Long-standing fans of Sports Interactive’s monolithic Football Manager series will know that every entry into the prestigious saga carries with it hours upon hours of distinct and enticing gameplay.
A review of a Football Manager game, therefore, requires long-running and excruciating attention to detail over a large period of time, in order to properly capture both the scale of the game and its magnificence.
Since its release on November 10th this year, I’ve sunk days of my time into the game, engrossed by its own fascination with footballing data, and by my desire for success.
As many gamers may have woken up on Christmas Day to find a copy waiting for them under the tree, now seems the right moment to do justice to this immense title.
Fair warning—this review will solely focus on the complete PC/Windows edition of Football Manager 2018, rather than its little brother, designed to be played on handheld devices.
The distinct difference between the two essentially boils down to sheer, unadulterated depth, where the computer version invites players to invest themselves in a plunging ocean trench of tactical analysis and player-to-player relationships, while the handheld edition focuses on swift gameplay, causing seasons to flick by quickly to imbue players with a grand sense of scale.
This is not at all to say that either variant is better than the other, but simply that they are vastly different experiences.
Furthermore, this review will focus on three categories—innovation, gameplay, and the footballing experience. It’s not especially easy to explain exactly what Football Manager is: to the untrained eye, it just looks like a series of screens displaying words and statistics, more akin to a BBC Sport review than a video game, but this largely misjudges what it is that makes the series so special.
For a game pretty much without gameplay, it still manages to tap into the desire that every football fan has to grasp at greatness, to take their club to its imagined place in their dream-state, and to feel what it’s really like to be a professional manager.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
A couple of months ago, I wrote a review of FIFA 18 that bemoaned both EA’s refusal to take the game in any distinct new direction, and its inability to fix the title’s enduring issues.
Unlike EA Sports’ best-seller, Football Manager doesn’t really have many glaring problems to fix. The flip side of this coin, however, is that, when the series does attempt to try something new, this trialed innovation doesn’t take the form of the outlandish, but is rather characterised by small changes that compliment and improve the overall experience.
Essentially, the task that is always placed at the feet of every new iteration in the Football Manager series is keeping up with the shifting landscape of the footballing world, and this is a mission that year upon year, title upon title, it handles with aplomb.
The comparison with Fifa is undoubtedly unfair—one game favours romanticisation over precise realism, I need not tell you which is which—but the glaring issue faced by both games this year was that of contract options, and most notably, the release clause.
Where FIFA 18 dealt with this shallowly, Football Manager continues to build upon its bargaining options, providing you with a wealth of tools to get the player you’re after, or keep the one you cannot afford to lose.
Not ready to let your keeper go until you’ve signed a replacement? Fine, you can make that an option, just like in the real world. Struggling to drum up that last £400k for a blockbuster deal? No problem, delay the transfer until you’ve offloaded that rotational player who’s targeting a move away. The list goes on and on.
These contract options mean that the latter part of a transfer deal feels realistic, and matches the tales that every fan will have heard during the transfer window in the summer, but Sports Interactive have made improvements to the start of a transfer too.
These come in the form of a real-world scouting system, and advances in their sport science and data analytics models.
The latter development furnishes you with many new devices to better maintain your squad, including deeper analysis on injuries and knocks, but it also means that statistical analysis on potential new players is broader than ever before.
The former expansion means that players are scouted fully, and that you can find a diamond in the rough from any country in the world. Where in previous games you would look through a player search list yourself to determine which players might become your club’s future stars, now, scouts can be sent out, and will report back on their recommendation consistently. It feels like the kind of genuine delegation utilised in the real world, and it means that your transfer strategy can be more targeted and pithy than ever before.
All of the above are examples of improvement, rather than of anything really brand new. In truth, this epitomises Football Manager’s year-on-year approach to amelioration, but that is not to say that the most recent title in the series is devoid of new features.
Two stand out if you’re a fan of the conventional campaign mode, while the introduction of a new game mode, Fantasy Draft, allows you to play out your dream of bringing a team together that only your wildest imagination could commune.
Otherwise, this year’s title submits a brand new graphics engine, and a complex social dynamics system that you must carefully scrutinise to get the best out of your squad.
The graphics engine, perhaps being the only element of the title that remotely resembles ‘gameplay’, shall be considered more thoroughly in the next section.
The social dynamics engine, however, is excellent, and goes a long way to enacting the difficulties and rewards with managing a team’s complex social structures. Success can only really be garnered while a dressing room’s atmosphere is in a good and vibrant condition, but previous Football Manager games had perpetuated a rather vicious circle—win, and the dressing room atmosphere remains fine; lose, and it’s very difficult to regain that ambience, in turn making it tricky to win, in turn making it tricky to regain morale, ad infinitum.
Now, on a bad run, you can get your players together, and discuss how best to improve, or simply shout at them until they accept that they must play better—depending on the characters that you have at your disposal, either might work.
