Football Manager 2011 Review (PC)
After 18 years, no one should doubt Sports Interactive's ability to release another quality version of Football Manager. But does Football Manager 2011 really warrant another 30 odd dollars, or is it just another data update?
The answer is an emphatic yes. It’s definitely worth the money. While there's nothing revolutionary in this year's game, many of the smaller additions in FM 2011 combine to make playing the game a much more dynamic experience than past versions.
The Middle Men
As fans of the two Manchester Premier League teams can attest, agents are unscrupulous characters who can give managers sleepless nights, their clients wanderlust, and their own bank accounts an extra million or two. And now you have the misfortune of having to deal with them in Football Manager 2011.
Accompanying the agents is a new contract negotiation system. Instead of submitting an offer and waiting a few days for a player’s decision, negotiations are now done in real time. Basically, it’s a screen with several changing dollar amounts and clauses. You get a few chances to propose and counter propose until either an agreement is reached, or somebody walks away. How successful you are depends on how much you're willing to concede, as well as the agent's characteristics.
Different agents have different personalities. Some pimp their clients out behind your back, while others are more open to their players staying tied down. The greedier ones will not only ask for silly money during contract negotiations, but once they are aware of other teams' interest in their players, they will immediately come to you to demand a better deal so their clients do not cast envious glances elsewhere.
If things felt mundane and distant before, the addition of agents and the revamped negotiation system make the process feel almost exciting -- if anybody can call a contract negotiation that. You now have to figure out when to stand your ground and call an agent's bluff, and when to realize it's time to acquiesce for the good of your team.
May I Have a Word?
Manager-player interaction has also been given an upgrade in the form of "private chats." And it’s about time. In previous FM titles, whenever you wanted to communicate with a player on your team -- from asking him to play a simpler passing game to reprimanding him for poor performances -- you had to do so through the media, which frankly was unrealistic. Thankfully, in FM 2011 you can make those very same requests to your players without going 10 rounds in the press.
For those fearing that these "conversations" will be overly black and white, worry not. Even though there are ideal answers in every situation, most of the time there will be more than one that provokes a positive reaction, and a few that won’t change anything at all. Player personalities are dynamic and they do change over time, so a player who was once a disruptive hellraiser can potentially mature into a consummate professional and become much more receptive to a wider range of responses. What I'm basically saying here is that you don't have to scramble to save your game before every chat.
All Around the World
The game’s database remains as deep as ever. With leagues spanning the six continents and plenty of lower divisions, you can start your virtual career almost anywhere you want (just not in the Japanese J League because of licensing issues.) Player ratings are detailed and mostly on the mark. These attributes, some of which are hidden, govern their on-pitch performances and off-pitch behaviors.
What struck me most in this year's FM is that players from different countries really show distinctive personalities that are true to life. For example, many German players playing in the Bundesliga are reluctant to move abroad, even if the likes of Manchester United or Barcelona come calling; and South America churns out a fair share of skilled players who just don’t seem to adapt well to the Premier League.
Mighty Steaua Bucharest of Romania?
FM 2011 introduces the concept of Dynamic League Reputation. Basically, each country's league reputation rises and falls depending on how well its teams do in continental competitions, thereby affecting the caliber of players that are willing to play there. If you take control of a lowly Romanian side and lead it to Champions League victory after Champions League victory, it is not impossible to witness Romania become a soccer powerhouse in a decade or two. This makes a huge difference in long-term games because each individual game has a unique soccer world with its own power balance.
These long-term games are addictive and will potentially have you playing for months. However, you may find that it is a tad too easy building and sustaining long periods of dominance, especially with the big clubs. If you deploy your scouts properly, there’s very little difficulty in snapping up all the best and brightest youngsters in the world -- very seldom do players slip under the radar until they reach their early 20s like some do in real life.
You won't get much competition from other powerful clubs for your bid either because most of the time they seem too preoccupied with other, more inferior, prospects. Once in a while they will still unearth a gem that you wish you had got to first, or their academy will produce one or two world beaters, but a lot of the time top AI managers will acquire young players with some really questionable attributes.
