Having nudged the critical swingometer towards FIFA 09 in the Pro Evolution Soccer vs FIFA wars, EA Sports now fancies its chances in the management arena. Here though, it faces two table-topping opponents: the forthcoming Football Manager 09 and a delayed Championship Manager 09. Both rival games are set to introduce 3D match engines in addition to standard text commentary, placing FIFA Manager’s primary selling point under threat. Persons of a cynical nature may surmise that this pressure has led to the game being rushed out before Football Manager 09 at all costs.
If so, however, EA has gone about it in an odd way. Marketing seems curiously muted for a FIFA-branded, EA Sports-backed title. The official website for the game doesn’t even show up in a standard google search (not helpful for players looking for database updates), and development appears to have been sub-contracted to a company called Bright Future.
Nonetheless, the presentational sheen is up to the usual FIFA standards. Options and trimmings are everywhere, allowing the player to tweak and customise their game in terms of scope, difficulty and whether they will focus on first team duties or micro-manage every aspect of the club, from scarf sales to the under 14s youth side. There’s even the welcome ability to listen to your own mp3 collection in-game, letting The Fall’s “Eat Yerself Fitter” blast out while you sort out training routines.
The general interface is functional and relatively clear, but there’s a little too much clicking through multiple layers to reach desired locations. That may sound like laziness, but all the extra delving becomes tiresome if it’s a screen you need to check often. On the main page, warning alerts will pop up whenever something is amiss, potentially offering a helpful at-a-glance system of fighting fires. In truth, they simply become a nag, insisting every other day that you need to “talk to your players” more. After a while the players feel more like attention-starved Tamagotchi than actual people. When informed of a striker’s frustration at his lack of goals, the game provides no relevant dialogue options for reassuring him.
Delegating roles to hired staff is also a bit dodgy. It should provide a welcome relief from micro-management, but in reality many of the staff just aren’t very good at their jobs. When you finally get sick of assistant managers going rogue and spending all your money on training camps, merchandise helpers who can’t manage to re-order stock and coaches who set baffling training regimes, you’ll feel compelled to retake full control of the day-to-day club tedium.
The real heart of football management games, however, beyond the atmosphere, nods to realism and bonus trimmings, is how tactical decisions play out on the pitch. Every would-be manager wants to feel the thrill of identifying an aging left-back and ordering his midfielders to work the ball out wide, where a marauding winger will skin his slow legged opponent and whip in some crosses. FIFA Manager does not especially convince here. On a rain-swept, stodgy pitch, I opted for a grimly defensive 3-5-2 formation, with two tough-tackling holding players and general instructions for my team to rarely advance over the halfway line, except when punting balls towards an advanced target man. My plan was to grind out a home draw against a much higher placed side in order to maintain flimsy morale. Somehow, though, this strategy played out on the text commentary as an exhibition of free-flowing football with “both sides really going for it here.” A fairly attacking game ended with a 2-1 victory. Hurrah. Except this success bore no relation to my plans and seemed to have happened entirely by chance.
In addition, there are coding problems galore. At one point the text declared that the referee had let a man off his second bookable offence, only to decide later that he had indeed been dismissed (though nothing else seemed to back this up.) Later, one of my own players was sent off but still concluded the game with a man of the match award and a rating of 9. Words are missing from several of the standard textual sentences (for example; “player x makes his way into the penalty [area]”) and individual player morale sometimes plummets from ninety to zero apparently without reason.
Luckily, you can opt to watch in the 3D match engine instead. Less fortunately, this is a disaster zone. Scores sometimes entirely change from the match you’ve just witnessed, resulting in a post-game newspaper report which is a muddled amalgam of both ‘results.’ The engine itself seems to be a mid-2000’s FIFA effort, complete with odd physics and various examples of unlikely player ineptitude. Lower league players should certainly be slower at making decisions and have weaker technique, but they do not repeatedly control the ball out of play from a simple throw-in, or spoon the football into the stands under absolutely no pressure whatsoever. On occasion, a hilarious offside bug gives a free kick to the wrong side about five yards in front of goal. There are doubts too about whether the text commentary and 3D matches are using the same methods to calculate a result, when the text statistics show 650+ completed passes in a game and the 3D stats show 40 or 50. With such a clear discrepancy in methodology, how are managers supposed to accurately assess what has just transpired in a game?
There’s glimmer of innovation which allows you to take direct control of a single player (either a chosen position, or as a fixed player manager) during matches. This is a great idea and adds an extra dimension, but the independent game New Star Soccer 3 already implemented it more successfully with a top-down Sensible Soccer viewpoint several years ago. Player ratings in the 3D match engine seem to be broken too, with my appalling player manager efforts rewarded with a 7, while my two-goal hero ended on a mere 6.
The bugs and curiosities don’t end there. At one point I auto-calculated the result of Kettering vs Maidstone; FIFA Manager decided a reasonable result would be 16-0. Having lost one 3D match 8-0 with a highly experimental formation, I tried reloading and auto-generating the result. With exactly the same line-up I won 2-1. No disrespect to Portsmouth fans, but when I see them regularly beating Manchester United 4-0 something strange is going on. Meanwhile, after three friendly matches in charge of Kettering Town I was offered the national managers job by no less than three countries: Iceland, Estonia and the Faroe Islands. Their faith was appreciated, but perhaps they should’ve held off any interest until I’d actually taken charge of a competitive league game. Oh yes, there’s also some disgraceful DRM ‘protection’ which will penalise legitimate buyers if they don’t immediately register with EA. Shocking stuff.
Even with every single problem fixed, this would be a pretty, but unremarkable title. Rather than fiddling about with advertising sales and RPG-esque stats, I want to be struggling with difficult, real-life issues, like racism or player vices. I want to be dealing with egomaniac chairmen with poor human rights records pressuring me to alter the first-team line-up. I want to be confronted with pressing issues like the video technology debate or the sudden introduction of a European Union-backed wage cap. This lack of creativity isn’t unique to the FIFA series; but the sanitised brand means you’re always going to be presented with changeable haircuts and goal celebration music rather than fans groups wanting a return to terracing, or South American hooligans demanding regular season tickets in return for peaceful match days. There’s a bold option for your manager to
be in a gay or lesbian relationship, but sadly this is just decorative fluff. I was rather looking forward to the impact it would have on the fans and (given that the in-game newspaper is The Sun) the media.
Failing all that, it would be nice if the game accurately reflected tactical decisions, worked smoothly and didn’t seem like a joyless slog to play. But it doesn’t, it doesn’t and it is.