I’ve been playing Football Manager since it was called Championship Manager. I started out with Championship Manager 2, in the mid-90s, back when each league had its own edition. I don’t recall ever skipping an edition from Championship Manager 3 onwards. When Eidos and SI split, I remained faithful to the “true” series and moved to Football Manager. So, as with so many FM fans out there, October and November usually have one highlight for me: the new Football Manager edition. Let’s face it, other than that – and unless you’re a kid living in a country that celebrates Halloween – October and November are mainly known for the return of crappy things, like cold weather and damn shorter days.
This year’s edition had a special bonus for those who pre-ordered: early access to a beta version. This beta consisted in pretty much the full game, minus the on-line component. Being a developer myself, I’m aware that beta versions usually aren’t polished products, so I was expecting to find bugs. I didn’t expect to find as many as I did, though. The tremendous amount of match engine problems made the game both unplayable and frustrating. I initially thought this was an early beta and all these bugs had already been fixed, but I was terribly disappointed when, while reading the official beta forum, noticed that Sports Interactive was only hearing about these problems and fixing them a mere two weeks before the final release.
The first beta update was released about one week later. It was somewhat better, but still far away from what should be a final release. Things weren’t looking good for SI. Another week went by and the game was officially released. Were all the problems fixed? Was a worthy successor finally here?
If you’re too lazy to read any further, the short answer is “no”. Although there were improvements regarding the beta version, the game is still massively flawed and some patching will be required to get it up to scratch. If you’re not lazy, let’s move on to the full review.
As it is, the game is simply frustrating. I’m not talking about the good kind of frustration, the kind that abounds in old school games and makes you play a challenging level over and over again until you finally clear it. No, this is the kind of frustration that rears its ugly head when you see an opponent striker dart past your moonwalking central defenders or watch your full-back happily running beside the opponent’s winger like he’s his high school sweetheart. The kind of frustration that will make you hate your midfielders for constantly playing dodgeball with your forwards when shooting from outside the box. The immersion-breaking frustration that accompanies your sighs as you witness your goalkeeper ducking when a freekick is shot straight at him – or, if he’s feeling particularly inspired, punching the ball into his own net.
Adding assault to injury, your team’s performance will vary wildly and randomly. With the exact same tactics and players, I’ve been able to beat stronger teams by 4 or 5 goals and lose against weaker teams by similar margins… sometimes with only one week between performances! I’ve had victorious streaks turn to nightmare for no apparent reason. I’ve seen plenty of high scoring games as well, the 6-5 or 7-4 kind. Weaker teams are also poorly modeled, often featuring Barcelona-level passing and possession football, even though most of their players barely reach 10 in passing and technique. You’ll see semi-professional teams duking it out with premier clubs and finishing their games with over 90% completion rates on their passing. In short, everything that used to make us ignore FIFA Manager and the “new” Championship Manager series by Eidos is now happening to Football Manager.
The good news is that Sports Interactive is, at least, aware of these issues. As their representatives mentioned a few times on the official forum, they are looking into solving these issues in an upcoming patch – including the misterious performance variations in matches. Will the patch fix everything? Well, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? Personally, I think that the problems are too deep to be easily fixed in a short time span… but the FM fan in me hopes that SI gets it right on the next patch (which will be the fourth, counting with the beta patch, release day patch and a third patch that didn’t touch the match engine), so we can start enjoying the game once again. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if multiple patches – or the 2014 edition – will be required to get the game feeling like a worthy Football Manager sequel.
Match engine apart, this year’s version also has a few other additions. The most often mentioned is the FM classic mode, which is a simplistic version of the main game. I won’t go into it, though… to be honest, I haven’t really played it, as I prefer the full FM experience. I can see its usefulness, however, especially for less patient players.
Another often mentioned addition lies on the new staff. There are a few new roles, like the director of football, head of youth development and chief scout. However, from all the new roles, I feel that only the chief scout makes any difference. By having someone on your staff deciding your scout assignments, you get rid of some boring managing in an effective way. The director of football, on the other hand, seems to be a waste of time. Personally, I don’t find it appealing having a staff member hiring players for me, so I skip that option. I tried using the director of football to sell and loan unwanted players, but I always seem to get a better deal if I do it myself. So, I end up using him only to find loans for my youth players, where getting anything out of it isn’t really important. As for the remaining roles, such as the head of youth development, don’t really bring anything of value that can’t be assigned to another staff member.
There are also some other minor changes throughout the game, like being able to search players for specific roles (about damn time!), the initial meeting with the president (which is a nice way of answering the start of season questions, but adds nothing new) and a few changes to the transfer system (including monthly fees on loans). The last day on the transfer season also has a bit more of interactivity, with questions from reporters and a large countdown timer letting you know when the market closes, which is a rather nice addition. There are also a few cosmetic changes on the interface, but I don’t consider them ground-breaking… some people will like them, some will hate them, most won’t really care.
The match day also went through a few visual changes. The 3D engine is a bit spiffier, with slightly improved graphics and animations. Unfortunately, it also has a fair amount of immersion breaking bugs, like goalkeepers tackling sideways for no reason, players sliding across half the pitch and crazy ball physics (like instantly stopping in mid-air and vertically falling through the net on some shots that go over the bar). I’m guessing that at least some of these situations will be fixed in future patches. The match day interface also changed a bit, but nothing major. As with the remaining interface changes, most people won’t really care.
Summing it up, at the moment, this year’s edition is rather weakish. There’s still hope that one or two patches will fix it up or, at least, bring it up to a playable level. However, I find it disappointing that Sports Interactive would release the game in its current condition. The problems the game has aren’t minor details which would only pop up occasionally on extremely thorough tests, they’re major issues that most people playing the beta spotted after a few hours, at most. If you already have the game, there’s not much you can do… but if you haven’t, I’d recommend waiting for the next patch before purchasing it. You probably won’t have much fun playing it until then and the wait might allow you to get a better deal and save you some money.