Stop! Before all you goblin-fanciers blankly flick past this review in search of mystical worlds, take a minute to gaze in wonder at the screenshots. For years you have dismissed Football Manager as a glorified spreadsheet. Even the introduction of an overhead 2D match engine couldn’t sway you from pixie boots and leprechauns. But look now, there are actual human footballers with shirts and hair and skin, some of which even relate to their real-life counterparts.
Yes, the king of football management sims has finally stepped into the ’80s with the advent of a 3D match engine, adding a further facet to what is arguably the deepest role-playing game ever made. That role is the thankless job of a football team manager, and until this year the feckless overpaid players in your charge existed only in your mind, or as a series of dots on an overhead view of a pitch. Now finally made flesh, it’s like going through the looking glass, and in gaming terms is a revelation akin to the advent of colour television. Pah, the naysayers will scoff, 3D football management games have been around for decades, the vast majority of them looking considerably better than these rancid Amiga-standard graphics.
The difference of course is that all other football management games are dogshit; the fancy 3D graphics doing little more than papering over the cracks of a paper-thin match engine and a fundamentally flawed management model. In FM 2009, the point is that the players are doing exactly what the dots were doing in previous versions of the game; it’s just the circles have been made flesh through a bit of motion capture courtesy of Sega Japan’s Virtua Striker development team. So while purists may fear that the series has sold out, rest assured that the integrity of the match engine has in no way been compromised. And besides, bluff old traditionalists can still use the 2D view. In fact, if your laptop is more than a few years old, you’ll have no choice.
With the concept behind the leap into 3D hopefully established, what is the experience actually like? Much as we love the game, let’s not pretend that it’s like watching Match of the Day. Rudimentary at best, the graphics occupy the middle ground between the original Football Manager on the Spectrum, and the latest version of FIFA. While remaining watchable, it’s not without its quirks; with players getting tangled up in each other and passing the time with the odd spot of moonwalking. In general, it takes some getting used to, particularly when the action freezes in order to advance the clock. In the previous text commentary or 2D modes, it wasn’t particularly noticeable, but seeing footballers suspended in mid-air while the game zips forward to the next highlight does tend to make you think it’s broken.
Either way, the action can be watched from a variety of vantage points, from the main stand to behind the corner flag, or even an overhead Sensible Soccer view. And when in full-screen TV mode, a variety of so-called widgets can be displayed, showing player ratings and so on, although it gets a bit cluttered with more than two or three open at once. While it’s tempting to think that with all the attention on the 3D engine the rest of the game has been neglected, as ever the tireless drones at Sports Interactive have been ceaselessly building upon perfection, with such evolutions as increased Assistant Manager feedback, more media involvement, and an overhauled transfer system.
And as ever, it’s the same life-sapping experience it has always been. As the nights draw in and clinical depression due to a lack of socialisation rears its ugly head, it’s reassuring to know that there’s a place you can go where your actions mean something and people know your name, even if it is just some pretend footballers with the wrong coloured hair.
Even without the 3D engine, Football Manager 2009 is still fully deserving of its classic rating, providing a staggeringly comprehensive simulation of the complex world of management. We predict a few patches before the match engine is fully functioning, but even in its current state, it tangibly enhances the experience.
Nov 19, 2008