As PC Invasion’s ‘one who actually likes football’, I’m fortunate enough to get the Football Manager 2016 review code tossed my way. When you’ve reviewed the last few Football Manager titles in a row, you notice that the critiques begin to adopt the same incremental annual update structure as the game itself. Go read a few reviews of Football Manager 2015 and then check some for 2016. You’ll see what I mean.
I’m not saying that’s cause for concern, necessarily. I think it’s a natural consequence for a game that’s been confident about how it presents itself for a long, long time. Significant reinvention is not seen as required (and would probably be rejected by a lot of the fan-base); it’s all about refinement, refinement, refinement. Sports Interactive sometimes take a tinker too far, and there have definitely been some weaker installments along the way (usually due to persistent odd bugs or player behaviour), but for the past half-decade or so players have pretty much known what they’ll be getting. Reviews tend to reflect this.
All of which is leading up to me writing these unsurprising words: Football Manager 2016 is not a massive overhaul of the series. Instead, its benefits are to be found in layout changes, small additions to authenticity, and a match engine that’s actually starting to move beyond ‘weird, but tolerable’ to something more closely resembling the patterns of play on a football pitch.
Underplaying the impact of consistent refinement would be a mistake, however. Compare Football Manager 2016 with last year’s, and perhaps only the obvious changes and one or two new features will immediately stand out. But try going back to, say, FM 2012 (only four years ago, a fairly standard gap for some videogame sequels), and you’ll find a pretty different game.
The great and enduring strength of the series, though, is the versatility of play that it can offer the prospective manager. Year on year, you can manage a down-and-out lower league team in far-flung locations (or the one down the road from you), or try to deal with the pressure of being manager of a top-tier club. Beyond the basic differences of managing a team with a lower or higher reputation (it’s always about money), there’s the question of what type of managerial philosophy you’ll adopt. Maybe you’ll try to develop the youth set-up and nurture a player who’ll lead your side for years to come (or be dramatically curtailed by injury), or perhaps you’re a wheeler-dealer in the transfer market who knows precisely which jaded, out-of-contract journeymen to snap up and whip into shape.
That’s the extraordinary core of every Football Manager. This game that’s ‘the same every year,’ because that repeated experience is universally compelling for almost every single fan of football.
Ideally, every annual addition supports the authenticity of the managerial fantasy in some way. Whether it’s more conversations with players and staff that might resemble the sorts of concerns raised at real clubs, or a greater cohesion between the tactics you set out and how those plans are portrayed in the 2D and 3D match engines.
The Football Manager 2016 match engine, it is claimed, has thousands of new animations and improved player AI. While I can’t exactly account for every single extra piece of mo-cap based movement, the representation of how your tactical schemes play out on the pitch is the most convincing from the series to date. The days of utterly ineffective full-backs and a defensive line that had to be forced to play as deep as humanly possible to even vaguely prevent being cut apart by through-balls (both problems from prior releases) appear to be gone. [Edit]: Though a pre-release patch appears to have made the full-backs worse again. Sigh.
Players will sometimes still dwell on the ball for longer than would appear to make sense, but there’s far less ‘ice skating’ across the turf, and nobody stands on the ball and spins through several 360 rotations any more. Fewer goals come from idiotic goalkeeping errors, too.
It’s not flawless, because of course it isn’t, but as somebody who likes to watch (at the very least) extended highlights of every game, it’s a meaningful step closer to being confident that your careful strategic choices are being accurately conveyed.
There’s an ongoing issue where Defensive Midfielders don’t always seem to get the appropriate rating recognition for their efforts (which in a worst case scenario can cause your fans to start questioning why you’re still selecting them), but that’s supposedly getting looked at.
The layout of the tactics screen itself is always a point of contention for some, and Football Manager 2016’s design will doubtless draw some split opinions. Those little shirts that you’d drag around the pitch have been replaced by very utilitarian boxes, but information that was missing from 2015’s mock-pitch (basic stuff like, um, what role a player had been designated) has returned.
