Football Manager 2017 is a very particular title to critique, because it can really only be compared with itself (that is to say, earlier games in the series). There are a few others in the statistics-based sports management genre (Out of the Park Baseball among them), but Sports Interactive’s annual juggernaut is the only game in town when it comes to football. It’s not like the latest FPS or open world single player title, where there are a wealth of other contemporary games with which to compare style and approach.
Consequently, looking at Football Manager is no longer a case of simply asking whether it does sports management well (broadly, the answer has been yes for a long time), but examining incremental changes and debating their worth. In addition, I think it’s always beneficial to pick out longer-term flaws and obscurities in the series, and see if they’ve been addressed.
Before getting any deeper into that, it’s worth tossing out the (by now) standard caveat about pre-launch Football Manager 2017 reviews. Everything written here is based on 25-ish hours of play with the Beta version of the game. Last year, the launch version made some changes that arguably, and subjectively, made it worse than the pre-release Beta (issues with defensive shapes and eerily efficient full-backs that persisted with 2016 happily seem reversed here). There’s always a possibility this may happen again.
Most of that time in the Beta was spent trying to save my job at Serie B outfit Perugia, which proved to be a task ultimately doomed to failure. After setting a club record for length of time without a win (do I get a special plaque for that?), the lads found a bit of form and I found a set of tactics that were less suicidal. Unfortunately, the expected top half finish was a long way off at that point, and even a series of solid unbeaten runs couldn’t bolster board confidence. Eventually given an ultimatum of getting nine points for the next five games, I fell short by a single point thanks to a couple of late goalkeeping errors. Perugia’s chairman was as good as his word, and I was out the door.
Shortly afterwards I found my way to Wurzburg, a second division German team with ten games left to save their league status. This was a nerve-wracking affair, full of hanging on to 3-2 leads after being 3-0 up, dealing with incredibly unhelpful injuries, and admonishing a dressing room full of disgruntled players from the prior regime. Here though, I managed to grind out enough success to get the job done. The two jobs spanned just one season, but possessed almost everything there is to love about Football Manager 2017 and the series as a whole; embattled under-achievement, failure by the narrowest of margins, anxiety, joy, and redemption in equal measure.
It’s worth keeping that positivity in mind as I proceed to moan about other things to varying degrees. The most significant UI changes in this year’s release are the addition of a new hashtag-filled, definitely-not-twitter ‘social feed’ and an increase in the number of actions you can take directly from your inbox. This latter change is, for the most part, incredibly helpful.
When you get messages from your backroom team saying “hey, this guy should probably go out on loan” or “do you want to scout this guy?” you can quickly assess whether you want to do that and click a button to implement the decision. The system has a couple of minor blind spots (assigning people to set-pieces still just takes you to the relevant tactical screen rather than just adding another corner/free-kick taker with a single click, so it saves no real time), but is predominantly beneficial. You spend so much time in the UI of Football Manager (I mean, most of it is UI) that any and all shortcuts are welcome.
The social feed stuff is less impressive. I can appreciate Sports Interactive’s efforts to incorporate twitter ‘bantz’ into Football Manager 2017, but it suffers from a couple of significant authenticity problems. There’s absolutely no way actual social media vitriol and invective can be replicated by a generally family-and-license-friendly game, so regardless of whether the pretend-tweets are positive or negative they all come across in a bit of a stilted 1960s “play up, chaps!” comic strip tone. It also falls foul of a persistent Football Manager problem with social interactions; things begin to repeat very, very swiftly.While it’s worthwhile to implement hypothetical outcomes for Britain’s Article 50 departure from the European Union in the game, perhaps some of those resources could have gone towards preventing match reporters (still) asking the exact same questions for weeks on end.
It serves basically no purpose to be answering “so, does playing earlier/later than your relegation rivals have an impact on this game?” every single week. Either save the interview questions for actual, meaningful events (and, my preferred option, also give them a tangible impact), or massively expand the number of questions that can be asked. Sure, you can ignore the media interactions or send your assistant manager instead, but I’d rather this aspect of the game were improved rather than just disposable. Especially given the clear focus the series puts upon it.
