Every year brings with it a new Football Manager game and 2015 is no different. The team at Sports Interactive have got things down to a tee under the leadership of Miles Jacobson since assuming his current responsibilities in 1999. Each year there’s a need to deliver something which isn’t just a data update, although the series’ most keen fans would be happy with just that, most likely. No, there have to be some new features, some improved ones and the feeling of change must be there when an old fan boots up the new game. This is normal for the team now, picking this year’s challenges from the pile built over time. It must be daunting for the group, but liberating in a way too as they know they’ll always get to everything, eventually.
It’s pretty daunting for us, too. The poor reviewers who are tasked with writing a few thousand words on what many bemoan as being an Excel-based game after doing so many times before, but still have to make it interesting. Even harder when we get time with the game when everyone does thanks to the Beta availability to all who preordered the game. This is the fifth year The Digital Fix has been able to talk about Football Manager. Each year we basically say the same things, but wrapped up a little differently. The bottom-line is, the game’s superb. It’s as engaging as ever and gloriously entertaining whatever your past experiences. It’s full of familiarity whilst still looking all shiny and new. There are some big new things this year and many, many smaller ones. But at its heart it is Football Manager and it will absorb you for the next twelve months, until the next iteration arrives. But what else can we say?
In our first game we wanted to see what the database could tell us about football as it is today. When starting with the new stats and updates details, how real did it seem? By the end of the 2015-2016 season we had been reassured that Klopp really is a miracle worker as he’d taken Liverpool to second place. Manchester City really were trying to take Financial Fair Play seriously with little or no expenditure over the Summer, but by January they’d gone back to their old ways of spending all the money in the world. Chelsea secured top four and Sam Allardyce took over from Tim Sherwood after Villa sacked him just like in real life. Vardy and Aguero were the top strikers, Bellerin one of the defenders and De Bruyne a midfielder. All in all the database had some kinks but performed broadly as you’d have expected (or hoped in Liverpool’s case) at the start of the season.
All’s well and good then as the data and the real crux of the game, plus the algorithms which power it, haven’t been broken. Some of the new features this year are pretty striking ones, actually. You can create an avatar of yourself for added realism on matchday. It’s nothing more than a cosmetic addition to the retained ability to shout instructions from the touchline, and change tactics on the fly, but it’s nice and continues to build on all the efforts from before to make the game more of a game and less of a spreadsheet.
There are two new game modes as well, one for use in single-player mode and the other for those who want to play network games. First up is ‘Create a club’ mode whereby you can own everything about a club, from the kit all the way to the squad. It’s an editor mode of sorts then but one where you can inject your own life into it, adding further to the engagement - whilst detracting a little as it always does when you edit any aspect of the database, rather than just emulating the greatest managers with the tools they had at their disposal.
The second mode is Fantasy Draft which is really cool for anyone with like-minded friends or plans to host football fans’ LAN parties. You can create different competitions from knockout cups to short leagues, dependent on what you fancy and how many of you there are, and build your squads via drafts just like in US sporting circles. It makes for great fun just building the squads and ensures the challenge is always different and fair no matter how many times you play it. You can vary the budget size which can make it more challenging, but even with the biggest pile of cash you’ll struggle to build a team like some clubs have in real life!
The matchday is improved too with animations added to the existing motion captured ones from last year making the 3D engine look as good as it ever has done. You can still move back to 2D if you’d prefer but it’s much easier to see how your initial tactics and changes impact the team by watching them. Setting your tactics is really easy once you learn where each option is kept, with subtle changes made since last year to make it even easier but it’s still not like the past where you could use arrows to indicate attacking runs, or control team actions by use of sliders accessible from one screen. By changing things to make it easier for folk to get to grips with the game some things are going to be seen as a step backwards. This is one example, and thankfully one of very few. Regardless, for a newcomer it’s much more intuitive to set up your team the way you think it should be, and that has to be commended.
Tweaking your tactics is helped by the vast array of statistics available to you alongside the application of Prozone into the game. This all helps to make the game feel more responsive to what you do and also more realistic. Alongside the statistics you have more choice around what to do with player’s injuries and more options - and tangible ones - when dealing with unhappy squad members. For instance, if a player wants more first-team football you can ask them to prove their readiness by showing demonstrable progress in an area through intensive coaching. If they don’t manage to do so they accept they won't get that start in the big game.
There’s lots more, of course. As with each year’s release there are hundreds of new things to experience, or avoid if that’s not the way you choose to play the game. Again, as with each iteration of this game what we have here is an evolution that at first will be strange and different but after a half season’s play or so will be very, very familiar and make you forget everything you ever knew about last year’s model. This is the finest football management game around and should be on everyone’s Steam list come release - assuming you like games like this.
This review is based on the Beta build of Football Manager 2016