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Football Monger
First a confession: I'm not a football fan. I'll watch England play and commiserate with mates down the pub, lamenting our national side's inevitable failure to get anywhere, but that's my lot. My idea of a good football game is Sensible Soccer, so encountering FM2006 for the first time was like walking into an Excel junkies wet dream and I really didn't want to sit there waiting to hand out the tissues. But I soon discovered why the Football Manager series has become a time-sapping addiction...

For anyone unfamiliar with the game, FM2006 is an incredibly in-depth simulation, where, in this version, you can select from over 5,000 teams to manage. It's not a visual feast, most of the time you face frankly dull, text-based screens. You don't get to play as any of your squad either, but you do get to organise your teams, train them and set tactics.

The first time you start the game up it's incredibly overwhelming; the game is so complex that it's very difficult to know where to start. The board gives you a budget and you're told to get on with it, which is what it's surely like for any new manager, but not what it ought to be like for someone who's playing a game for the first time.

The developer, Sports Interactive has added in a tutorial section this time for newcomers, but this merely explains what each feature or option does on the particular screen you have open at the time. What the game really needs is a section that runs through the basics using an example team. Fortunately, for new managers though, your assistant manager likes to tell you what he thinks, assuming, of course, that he knows what he's talking about! And he'll be able to tell you what players have been performing well and even advise you on potentially great players that you’ve got in the reserves or youth team. Screens that come in handy, particularly since they're new additions for 2006, are players' 'Form' and favoured 'Positions'.

FM2006 isn't a real-time sim, you have to keep clicking 'continue' to set all your decisions in motion and as time passes news stories will filter through about what's happening in the football world, with the usual rumours and speculation about who's trying to sign who. You'll find that you'll waste hours organising training, studying your players’ form and searching the transfer system for a bargain to snap up, which is the key to being successful. Sadly, when your team does finally play, though, you only get a top-down view, with your players represented by odd AI amoeba-like dots that have pincers for your players' feet. Doesn't sound exciting, does it? Well, it shouldn't be, but I was stunned to discover that it’s soon compelling and addictive. Maybe it's seeing the young mid-fielder you've trained up from the youth team having the game of his life or the sight of your petulant striker managing to overcome his lack of pace with a thundering shot. Suddenly, all your vested interest bubbles to the surface and you find yourself urging your players on.

I still believe that the game would appeal to more people though, if you could see your real players on the screen in 3D, as you can in Pro Evolution Soccer. To call FM2006 dull though, just because it lacks realistic graphics is like moaning about chess, because the pawns don't hack the legs off the other pieces: FM2006 is played as much in your mind as it is on your computer. And every team that you create will have its own story. If you don't like football or the poor visuals in this game, you can still admire the way this sim creates such a consistent world for football-crazed fans to get lost in. Even small details like setting your favourite team will mean a job application to them in the future, will be received more favourably or even goading your next opponent’s manager makes a difference.

Ever since Sports Interactive has been publishing its football sim under the Football Manager title, it's been the undisputed champion, so for many gamers it's a question of whether this is another annual update worth buying. This year the database of players and staff to choose from - if you can afford to buy them, of course - has grown by 20,000 to 270,000, from 50 countries. But FM2006 does have a lot of little appealing tweaks to offer, many of which are focused on allowing you to communicate better with your team on and off the pitch. Half-time and full-time pep talks have been added to fire-up or pre-empt any player outbursts, currently though, player's don't have the option to throw boots at you... You can also shout instructions from the dugout - yes, you have a dugout now - based on problems or advantages you notice during a game, instead of having to wait for break in play to change tactics. The enhanced player comparison screen also makes the selection of the right player much easier, while weight and height stats have been added to allow you to finally use that physical advantage in a game. However, when bar charts are trotted out as a killer feature for this version, it's fair to say that the game hasn't changed that much.

Meanwhile, Eidos, publisher of Championship Manager is looking to redeem itself and reclaim the top slot with its own 2006 version and that game boasts a 3D match engine. It'll be interesting to see whether this drive to make football sims more visually appealing will work, but we won't know until early next year. In the meantime, FM2006 is still the daddy of the football management sim. A version for the Xbox 360 is set for spring 2006, while the PSP format got it's version last week. If you want to try it out for yourself there's a downloadable demo available from Gamer's Hell.

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