Anyone with a passing interest in both gaming and football will have at least heard of, and likely played, Football Manager since its inception nineteen years ago. The game began life under a different name (Championship Manager) thanks to the bedroom coding brilliance of the Collyer brothers in 1992. Sports Interactive (SI) was founded and now with over sixty employees and the help of Sega, is tasked with delivering an improved version each year of what is already the best and most in-depth football management simulation on the market. This base from which to tackle the challenge is the series' strength and weakness.
Being in a position of strength allows the developers to build upon what is already there. It allows for evolution of what exists, massaging features until they deliver the experience desired by the team and also that which the community are calling for (as always SI listen to the huge Football Manager fanbase). It also ensures that big revolutionary changes can be introduced when they're ready. For example, the 3D match engine was three years in the making before we first got to play with it.
But this does yield a downside, or two. Firstly, attracting and encouraging new players to buy and play the game is a massive challenge. The game can be overwhelming to an experienced player when the interface changes, so if you're completely new to Football Manager the sheer scale of it all can scare you away even when setting up a game, let alone when you actually get going properly. Secondly, if each year the changes are mainly evolutionary (plus the required database review ensuring the in-game world matches more closely the real world) then there is a chance the hardcore will get used to it and find certain aspects repetitive and tiresome. SI have focussed a lot of their effort this year on these areas.
With Football Manager 2012 there are a number of new features which address the above. Looking at accessibility first, SI have implemented tutorials and a 'How-To' system. There are five tutorials which a new user can work through before embarking on their first real game and it covers all you need to know to start getting something out of the title. How to navigate the interface, transfers, contract negotiations, tactics and match day. These tutorials are more powerful than any explanation that's been provided before and does explain things clearly and comprehensively - a non-football fan who's never played a football management game of any kind will feel comfortable in playing Football Manager 2012 after completing all tutorials. Despite this, the sheer amount of information shared means it's unlikely you'd be able to get away with just these unless you had an eidetic memory. It's just too much to recall - hence the how-to. If ever unsure of what to do, one click on the question mark next to the FM menu will allow you to search the questions database for the required answer. This system was intuitive and helpful but seemingly had gaps.
For experienced players there will be a number of changes evident throughout your first few hours with the game. Immediately obvious is the change to the user interface which has been redesigned based on usability assessments and how a player plays the game. The whole thing behaves like a web browser so navigation is easier with hyperlinks available to take you to most areas. Finding where specific information is will take a while to get used to but once habituated it is a much faster and more intuitive process ensuring information is where you expect it to be. The best thing about the new layout is the proliferation of overview screens. Relevant manager, club and player information is laid out as you would organise a variety of widgets on your smartphone, and each is entirely customisable so the screens you visit most often are there in summary form with a link to the detailed main page. The bigger your desktop the more panels and information you will have onscreen, too. It means getting the information you require is much quicker and easier than ever before.
With Football Manager 2012 SI have really made headway in their ongoing attempts to bring accessibility to their game whilst not 'dumbing it down'. This the most user-friendly version yet for both newcomers and old-hands alike. Each change has contributed to the overall feel being that of less clutter and more clarity in what's being presented.
The tactics screen will look alien thanks to the significant overhaul it's received this year. There are three areas of interest - chosen tactics and match preparation, squad and pitch overlay. You can now pre-select up to three tactics and over time your players will become familiar with them whilst they're used in training sessions - this can lead to wonderful moments when you win or lose using a novel tactic and it's brought up in the post-match press conference! Each tactic can be customised in all aspects from the overall strategy to the mentality of your striker. It's an immensely powerful tool as always but the way the options are presented really ensures an overall awareness of what you're asking of the team thanks to the simplified way it's deployed. If you don't want to get into the individual detail of each player you don't have to, and the interface helps you ignore it. If you do, the options are there and you can save to any of your chosen tactics with ease. Shouts are a new addition this year. A pre-defined collection of tactics allowing you to change your approach to a game via one-click quickly and easily. If you normally play a 442 with wingers but like to have the option of Tiki-taka, then you can collate the required tactics (play through the middle, play out of defence, work ball into box, play narrower etc.) into one Tiki-taka shout. Not a fundamental change then, but it does allow for quicker and easier tactical modifications when needed in a match.
Match day, and specifically the team talk screen has been given a welcome overhaul. There are a myriad of options for what to say and how to say it before, during and after matches. Overall team talks can still be given of course but now there is the further option of talking to a group of players or individuals, either in addition to or in place of the overall message. The actual team talks will be familiar but now you can deliver them in an aggressive or calm tone; cautious or passionate. It really adds to the choice available and leads to much more variety than before, something which is needed given the more reactive player personalities. Each player's reaction is immediately noted and whatever the response, it can allow the manager to correct problems before it leads to on-pitch issues.
The addition of the tone mechanic also allows the introduction of team meetings. An extra tool for managing morale and expectations, this can be called by the manager or requested by players in order to talk over current issues - be it poor performance of the squad or how to keep a good run going. The manager and the team or individual players are all able to interact and if things go well, it can ensure continued improvement or recovery from a bad situation. It really is a nice implementation allowing for more ways to control and manage your team. The only disappointment is media interaction hasn't had such an overhaul this time around.
The match engine has been optimised graphically and in terms of play. There are more (and better looking) player animations as well as the addition of Director Camera, a fantastic viewing option which picks the best viewpoint depending on the action unfolding - so for a free kick close to goal you will be watching from behind the taker. It's only a small addition but it massively improves the experience mimicking the reality of watching the big match on TV. The match viewer provides much more real feedback now. In the past it has often been difficult to see your tactics in action and changes you make haven't been obviously replicated onscreen. Now what you have told your team to do is seen that much more often, really helping you to identify what is and isn't working. With this iteration the engine has really matured.
Sports Interactive have proven themselves a superior developer over many years in consistently delivering the premier football management title and ensuring the change log warrants a purchase by those who already have last year's version. It's a fantastic achievement to not break what's worked for nineteen years, let alone stepping up the quality curve each and every time. Football Manager 2012 is no exception. All the evil goodness that's always been there leading to the cry of "just one more game" has been preserved and the end result is the most complete, clear and downright powerful football management sim ever produced. This game deserves to be played for the next year non-stop and the moment you begin all memories of Football Manager 2011 will be long forgot.
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