Football Manager 2018 is a tough game to size up. On one hand, it’s still as addictive as ever, and possible to sink a dozen hours into a single sitting. On the other, it represents a step backwards for the long-running management series. New arrivals this year include an emphasis on man management with Dynamics, an overhauled scouting system, a fresh user interface and graphics engine, and a few other neat tweaks here and there. It’s those flagship features, though, that amount to the game spinning too many plates. Changes for the sake of changes sours an otherwise engaging experience.
Let’s start with Dynamics. Your squad is now grouped into set cliques: leaders carry a great deal of influence, nationalities and languages spoken play a huge role, and there are some that only exist on the fringes of the social strata. Making sure these players gel is down to you. Good luck, you’re gonna need it.
The life of a manager is fraught at the best of times, but replicating the feeling of walking on eggshells amongst the prima donnas of the Premier League doesn’t necessarily equate to entertaining gameplay. That’s without the game instantly putting you at a disadvantage if you haven’t ticked a few arbitrary boxes when setting up your manager profile. If you’re anything below a Pro License manager, you’re going to get eaten alive at a top-tier club. It’s not fun, and feels inherently unfair.
Take, for example, my current career. Having taken over Crystal Palace, my attempts to offload Jason Puncheon (whom my coaches don’t rate as up to Premier League standard) is met with mutiny by my squad. I look at the Dynamics screen: he’s a leader. For new players, this might be an easier pill to swallow, for veterans it’s another shedload of metagame management that is unnecessary at best and, seasons down the line, potentially career-ending and ruinous.
There are undoubted positives to this year’s iteration, though. Scouting now more closely replicates its real-life counterpart by putting more of the onus on your staff. You’re no longer able to magically pluck a world-class youngster out of thin air; the hours need to be put in to identify, watch, and eventually bid for players. It feels far more gratifying, even if the hands-off, lack of instant-win approach might grate with some.
The graphical engine, too, has undergone a much-needed revamp. Gone are the clunky animations and mid-‘00s era graphics and, in its place, comes something resembling actually watchable. In previous years, 3D was absolutely out of the question for me. Now, especially as the 2D Classic view has disappointingly transformed into something akin to a Frankenstein’s monster of 2D graphics, it’s actively encouraged. If you’re a hardcore 2D fan, though, then you need to be aware that the new graphics engine means that 2D simply won’t look like it has done in the past. Thankfully, it’s easy to adjust to. I’ve spent hours using both 2D and 3D and each work just as well.
These sorts of tweaks, however, are masked by the frankly ugly new user interface. For every new additional position - with Mezzala being a favourite - there’s a god-awful match menu giving you an information overdose. For every Match Plan - which efficiently enables you to instantly change tactics based on different match scenarios - there’s one button click too many compared to last year. It’s like taking one step forward outside your house, complaining it’s too nice outside, and running back in to go and draw on the walls.
New users welcome?
It’s also worth noting that, for every Football Manager vet, there are going to be players who will be making their debuts this year in gaming’s greatest time-sink. For those people, additions such as the pre-match tactical match briefing will be a godsend, as it works as a nice crutch to help work out what does and doesn’t work in-game. The upgraded set of analysis tools at your disposal will also make identifying your team’s shortcomings – as well as your opponents’ – easier than ever before, which is a welcome addition.
Elsewhere though, it’s hard to recommend this version to newcomers over previous efforts, updated squads notwithstanding. There’s simply too much going on, and you’d be far better off learning the ropes on its more forgiving vanilla cousin FM Touch (which you get free with every copy of the main game) before stepping into the breach.
In football parlance, Football Manager 2018 is a case of Pardew-esque all-singing *shudder* all-dancing over a more pragmatic, forward-thinking approach. Lots of style but very little substance, no matter how fruitful the product. Having said that, there’s still very little here to dissuade FM diehards from picking the game up again and thrashing out several hundred hours. Despite the game’s best efforts, the core, utterly consuming, gameplay is still intact - it’s just bolted on to a bunch of unnecessary features.