my flat mate and I both admitted the fun had gone when you each wait the better part of 30 minutes for your turn. It is said when Sir Bobby Robson first took over at Ipswich his duties extended to changing toilet rolls in the latrines. Well, I don’t want that from my football sim, but I have a feeling Sports Interactive may introduce the option next time around.
So the get-up-and-go factor has gone, long gone, but that is not to imply it is a bad game. To the contrary, nothing could be further from the truth. Football Manager 2006 is a technically stupendous achievement. Depending on the power of computer at your disposal it is possible to play with leagues from 51 countries simultaneously, populated by more than 275,000 players, managers and staff and from the moment you walk into the job the pressure is on. The media is immediately on your back for being an unknown and the fans are sceptical. In fact, kicking Graeme Souness out of a job was the only pleasurable moment in what was otherwise wave upon wave of player and boardroom troubles. That said, I did pick Newcastle…
So how do you spend 12 hours in pre-season? With FM2006 the answer is easily. I spent my time endlessly scouring the world leagues for playing and non-playing staff, codling a furious Laurent Robert (who I’d recalled from Portsmouth, determined to get the best out of him) and trying to buy back Olivier Bernard, the club’s last decent left back. Bids came in for players I didn’t want to sell and derisory loan offers were made for players I wanted out the door. Yes gentlemen and gentlemen (let’s face it, there are no women here), 2006 is more difficult.
That is not too say it is too difficult, however, ultimately the game is just smarter. Opponents come to grips with your tactics over the course of a match. What worked for 45 minutes may backfire in the second half and the lower league buffoons that I selected as lambs to the slaughter for my finely tuned stallions had an irritating knack of picking out the best performing players and kicking them into the middle of next week.
Once the league began things weren’t much better either. As a Jose Mourinho type I enjoy employing the poker face before occasionally erupting into roars of emotion and it dismayed me no end to discover that pace is no longer the overriding statistic guaranteed to win silverware by the truckload. Certainly, it appears to work in the lower leagues (as my dalliance with Colchester and the 18 man squad of sprinters I built proved when I ran away with the Division One title) but stepping up in class reveals passing and positioning to be equally key.
As I got settled into a clear starting eleven and came to terms with the strengths and weaknesses of my squad I did find myself clicking through the game a little faster too. To this end I can report that loading times do indeed feel quicker than 2005 and, remarkably, are probably quicker than the game was ten years ago. Against this is the fact that I had abandoned some of the newer features introduced in 2006, such as half time team talks and manager baiting, since – at least to me – neither had shown to have a consistent effect on events other than to disturb the harmony of my squad.
Reaching the end of the season (and earning a well deserved Champion’s League place considering Titus Bramble was at the back) I’m pleased to report the well documented rash of bugs which greet each virgin edition of the series were thankfully few and far between. In extreme cases I have heard of matches being lost only for the board to commend managers on a fine win, but the worst I saw was a player being subbed twice and since the on-pitch attributes of ‘the same man’ were completely different it was clearly just a textual error not a simulation one. Even so, patches are already on their way.
During my second and third seasons I managed one league title, two cup wins and lost in the European Cup Semi Finals. The anxiety I had felt on first booting up the new game was gone, but more worryingly so was my employment of the majority of its new features. Maybe tweaking training further, perfecting the half time talk (or bothering to give one at all) would have brought even greater success, but I simply didn’t feel the need to do it. I had automatically toned down the intricacies of the new game and succeeded anyway.
Perhaps being able to do this is one of the beauties of the new game, or maybe it is a criticism, I’m not entirely sure. What I do know though is I’ve had Football Manager 2006 in my possession for over three weeks now and I’m not convinced I’ve scratched the surface. I’m not certain whether I can truly and faithfully tell you about the effectiveness of every new addition or frustrating wrinkle. I find myself once again playing Football Manager the way ”I like” to play Football Manager. To get to the bottom of it all will take many months and I’m not sure I’m as up for that as I used to be.
Trying to focus on a single factor for this mental shift is difficult, but I keep coming back to my original point that the immediate hit has gone to be replaced an altogether more heavyweight experience. It was a gradual evolution, but no longer do I think about booting up the game during a sneaky spare half hour because I realise I will make virtually no progress in that time. An hour minimum is required and since I’m no longer the teenage kid I was when the series first began, those lengthy gaps are increasingly hard to find.
Don’t get me wrong, Football Manager 2006 is fantastic. It is a game that does far more than I will every need it to do and the immersion factor is immense. Yet, for me, this is now where the problem lies because as a paid full time journalist it is hard to be an unpaid full time football manager as well. Consequently, I have noticed a sad trend where – despite technological improvements to every edition – I clock up less hours on each. The pattern will continue as well. FM2007 will be ”even” deeper than FM2006 and by FM2010 it may even take from August to May to play out a virtual season. To an extent there is nothing wrong with this, it is everything some fans could ever want, except I’m not sure this fan will still have the inclination to join in.
As expected, Football Manager 2006 takes the series to the next level. It expands every area, pushes every boundary and never before has such an enviable career felt so real. Sports Interactive probably never dreamed it would come so far from the very first Championship Manager title all those years ago. It has picked up millions of fans since then, but it has also lost the casual gamer along the way.