Football Manager Live PC, Mac
It is no secret that being a football manager is probably the world’s worst job. Being on the pointy end of a bunch of overpaid pretty boys is never going to be the most secure job in the world – once your boys start under-performing, the filthy rich board members use you as the scapegoat for all the team’s failings, throw you out on your arse and you end up with your face on the back page of every newspaper in the country, crudely photoshopped onto the side of a garden vegetable.
Somehow, Sports Interactive have managed to take the entire experience, both good and bad, and turn it into one of the most addictive games of all time. The Football Manager series, born after SI’s split from Eidos and subsequent loss of the Championship Manager name, has been a big annual moneyspinner for Sega and consistently critically-acclaimed since the first release in 2004 and for quite some time now the expansion into the massively multiplayer realm has been on the cards. Does online football management work, though, or is it just an over-complicated version of the Premiership fantasy football website?
Now those of you who play the Football Manager games by picking one of the world’s biggest clubs and buying all of the most talented subsequently expensive footballers on the planet with your chairman’s endless pockets are going to be in for a shock. Once you’ve picked your “world”, each one supporting up to 1000 teams, you are allocated a balanced number of players from around the world. Now, none of these are Fernando Torres or Lionel Messi level players, but relatively unknown low level guys who make up your starting line-up. Couple this with the fact that you start off with very little in the way of transfer funds, this means you’re going to have to get down to some grass-roots wheeling and dealing to find the players to build up your squad.
Looking through pages and pages of players stats and comparing them against your own is still simultaneously tedious and compelling and, in the early stages at least, what you’ll spend a lot of your time doing. People who aren’t fans of football, and even those who are but simply didn’t get on with other management titles will find little to convince them here, to begin with at least. Unlike the normal FM games, this interaction in the transfer market is one of the places where the added human element gives the game a new edge. No longer is it a computer based decision whether your bid fails or is successful, but another actual human being will see your offer, think about it and get back to you with the results. Will they accept it, or will the ask for more of your money pile? Players can be sold at auction to the highest bidder while unattached players can be offered contracts from any manager, with the player going to the most lucrative offer after a 24 hour period. It is a hugely addictive process, causing your favourite writer right here to come home from work on a few lunchtimes to check my in-game emails and updates on the various deals I had on the go.
So, after you’ve pieced together something resembling a starting line-up, it is time to organise a few friendlies to test your players in. The in-game match finder is one of Football Manager Live’s many pieces of genius. Setting your status to “looking for a game” will allow all other players with the same status to be paired up together. You can tweak the various search parameters, too, allowing you to only search for friendlies or outstanding league and cup matches with online players, as well as the skill levels of other teams. Once the match has been made, you’re put into the pre-game lobby, where you have five minutes to pick your team and sort out any tactics.
Tactics. Where the difference between a good Football Manager and a poor one is made, and one of the biggest difference between Live and the normal FM games. To begin with, you have almost no control of the tactics your team will be using, and for those hardcore fans of the series, this will come as a shock. To get more control, you need to learn skills before you can use them, meaning that for quite a while, you’re going to be playing a very bare bones version of Football Manager.
When you first start up, you need to choose what kind of manager you are. Are you a tracksuit manager, who receives bonuses to squad training and coaching? Perhaps going with the “Club Doctor” option, where any stat bonuses are dedicated towards speeding up injury recoveries and rehabilitations? There are several other types, including a middle of the road “Jack of all trades” option for those of you afraid to make commitments. These are basically the classes, much like you’d expect in any other traditional MMORPG and dictate which managerial skills you start with.
Skills are learned in a similar way to EVE online; you select which skill you would like to begin training in, and it gives you a time until that skill will be completed. Some take minutes, while some of the higher level ones take literally weeks, regardless of whether you are logged into the game or not. Each skill is broken up into five stars, with each one unlocking more sub-skills to learn. For instance, hitting level three in tactics allows you to begin learning things like “Counter Attack” and “Offside Trap”, while learning more stars in those allows for more subtle use of them. Managing your time spent learning these will become just as much of your game as managing your team and allows for every manager to craft tactics based around the way they want to grow themselves.