The Brits’ Revenge for Tom Hicks
FM 11 dropped the ball when it comes to the MLS.
The league is still very much playable, and most of its zany rules are represented in the game accordingly. But for a game where realism is the priority, the MLS pales in comparison to the rest of the leagues.
The biggest problem is the trading. It’s basically a modified version of the in-game transfer engine, which is a nice way of saying that the developers have added the trading of draft picks and allocation funds, and they have removed the option of actual money changing hands. What you're left with is an overly simplified system where you can only acquire one player per transaction. So forget about any two-for-two deals, and don't even think about three-team trades. Plus, you can't swap draft picks either because the trade screen only initiates when you select a player to trade for.
If you have a disgruntled player you're looking to offload, good luck. For some reason the option to offer a player to another team is disabled in the MLS, so there's no trading block to speak of in the game. You can still transfer list a player, but you cannot actively offer him out to see what you can get back.
You must instead wait for the other teams to come to you, or you have to manually scour each squad and try your luck with individual players. Combine that with the lack of trade feedback from opposing GMs (too often it feels like you're taking a shot in the dark when proposing an offer), and you're much better off looking for free transfer deals because trading with other teams within the league is so tedious and frustrating.
On the Pitch
The game’s 3-D engine is better than last year's effort; there are new weather effects, player movements and better looking stadium models. But at the end of the day, it's still a somewhat basic looking engine. Whether you'll be satisfied with the graphics depends on your expectations. If all you're looking for is a representation, instead of a replication, of the game itself, FM 2011's graphics will get the job done. Expect anything more than that, and you’ll likely be disappointed.
The match engine itself is fairly realistic. Players read and react to situations according to their instructions and attributes, but there is still the occasional bizarre moment. World class center backs will misjudge a header under no pressure, and goalkeepers can do some really silly things. Fortunately, they happen quite rarely, so if you are willing to overlook these blunders once or twice a season (and pray that they don't happen during a crucial match), you'll be just fine.
FM is just not one of those games designed for online gaming. First of all, you're going to need a friend or two who is willing to play as long as you do every time you fire up a session. There is a "holiday mode" where you let your assistant manager take control of the team if you can't play, but why would you want to do that? And if you do find a companion, there is some serious lag. When clicking from menu to menu, I've experienced between five to 15 seconds of delay. It might give me time to clear my head about the big money transfer I'm about to seal, but most of the time it's just frustrating.
If you're a soccer fan, or just a fan of managerial games in general, you owe it to yourself to try FM 2011 -- and that goes for those who purchased last year’s game, too. While many games on the market now serve up a great simulation of their respective sport, none of them is yet able to match Football Manager's all-around experience. This is a game where you don't feel like you're operating inside a vacuum where you're the only one doing anything. Instead, players and leagues change over time, and others react to your actions and everything else that goes on in the game world. In short, it gives you the feeling that you're just one of many managers doing all he can do to adapt and succeed in the game. Good luck.
On the Pitch: FM 2011 does an excellent job simulating the tactical and player-management side of a manager’s career, as well as the transfer and negotiation side -- if you’re not managing in the MLS, that is.
Visuals: The 3-D engine does an adequate enough job representing soccer on the pitch, but smoother and deeper animations would’ve been nice. For a game with so much information to keep track of, the menu layout is surprisingly well structured to present information without much clutter.
Audio: Do generic "oohs" and "ahhs" count as sound? It's not a big deal right now, but at some point SI should look to spice up the audio front because right now the audio adds very little to the match experience.
Entertainment Value: Long-term games are addictive. As usual, this edition of Football Manager will probably be responsible for more than a few breakups.
Learning Curve: An in-game wizard, online manual, and the Tactics Creator help newcomers get acclimatized to the game, but you’re still going to have to put in a fair share of hours to get the most out of FM 2011.
Online: Bit of a letdown, especially with the lag.
Score: 8.5 (Excellent)