Tactical subtleties are spelled out with a graphical interface and tooltip-explanation combo that work together to indicate exactly what things like “Be More Expressive” or “Get Stuck In” are going to mean to your players. The expository writing could still be a lot better in some cases. Under player instructions, the task “close down sometimes” actually means “use overall team instructions for closing down” (which may actually be high, or low). I’d also like to know which person thought calling the development of Mental stats “Tactical Training” was a good idea, when it sounds much more like something that will help with tactical familiarity. There’s probably a better way to display and organise the huge amounts of ProZone statistics hurled at you in post-match analysis screens too, but there’s undoubtedly useful information to be found if you can decipher it.
Speaking of otherwise familiar things rendered horrifying by misplacement, Football Manager 2016 now has a character creation tool. It is by far the funniest thing to happen to the game in a very long time and I absolutely love it. My in-game avatar wears a powder-blue trenchcoat, bright red trousers and looks like a ghoulish Paul Wella. Except in the randomised profile picture, where he’s more like a startled Declan Donnelly in an airbrushed blonde wig.
Both versions have more than a touch of the ‘corpse reanimated by dark magics’ about them, which perhaps explains why my Shadow Striker formation is working so well. It’s actually a goal machine driven by occult darkness and misery.
Oh, you want to gaze further into the abyss? Well, here you go.
Since it’s now canon that the managers in Football Manager all look like … that, perhaps it’s no wonder that social interactions with players and fans are still an area of weakness. Players in Football Manager 2016 seem to moan constantly about not getting enough game time, which is fair enough up to a point (everybody wants to play, after all), but gets a bit much when the fourth best left-back at the club insists he deserves a run out and the rest of the team mysteriously agree. Where’s my dialogue option for “sorry mate, you’re shite, and the only way you’re getting a game is if the black death sweeps through our training ground”.
I think some of the fans need to relax a little too. When Oldham narrowly lose a cup game 3-2 to Tottenham, I don’t really expect to see the supporters (or the media for that matter) treat it like a poor result. Football Manager generally does a pretty good job reflecting the expectations of fans, so when it does slip up it tends to stand out.
There may also be a returning issue with the weighting of AI transfers. From what I’ve experienced so far, they can be keen on cheekily offering prices equivalent to the base value of a star player (or below), while occasionally demanding absurd fees for their own players. Still, I suppose you could argue that’s just football.
It’s unlikely that I’ve stumbled across all the smaller positive changes made in this edition, because such things don’t always make themselves obvious until you’ve put a few weeks into the game. A few things of note though: you can now take (willing) staff members with you when you change jobs, medical staff will do late fitness tests on any players recovering from injury and offer an opinion along the lines of “you can probably risk him for 30 minutes”, and it’s possible to start a game with a club of your own creation.
The latter has always been possible through the accompanying editor (not yet out for Football Manager 2016, but apparently coming on release day), but it’s now integrated right into the game itself. It’s worth noting that “finances, facilities, reputation and continental qualification” are off-limits, so if you opt to invent new players you have to remain within certain constraints of the ‘base’ team you selected. This method of play is only possible in the ‘main’ Football Manager 2016, not Football Manager Touch (formerly Classic). Despite it’s new, mobile-centric name, this pared-back, simplified version of the game is still included as part of the PC release.
Whether the additions, changes and tweaks made to this edition constitute a significant improvement over past installments is going to be open to debate. The tightening up of certain aspects of the match engine provide the most compelling arguments, and things like the clear distinction between match fitness and match sharpness are welcome. As too are the more diagrammatic tactical set-up screens (some dubious wording excluded). I think series devotees (let’s not be unkind and say ‘addicts’) will be broadly pleased with what’s on show, but may have wished for further attention to some legacy quirks. New players should feel confident about diving in, as long as they’re prepared for the game’s fairly demanding learning curve. Football Manager remains a unique and expansive series, and 2016 feels like a dependable, refined inclusion in that ever-expanding line-up.