It is a little frustrating to not have everything at your command immediately, especially if you are a FM veteran, but by learning everything in stages it gives newcomers and novice players a chance to see the new skills and the impact they can make in a match when used correctly. Tactics and formations can even be exported into your FM 2009 game, so if you come up with a winning selection, you can even try it in the usual FM setting.
The matches themselves are still just as thrilling as they’ve always been. Using the classic 2D match view, the little circles still play out a terrifyingly convincing game of football, showing you all the information you need to see what is going on, who is having a good or bad match and other essential things. Some may complain that they’ve gone without the 3D view, but it isn’t really needed when absolutely everything you NEED to see is right there in front of you with no clutter at all. A full, realistic graphical view of everything happening on a football is the last thing Football Manager needs, never mind in an online title. Not just because of the technical side of things, but because none of us are football managers, and we have no idea what really to look for during a football match (unless of course you are, in which case, you are the exception. Also what are you doing playing THIS game, of all things? This would be like me playing “HMV employee simulator”.).
Tactical changes and substitutions are made in real time through the match screen menus, while a windowed version of the match is always available to you, no matter what you are doing. Each team has a time out, used when you need time for a more complicated team change, while injuries force a minute long “emergency” time out so you can fix the hole in your team caused by that left back’s vicious tackle. Matches usually last around 5-10 minutes, and the ease of getting into one means that in a play session you can get quite a few matches finished, which is of course, the most exciting part of the game.
That is one of the main highpoints of Football Manager Live. Unlike other MMO games, where there is a lot of downtime, here you always have something to do. Every world has a week long pre-season, where friendlies can be played and there is no consequence to any actions. In this period, you pick a league based on your playing habits – how many hours you spend per week and your usual online times. League matches can be played whenever both players are online, with the A.I only taking over if the fixture isn’t resolved by a certain date. There are official cup competitions for each league and players can even create their own, with prize money on the line made up from entry fees. Once the league is over, normally within a three week period, and winners and losers are decided, the entire process begins again. So, you’re always going to have a chance, every month, to win something. Even if you log in and don’t have the time or inclination to play a match, you can still scour the transfer market or stick a new skill down to begin learning; you’ll be hard pressed to find yourself without something you need to do. For an MMO, a genre notorious for their subscription based business mode, this is a big, big plus.
As well as this, Football Manager Live is always giving you something back for your actions. Winning matches gives you prize money to spend on players or stadium upgrades, as well as upping your “world” rank – your position compared to everyone else on your server. There is also a brilliant achievements system, unlocking little badges of honour when fulfilling certain criteria, as well as telling you how many other managers have also got them. Just like on Xbox Live, they’re an addictive little distraction and something that will no doubt be a part of every game in the very near future, if not already.
As a big fan of the Football Manager games, it came as no surprise to me that I enjoyed this a lot. Hardcore fans may be put off initially by some of the initial concessions made to the tactics system, presumably to ease in any new fans, allowing them to learn the basics and each individual tactic as they acquire it, but they should find a new addictive depth here – one that can only come from playing in a world full of other managers, with other excellent footballing minds and some utter turnips. The skeleton of Football Manager is still as strong as ever, with building a team, dealing with transfers and ultimately playing matches just as compelling as it is in the usual yearly releases. It is a bargain, too, with £22.99 netting you not only the game but a three month subscription to go with it.
It has taken a while to arrive, but Football Manager Live has delivered not only an excellent online management experience, but an excellent online FOOTBALL MANAGER experience, remaining loyal to previous games while catering for the massively multiplayer market, which as anyone who has ever lost a job/wife/life to them will agree with, is a very, very good thing indeed.