Here’s the problem reviewers of Football Manager 2012 face; it’s an unusual case of a title which has a large, devoted fanbase who don’t necessarily consider themselves gamers. They’re obsessed with Football Manager though, which means it’s almost pointless for this write-up to perform the role of a ‘buyers guide’, as (thanks to the demo) the majority of people reading it are likely to have a fairly clear idea how this installment differs from the last one already.
That’s not a total abdication of responsibility, it’s just an acknowledgement that the newer features in Football Manager 2012 (FM2012) will already have been analysed to death elsewhere. Instead, let’s consider the state of the football management genre in 2011 and FM’s general approach in relation to it.
There are no longer the wealth of management titles that we had to choose from in the mid to late 1990s, in part due to the sweeping success of Championship Manager (which, as fans know, is what ultimately became Football Manager after a split from Eidos). Despite an attempted resurgence with Championship Manager 2010, that name now appears to have decamped to the land of mobile devices. The only other major contender, the FIFA Manager series, is sustained by EA Sports money and a somewhat bizarre focus on setting pie prices and giving your manager skiing lessons.
In terms of ‘serious’ management (in the sense that it adopts the veneer of realism, while still being a game), FM has a virtual monopoly.
The last edition I played was FM2010. It was the second outing for Sports Interactive’s 3D match engine and seemed, to me, to represent a move away from total statistical overload. Tactics in that version could be created by answering a few text-based questions about your preferred style of play, and backroom staff would offer written advice about the activities of your team.
FM2012 continues in this direction, to the extent that the game now features a fair amount of interaction through dialogue. Every match has at least one press conference, in which you’re asked questions about the upcoming game, recent events with your team and even leading queries that attempt to spark rivalries with other league managers. Prior to kick off, and at half time, you’re encouraged to give morale-boosting team talks in the correct ‘tone’ of voice (ranging from the curiously expletive-free ‘aggressive’ to ‘reluctant’). As well as private one-on-one chats with players, team meetings are now an option, allowing you to hilariously cripple the confidence of your entire squad in one fell swoop.
As a system, it feels closest to the party management and quest dialogue from an RPG, complete with choices (do you stand by your goal-shy striker or put the boot in and hope it fires him up?) and consequences (he feels more motivated and/or has a massive strop).
While greater interaction with press and players is welcome, especially as success in actual football surely has as much to do with man-management as knowing about pretty passing triangles, the sheer number of conversations leads to repetition. Even within the space of a single league season, you’ll have seen most of the ‘private chat’ dialogue options and figured out that team talks and press conferences have certain ‘patterns’ to them. Sending the assistant manager to do your talking for you is still an option, but it runs the risk of him saying something foolhardy.
This makes the business of chatting to people connected with your club a bit more boring than it should be. Player personality occasionally sneaks through (guys like Balotelli and Cassano are tricky to deal with), but you’ll never have to deal with anything particularly controversial, like sexual indiscretion or a spot of shoplifting. It’s likely that Sports Interactive is bared from adding anything too risqué in case it offends any named footballers, but it’s a shame nonetheless.
At times it seems as though FM2012’s text is over-reaching it’s own engine, too. When asking by the press if a French player in my squad would be helping my new French signing with language issues, I enthusiastically said “Sure!” But when I searched around for an option to actually trigger this, I came up short. Perhaps players of similar nationalities just naturally begin helping one another out, or maybe I just never dug out the right option, but the point is that the outcome was left unclear.
This is a case where more transparent numbers and statistics could actually help. If my assistant manager is telling me that someone “is having trouble blending with the squad”, it’d be helpful to have a visual indication of what (if any) effect this is having. A little ‘-2’ next to the player’s passing statistic, or something of that nature. Having a quick heads-up that something is wrong is great, but players need a sense of what effect the problem is having, and an indication how to fix it.
FM2012 has constructed a fairly convincing illusion of player interaction, so when there’s a disconnect between the textual options and the hidden number crunching it feels rather jarring. If a player has slagged me off at a team meeting, I should be able to demote him to the reserves and make him aware this is the reason why. At present, that’s not an option.
Of course, the numbers and stats are still very much a part of the game. It’s possible to create a tactic for your side without even seeing a breakdown of each player’s numerical abilities, but it’s never advantageous to ignore them outright. In this sense, the learning curve hasn’t actually been eased as much as it first appears. Yes, it’s quicker and simpler to get a team out there and playing, but to truly get the most out of them you get the sense that it’s crucial to form an understanding of some of the stats and tactical sliders.
However, even when you have to start digging around to find out which of your defenders is least likely stare gormlessly as a forward waltzes past him, FM2012 is kind enough to highlight which stats are important to each role in the team (there’s no point trying to get by with a playmaker who can’t pass, to choose an extreme example). Elsewhere, there’s a handy new ‘team report’ screen which shows a star rating for players in each position of the field, so you can quickly see who plays best in each area and where your side needs strengthening.
As is ever the case with management titles, you have to take it on trust that the decisions you’re making will be accurately reflected in the behind-the-scenes calculations of the match engine (whether you opt for old school text or the 3D version, which is barely changed from FM2011). With team-talks and meetings you can at least see a direct, immediate effect on morale (you have to assume this is being translated as an effect on the pitch, but still). When you change tactics around, you can study the match engine as much as you like and still not be entirely sure whether what you’re seeing is a direct result of your tactical choices.
All sport involves an element of luck too, which only serves to complicate matters when this is being simulated by an artificial intelligence. Were you undone by tactical ineptitude, or were the other side just calculated to be ‘lucky’ on the day? Did your defenders ignore their instructions to tightly mark the opposing strikers for some unspecified reason, or were they just outwitted? A lack of clear, defined feedback from the game means a lot of these questions remain unanswered. Granted, real-life managers probably ask themselves the same things, but they don’t have to worry about a mysterious set of mathematical algorithms deciding their fate.
The Football Manager series is at the point where it’s so in-depth that a steep learning curve is inevitable, even necessary, for players to get the most out of it. Attempts are clearly being made by Sports Interactive to open the title up to more players (a new tutorial mode, though somewhat scant, is welcome), and the game is now catering fairly effectively to those who want to quickly put some tactics together from a pre-existing base as well as those who want to spend hours tinkering with specifics.
Yet there’s still work to be done in terms of providing transparent information to the player. A lot of FM devotees simply know ‘how stuff works’ at this stage thanks to their experience with the series, but basic things like a step-by-step guide on how to create a relatively solid defensive line would be a godsend to those just starting out. The options, opportunities and bare statistics remain near-overwhelming, and the title needs to improve the ways it communicates the consequences of player-actions. My big hope for FM2013 would be greater transparency in how tactical changes and decisions are interpreted by the match engine.
A good chunk of this review has been somewhat critical, so it must be asserted that FM2012 still does tactical and database depth better than any other management title out there. The series’ domination of the management genre is not in question, but there are still areas where it could step up its game.