Monday 10 April 2006
This is strange. On the one hand, Sports Interactive's footie venture on PSP feels as empty and dry as an alcoholic's hip flask. But on the other it's easily one of the most enjoyable management games we've ever played. Veterans of the Football Manager series, however, will froth at the mouth as you see how many key features you're missing from the PC version.
The transfer system has been streamlined to the point where you can't even exchange players to make up for your lack of funds and there's no reserve team. Heck, you can't even view a match report to check key moments of previous games.
But when you sit down and really get to grips with Football Manager Handheld, these minor fractions will fade to oblivion. You'll be too busy fretting over the five million you've just splurged on Djibril Cisse to worry about minor flaws. It's five million more than he's worth.
Above: Just as in the real world, a string of bad results can spell trouble for the manager.
Almost as oddly as parting with cash for Liverpool's goal shy miss-man, Football Manager Handheld kicks-off at the beginning of the current 2005-2006 season, but with all the moves from this January's transfer window. Vidic is at Man Yoo, Walcott's at Arsenal and half of the Spurs team are at Portsmouth. It feels weird, but it sort of makes sense.
From the outset, FM Handheld feels accessible. A couple of menu clicks later and you're ready. You can only manage a single country's teams throughout your career, rather than, for instance, being plucked from League Two obscurity to manage Inter Milan. Shame. But PSP's not exactly full of memory and you get a solid match engine in return - more on that later.
After settling into your team's dugout you'll initially be disappointed at the lack of intricate options. Most frustrating of the lot is the fact that you can't dabble with your team's formation. You're forced to choose one of 17 and unlike Championship Manager PSP you can't draw on directional arrows for passes or runs. You can still give a player instructions like run right/left/centre, mind, but you can't even move your players around the pitch to customise your formations.
However, the developer has trimmed things for good reason - the match engine. Here's a fundamentally sound piece of software that mimics real football in its purest form. Apart from watching aghast as Alex Ferguson took the reigns of lowly Doncaster, everything else feels true and observed.
Above: Inter's defenders seem to be letting the side down here. The win is within your grasp
So don't worry about absurd transfer action, like Quinton Fortune being incessantly romanced by the likes of Chelsea and AC Milan - he's rather more likely to be shipped out on loan to Wolves, just like in real life. While we're on the subject, however, you can't recall players from loan so be careful who you farm out.
And so long as you don't go all Souness and put out the same useless side every week, you won't be getting randomly drummed by lower quality teams every match.
With so much emphasis on bread and butter management, FM Handheld should wind up being lacklustre. But it isn't. The magic distilled in its core delivers an accurate and entertaining football experience thanks to its extensive database of players, clubs and competitions.
Even without a 2D pitch of Smartie-esque players, FM Handheld stokes your imagination and you end up creating your own stories (Saha owes his career to us - we fantasize about giving him a big hug, the amount of winning goals he's scored) although Rooney whinging about being dropped for a single game almost shatters that illusion.
The fact is that while there's a lack of 'bells and whistles' to distract you from the main game, Football Manager Handheld is confident of its delivery and gives you exactly what you need.
You won't find a more enjoyable managerial game anywhere else and, given the continually improving PC game, we're certain that FM Handheld will be in for a similarly long and illustrious managerial career on PSP.