I’m struggling to meet expectations at a newly relegated club with a fat wage bill and fatter expectations, my star player wants to leave, and nobody pays any attention to my dressing room talks. Things, in other words, are roughly as you’d expect in Football Manager 2018.
The latest in the long, long running series includes even more ways to see why your players are sulking and who’s forming a rebellious clique against your glorious rule. It also overhauls the scouting system to make it more awkward to find replacements for these traitors. In general though, a lot of the changes seem to be bringing to the surface information that previously would’ve been hidden away in code. That feels like a sound choice.
Let’s start with ‘Dynamics’, which is Football Manager 2018 shorthand for “how much do your squad despise you at this particular moment?”
Juggling player happiness and morale has been a significant part of Football Manager for a fairly long time now. Everybody has had to deal with an over-confident ‘Rotation’ player who thinks he should be getting more time on the pitch, or the superstar who’s itching to leave for a bigger club. The series has steadily got better at giving you options to deal with that; like informing players that they’re not in the starting line-up because your first choice is playing perfectly well thank you very much.
The Dynamics screen (and attendant systems) make the influential players in the team clearer, and delineates the various social groups within the squad. I strongly suspect a lot of this (maybe all of it?) has been present in the code all along, but being able to actually see it is often helpful.
For example, in Football Manager 2018, you now have a much better idea whether it’s sensible to stand firm against player requests, or whether pushing your luck might risk an outright revolt. You still don’t have many options available to you if your best player decides he wants out, but I suppose that’s a pretty realistic reflection of contemporary management.
If you see that an unhappy player is outside the influential team hierarchies, however, you can feel safer telling him how you really feel. Nobody’s going to be throwing a fit on his behalf.
Dynamics also keeps track of your ‘Match Cohesion’, which, again, I’m fairly sure was bubbling away in hidden code in previous versions. You now have a specific option to boost cohesion through training, to help the squad ‘gel’ as quickly as possible. It takes time no matter what (especially if you’ve bought a whole new set of players from all over the world), so it’s useful to have a visual indication of the progress being made; and a short text summary of how poor/good cohesion will impact a match.
Football Manager 2018’s ‘Medical Center’ is another area where it feels like pre-existing parameters have been pushed into the light. Those Sports Scientists now actually have something to do; inform you whether your training methods and match schedule are likely to cause injuries in your squad. Inadvertently, it may also have revealed that the AI assistants you can leave in charge of training are pretty reckless when it comes to risking harm to your players.
Injuries can still happen, obviously. But being given a clear warning when you’re pushing your team through too many exercises is useful.
The Medical Center compiles a handy list of injury histories too, which means you can keep an eye on anybody who’s getting reoccurring problems. If it’s clear they’re a crock, you can move them on in the transfer window.
Speaking of potential transfers, the revamp to scouting feels less successful. The big new thing here is a separate scouting budget that gets spent on various league ‘packages’, presumably embracing the trend towards clubs using data and statistics and all that jazz. For lower league clubs (I’ve been managing in the French third tier) that leaves you stuck with pretty average player suggestions. I like the ease with which you can now tell your scouts “find me a left-back, urgently”, but when the only names they come back with are worse than your current options, it feels like wasted time.
I tend to judge the scouting system on whether it’s better than me at finding suitable new players for the club. In Football Manager 2018 I’ve had a lot more success just browsing through the reserve sides or main squads of teams in higher leagues, looking for disgruntled players or prospective loan signings to point my scouts towards. I suspect the time-honoured method of manually combing through players discarded by higher level clubs will be preferable to the game’s own scouting system too. That suggests it’s a bit of a flop.
Data Analysts at least get something to do here (it’s a big release for the fringe staff roles from FM2017); they can provide additional reports on players, informing you of things like pass completion rates. That is, if they’re actively playing matches.
The analyst will send you a summary of your upcoming opponent ahead of games as well. Unfortunately, in my main save, these were always overviews of a prior match against exactly the same team (one stuck in the relegation zone), so they were of limited use.
The new pre-match tactical briefing screen seems pretty superfluous. Here, you can supposedly go over your match tactics, inform your team why you’ve opted for a given formation, tell them to mark an opposition player closely, and various other plans. That’s all fine, but it feels a lot like you’re just doubling up on existing instructions. If I tell the team to mark somebody tightly in the pre-match brief, and I’m already telling them to do it in the team (or individual) instructions, do they mark that person extra tight? Probably not, I’m guessing. There’s absolutely no way to tell, which rather demonstrates the problem.