Moreover, with the triangle model that Football Manager now utilises (most influential players at the top, least influential at the bottom), it’s easier than ever to identify which individuals you should pay attention to, and manage carefully, given their influence and command of your team.
In actuality, this means that player grievances become an entirely different beast—a player of low influence can be dismissed aggressively if he states that he is unhappy with the amount of first team football he is getting, but be warned, doing this to an influential character can throw your whole dressing room’s morale to the wolves.
As far as Football Manager innovates, then, is a conservative distance, but it’s a sufficient and clever amount that improves a game where it needed to be improved, and provides just enough new features to warrant the purchase of a new game while not upsetting the experience.
However, it’s of vast importance to mention that Football Manager still neglects to include any elements of the women’s game, a move that is totally anachronistic and devolutionary in today’s footballing world.
‘Depth, emotion and control like never before’
So claims the heading on the back of my copy of Football Manager 2018, an epitaph that can certainly be said to encompass how the game feels to play.
As I’ve previously said, gameplay can really be broken down into two elements—the match, and everything else.
A typical in-game week will feel as follows—you’ll press space a lot to advance time and progress, change a few tactical items, and read a massive amount of messages and news (essentially, sentences and combinations of words, just like you’re doing now), before a game starts in which you have no control other than to shout instructions and change mentalities and tactics.
Undeniably, it is impossible for me to capture in this review what it is that could possibly make this exciting, since it really is largely reading things on a screen, but that would only make me encourage you to play the game more. For any readers already invested in this game or the games before it, you know exactly the kind of immersion and addiction that this game instigates and aggravates.
When you’re not reading messages, though, you’re watching a match unfurl before you. This is the nitty gritty, the break in the sometimes monotonous drudge of day-to-day man management, and, with the new graphics engine, it’s better than ever.
Of course, it’s not the spectacle or dynamism of FIFA or PES—if it was, I think it would cause my Mac, which already fans angrily at me when I’m playing the game, to explode—but it sufficiently represents football without making you feel like you’re actually watching it.
Granted, some events still don’t look like they’d ever happen, and my experience has been that one-on-ones fail to result in a goal eight times out of ten, but it’s all you need when you’re trying to lead your club to glory.
Otherwise, the game is a process not far removed from the decision you might make to read this, move over to a provider website when you’ve finished, and click ‘buy the game’ because I’ve advised you to play it.
It’s a step by step progression, in which you’re constantly bombarded by information and advice, but its immersion isn’t as a result of gameplay when it all comes down to it, but by its ability to tap into something very feral that every football fan understands—our desire for success.
Inverting the pyramid
In no other game have I ever been so happy and motivated as a result of a loss.
Football Manager 2018 has the luxury of fairness—because it isn’t you playing when it comes to the day, because you aren’t pressing square to cross or circle to shoot, there isn’t a sense of unruliness, and there isn’t a moment of ubiquitous ‘BS’—at least, they’re not caused by the game.
Naturally, the referee will make a poor decision, the linesman will fail to notice that the striker was offside when he poached a ball in front of your keeper to win the game in the dying seconds. But these are all shrugged off, accompanied with a sigh of ‘that’s football’.
Players can understand these moments without getting angry at the game because that’s how football really is.
The path to success, then, is measured by your ability not only to man manage, to be precise in your tactics and shrewd in your transfer business, but also your ability to take a knock, to deal with setbacks in a manner that looks forward rather than backwards.
Moreover, it relies on your ability to delegate, and this too is where Football Manager excels. The game makes you feel like you are at the head of a great, convoluted machine, placing all of the cogs in their rightful place, oiling all of the right joints in order for the great behemoth to work properly and successfully.
Football Manager invites you to be the best at connecting all of the dots together, and when it goes right, when your talismanic winger produces that moment of magic, or when your side has an unprecedented season of overachievement, it feels like you put all of the pieces of the puzzle together to make that happen, even though you didn’t perform the dribble, and you didn’t take to the field week in, week out.
Like no other game, Football Manager captures what it is like to try your hand at reaching the greatest echelons of sport, without inviting you to ever actually play that sport yourself.
It manages to posit you in the game—it is your personality that deals with the behaviour of players and the media, your intelligence that handles your team’s tactical approach to each game.
This is the root of Sports Interactive’s greatest immersive triumph. Football Manager 2018 simply advances and betters their already stellar model.
Football Manager 2018 does justice to the already excellent series that it inhabits.
Moreover, it pushes the experience in the right direction, and with every new title Sports Interactive’s magnum opus feels more and more realistic and authentic.
It improves minimally but deliberately the game’s already masterful features, while adding new options that develop the title without obstructing or overburdening its already established and scintillating framework.
Above all else, the game lives up to its billing as a simulator—you feel like the manager, like the pivotal entity in a well-oiled machine.
In short, Football Manager 2018 is the footballing experience that every fan should play this season.