Football Manager 2015 is the latest iteration of the long-running football management behemoth, first released in 1992. Often viewed by those unfamiliar with the series as a challenging game to get into due to its breadth, depth and supposed similarity to a spreadsheet, recent years have seen Sports Interactive improve accessibility without alienating long-time fans. Part of the way the developers have achieved success here is by making changes to overlaid systems (like the 3D match engine), where the impact touches the game as a whole for everyone, but otherwise tackling some key modules within the game. This year’s approach is no different, in part due to the sheer number of things that the development team can touch meaning it’s unlikely all could be done in twelve months, and what is absolutely true is that the core experience remains unbroken, ensuring folk will find themselves as absorbed as ever. However, there are some obstacles along the way.
The first challenge to returnees from older versions of the game is the overhauled graphical user interface. We now have a sidebar with tiles showing all the key places you’ll want to go to - squad, tactics, finance and more. Within each section the drop-down menus enabling you to find all the areas you’d want remain. The setup works swiftly once the player gets used to it, and does make it easier to find things if you’re new to the game. For experienced managers there’s no major benefit here because they’ll have known where to find what they were looking for. In fact, for players such as these the change is more painful than anything else. It’s not down to the repositioning of options but the baggage that comes with it. First of all the default skin - which can of course be changed as it can every year - causes some issues in filtering the information easily dependent on where you are in-game. The headlines section in your inbox, for example, is horrific. Each piece of news is colour-coded according to the club it relates to, leading to white, red, blue tiles all over the place and mixed up. It’s like an explosion of primary colours has happened on screen and looking at it makes your eyes think they’ve absorbed too much sugar. It actually has the opposite effect to that intended as it encourages you not to read that information and to move somewhere else quickly.
There is a lot of data to review in this game and otherwise it’s normally well-presented, and as mentioned already, easy to locate - especially if you just use the search bar at the top of the screen as you would in a web browser. The user interface is scalable meaning it works across all kinds of resolutions, as designed by the devs, including a nice collapsing of the sidebar just to icons rather than icons and text on each tile. It looks like SI have approached this particular change with a view to Steam’s big picture mode, oddly (or maybe the beginnings of unison with a proper touchscreen suitable interface?). It seems unlikely that’d be a conscious choice as Football Manager games are unusual candidates for playing through the lounge’s TV but the overall design looks more like something you’d see on a console. It is seen across the game, not just in terms of information but also when selecting your team, or applying instructions for handling opposition players during matches. This can work well, making certain screens feel less cluttered and simpler, but it also causes problems which might be minor but occur frequently. For instance, it can be hard to see which opposition player you are asking your team to always close down due to the space between the name and the action, with no apparent automatic highlighting, either.
Players' experience with the new interface and associated visual overhaul will vary. It all works and works well with regards to the main aim - making things simpler and more efficient, but as mentioned this benefit is mainly for casual players or first-timers. Resolution will have an impact and if you know how to change things up, you’ll make it look how you want it to anyway. It doesn’t eliminate the fact that the two steps forward have been taken in connection with one or two backwards as well. Whilst there is more work to be done here to optimise the user experience it’s good to see Sports Interactive focussing a lot of this year’s work on trying to get this right - after all, the user interface in Football Manager 2015 is as important as a mouse and display is to a PC.
Another aspect of the game which is incredibly important is the 3D match engine. This is often derided, unfairly, due to it seeming to be basic, unrepresentative of your instructions and somewhat repetitive in terms of what is seen from game to game and goal to goal. This year is the best match engine to date and it’s a real step-up versus what we’ve seen before. It’s not just a way to observe the match anymore but actually a great tool for determining what is and isn’t working. You can now see whether your right winger is playing like an inside forward, if your team is working the ball into the box versus a more direct alternative and if your striker is playing a poacher’s game or the target man role as assigned. Part of this is because of the new sets of animations made available via motion capture of all kinds of footballing actions. It’s odd to think that Football Manager 2015 should have similarities with Uncharted but it makes a big difference. The representation of a game of football is still simplistic versus Fifa but you now are watching real football. Game time is that much more enthralling, engaging and instantly changeable.
Perhaps the most exciting change to the game though is the introduction of some RPG-like depth in terms of your career as a football manager. On starting a new save you get to choose what type of coach you want to be. We’re all used to getting to decide if we were once an international footballer or an Andre Villas-Boas alike, but here we have much more say in who we are and the statistics which are assigned to us for every attribute. You can start out with no coaching badges or all of them, and if you choose the former you can take the badges in-game improving your abilities accordingly. You get more attribute points the better educated you are and the more experienced a footballer you were. You can assign these points to whichever attributes you want, based on how you like to play. So you can put it all into attacking expertise and man management, or be a defensively focussed coach who is skilled in tactics. You can also bias your total points more to what SI define as tracksuit versus tactical manager attributes. The impact of this is very clear in the game. For instance, you can actually take some coaching rather than hire someone else to do it. Equally it’s great to be able to get some boost in the things you always do. It means you can continue to play and manage in your way, but do so better than ever before. It’s a seemingly small thing right at the start of the game but it has significant impact strategically for the whole life of your save file, and makes it more fun as you have even more say in your own legendary career.
Scouting is visibly different intentionally, bringing it more inline with how clubs today manage their operations. The overview scouting screen shows what regional expertise you have and who you’ve got scouting data on. Each individual scouting report will have some error built-in. If you’re scouting a wonderkid the potential ability will be presented as a range rather than an actual rating. Equally you might not have definitive attribute scores but instead an approximate number. More scouting - or better scouts - can firm up the actuals and only time - and coaching - will tell where the ability levels ultimately end up. Scouting and player search are also well integrated now rather than having the two operations separated as before. The best thing about all this is not that it adds emphasis to the scouting operations in your club but that getting a list of wonderkids from one game and using that shortlist forevermore isn’t a dead certainty - because the scouting of each individual can vary alongside their hidden ratings.
There’s a host of other aspects to the game which have been touched or tweaked. The remarkable thing is that the developers have managed to coordinate everything so well that the overall end product doesn’t suffer. However, not every change is good. We’ve already talked about the impact of the interface. One associated change is that of the tactics screen. Selecting your players from your squad and assigning roles to them is less intuitive than before. Picking players for the first time is overly awkward as you can’t see the squad on the side of the teamsheet - it’s all one and the same meaning scrolling and extra button presses are needed. It might seem small but it’s something everybody will do each time. Assigning roles seems pernickety also and the whole tactics experience is harder to get to grips with than in the past, yet the changes have been put in place to make things easier and simpler. All the good and the bad has been applied to FM Classic mode too which plays in much the same way as before.
As ever with a Football Manager game there has been a whole host of changes some of which are apparent straight away, whilst others become clear over time. The time-honoured tradition is to incite revolution in some areas and optimising others via evolution. Whilst this ensures there’s enough new stuff to get owners of older versions to buy the latest release, it does mean that nothing is ever made perfect because of the modular, but cyclic change. It’s not like everything that needs to be improved is touched in one go; nor do we get that brand-new and surprising title. So here we don’t get that ten out of ten rating but Sports Interactive deserve praise for again delivering the best football management simulation around. It’s the same as last year then, only different.