Pre-match briefings also suffer from the same issue as Football Manager’s persistent interviews; inane repetition. More often than not you’re just clicking through to tell the team exactly the same things as last week. If there’s a specific point to the pre-match briefings (beyond very occasional situational comments and a vague sense of verisimilitude), I’ve yet to figure it out.
The main tactics screen has had a UI overhaul, which, like a lot of the UI changes this year, is going to bother some people. Sports Interactive absolutely love moving bits of the UI around year-on-year. When, like with Football Manager 2017, it reduces the number of click-throughs and flows neatly together, it’s quite welcome. Football Manager 2018, in contrast to last year, feels rather click heavy in places.
I was using the 125% text boost and playing in windowed mode, so the above image compresses the various tables even more than usual. Still you should get the general idea. The tactics ‘field’ has been expanded, but still shares a single screen with the squad selection segment. You can expand and reduce areas of the screen to see more of one or the other. It took time to get used to, but I’m just about there after 20-odd hours.
There are some useful feature additions here. It’s finally possible to set individual instructions that are ‘personalised’ to a given player in a tactic. That’s incredibly helpful for situations where, for example, you have a substitute defender who can’t pass to save their life (so you tell them, and them alone, to stick to easy passes). Those instructions should now follow that player around in Football Manager 2018. I’ve found that they mostly do stick, but can sometimes not show up.
The tactical pitch overview has been given an analysis overlay highlighting strengths and weaknesses in your set-up. It focuses heavily on space (whether you’re leaving areas of the pitch uncovered), and gives a pretty good at-a-glance idea of whether your team shape has any clear problems.
A few new roles are in too. There are now so many that the distinctions between a ‘Carrilero’ and more standard ‘water carrying’ defensive midfield roles are starting to blur, but I’m not going to complain about further breadth to player options. Likewise, the ‘Mezzala’ seems rather like a Box to Box midfielder, yet with more emphasis on attacking (which, yes, sounds a bit like an attacking midfielder). Handy though, if you have someone suited to that very specific style of play.
As always, Sports Interactive have done some work on the game’s match engine. That work is partly visual (the lighting looks a bit nicer, there’s more mo-cap animation, a few stadiums now have picnic tables next to the pitch for some reason), and partly mechanical. Wide players seem more inclined to actually attempt crosses (instead of bizarre shots from stupid angles), and full-backs seem less dreadful than I recall them being in FM2017. In general, it’s felt like a moderate improvement all around.
Some silliness from prior versions does definitely remain, though. I was never exactly a regular at lower league matches, but I don’t recall seeing overhit crosses almost ending up as accidental goals multiple times per game. My number one wish for Football Manager 2019 is to see the “he almost got lucky with that! / he certainly didn’t mean that!” events reduced in frequency by about 90%.
It’s worth stating for the record that this review is based on the ongoing (albeit soon to conclude) beta version of Football Manager 2018. Things may change slightly before release; though for the past two versions I’ve found that the match engine actually got slightly worse in the final build, so they won’t necessarily change for the better.
One aspect that will hopefully improve are the odd hiccups in performance. There are bizarre pauses between match events like yellow cards being issued, and strange periods where the game just decides to run at 30-ish fps instead of the usual smooth 60. I’ve also had the game just hang up entirely when moving through the weekly calendar. This is on a PC (i5-6600 / 16GB RAM / 4GB 380X) fully capable of running the game.
By now, regular players of Football Manager will be used to the annual release pattern. Each new game will have a list of incremental improvements as long as your arm (in 2018 you can now request that your amateur side go semi-pro, announce your intention to retire ahead of time, be asked whether a player on two goals should take a penalty for this third, and many more), and one or two headline changes. The latter tend to either be great from the beginning, or are underdeveloped and get altered or spruced up next year.
Football Manager 2018’s scorecard can put Dynamics and a general move towards information transparency (via the sports scientist injury risk reports, analyst data, etc) in the broadly successful column. There will be individual inconsistencies in the Dynamics system for sure, but it’s a largely welcome look at how your players are feeling about things and the power they wield at the club. Scouting, I think, is a bit of a disappointment. I see what Sports Interactive were going for, but when manually thumbing through the database is far, far more successful than leaving it to your scouting professionals, then something is amiss. Likewise, the point of the pre-match briefing system still eludes me.
Football Manager is an annual series that really only has to worry about competing with itself. Aside from a few pipe dream projects on Steam, there are really no other football management titles around. Despite not all the feature changes being an unqualified success, Football Manager 2018 is still to be recommended as an absurdly detailed simulation title. To this day, it has a propensity for generating narratives rivaled only by the Paradox grand strategy games. But if you do already own Football Manager 2017 I’d regard the yearly upgrade as gently desirable rather than an urgent necessity.