Likewise, Football Manager 2017 needs to decide whether my team are evenly-matched, massive underdogs, or slight favourites in any given match. League position, team values, and pre-match reports can all suggest an even contest, only for my post-match team talk to be full of “amazing effort lads, nobody gave us a prayer in this one” type options. This phenomena seemed to function in reverse at times, with a solid draw away at the top side in the league presenting fairly disinterested team talk choices. Odd stuff.
Long-term, my main problem with the Football Manager series has been the inconsistent way it displays information to the player. In some ways this feels like the side-effect of so many incremental changes building and adding to now-aging systems. There are actually some examples of much improved clarity of information in this edition; new player comparison charts are useful, and I’m delighted that backroom staff will now offer a view on how many defend/support/attack duties are recommended for any given tactical mentality. This is a step in the right direction towards greater guidance in balancing transitions of play.
Other aspects remain, at best, obscure, and at worst outright misleading. Veteran players probably won’t trip up on these things, but you have to feel sorry for any new players reading the blurbs for tactical mentalities and thinking ‘Defensive’ is one step up from just parking the bus. In fact, it’s a great one to select when you’re trying to maintain patient, controlled possession (which can result in a style of football that’s anything but ‘Defensive’). Similarly, ‘Control’ sounds as if it’s the one to pick if you’re a classy team wanting to beat up a minnow. But it actually instructs players to be fast, aggressive, and take a lot of risks with their passing. This can inadvertently play right into the hands of smaller teams, who’ll soak up pressure and play on the counter.
You can figure out all of these things by paying close attention to how mentalities adjust the team instructions, but it’s an example of how Football Manager’s little explanatory tool-tip summaries can often give entirely the wrong impression. It’s fair to say that the game’s concept would begin to unravel if there was absolute transparency between how individual changes translate to the match engine, but further clarity would go a long way.
Consider a high ‘Flair’ stat, which might sound great in isolation but is actually pretty useless unless the player also has great Vision/Passing or Speed/Dribbling. Without that combo, they’ll just give the ball away a whole bunch and be less effective than a competent clogger with low Flair. Or think about how often the Assistant Manger has chimed in with things like “you’re struggling to retain possession!” when your tactic specifically sets out to allow the opposition to have a lot of the ball and play harmlessly in front of you. That sort of seemingly helpful advice can spook a newer player into making big changes, when in fact there could be absolutely nothing wrong.
Those issues are not specific to Football Manager 2017, but to the series itself. They’re things regular players learn with experience and experimentation, but it would be helpful to clear some of them up entirely. Assistant Manager advice in particular needs a radical overhaul to actually be assisting in a meaningful way.
But despite additions like the social feed being underwhelming, longer-term problems with clarity of information, and aspects like media interaction being more tedious than thrilling, Football Manager 2017 is difficult to stay away from if you crave the pressure of the technical area. It’s difficult to say whether matters would be improved if the series had any competition (probably, a bit), yet even without another title’s ambitions breathing down the collar of its shirt the game is absorbing like few others. My most recent Perugia/Wurzburg exploits were terrific, full of exactly the right amounts of contractual shenaniagans, on-field drama, and strategic demands that I’d hope for in a management saga.
All of which makes this an especially awkward game to score. As a football management title, it’s the best in a field of one; but would likely still top any potential competition (it bested the post-split Championship Manager for a spell, after all). In terms of an iterative advancement, Football Manager 2017 is not one of the more vital additions. There are some useful tweaks (rapid inbox decision-making among them) and the match engine appears to be more consistent in its portrayals (though again, I’m wary of making pronouncements there after last year’s post-Beta changes). But unless playing the Football Manager Draft spin-off mode in single player is a must-have feature for you, the most crucial thing here is, as ever, the updated database.
It’s exhilarating and absorbing. It’s flawed in places and lacking some clarity. It’s the one outstanding football management title on the market. It’s another annual iteration. If Football Manager 2017 can only really be judged against its prior selves, then this counts as a minor improvement; but as the seasons pass, the need for more substantial overhauls to certain aging systems also draws closer.