Review
Football Manager 2015

By Rituro - December 10th, 2014

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Well, here we are again. Another year, another chance to devote hundreds of hours of gaming time to the singular pursuit of football soccer1 excellence. How do they do it? How does Sports Interactive manage to create such an addictive product year after year? If modern game trends have taught me anything – and they haven’t – it’s that gamers want flash, sizzle, pulse-pounding action, in-your-face characters and the ability to assert your dominance in a 64-player madhouse. Standing in stark opposition to that line of thinking is Football Manager 2015, a game about managing a soccer team nearly anywhere in the world through spreadsheets, managerial decisions and hands-off tactical control. This isn’t FIFA 15; you won’t be waggling any thumbsticks or memorizing button timings to run up the score. Instead, you’ll be scouring the globe for the top talent, poring over match feedback and fending off greedy AI managers and nosy tabloid journalists – and you’ll love every minute of it.

Back in my reaction to the FM15 feature video, I gave a very straightforward response to the news the old sidebar menu would be coming back. I believe it went something like, “Aaaaaargh, nooooooo!” After five iterations of refining the top menu system, I was certain Sports Interactive had finally found a UI that worked. It turns out I was wrong – on both counts. Not only is the new sidebar easier to manage than the old FM09 sidebar; the pages linked to are exceptionally informative and logical. For example: want to see how you’re doing in the league and all cup competitions at once? Click “Competitions” and bam – everything is there in convenient table form, along with links to match schedules and rules, a reminder of the board’s expectations of your performance and a graph tracking your position over the course of the season.

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I’m not saying this is bad defending, I’m just… actually, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Good grief. Get it together, lads.

Other menus are similarly informative though some logical quirks remain. The depth charts for your team are located in the “Squad” menu as opposed to “Team Report”, which is doubly confusing when you consider opposing team depth charts come up in their scouting reports which are located in – you guessed it – their “Team Report” menu. Also, while the sidebar UI and top search bar are easy enough to see and navigate, the submenus are still located along the top of the screen in font small enough to be missed if you’re not familiar with the layout. Heck, I’m a couple months into this new UI and I’m still having to spend extra time searching to find just what I want. I imagine this will improve with time and familiarity; that said, if Sports Interactive changes the UI again in FM16 and I have to learn a brand new layout, I will be more than a little peeved.

I was very curious to see how the new RPG-lite system of creating your manager played out in FM15 and, so far, it would appear there’s far more of a benefit to being a tracksuit manager (that is, being directly involved with player development and training sessions) than a suit-and-tie-wearing, boardroom-inhabiting, macro-level thinker. Since you can build your skill set however you like based on the coaching badges and personal experience you give your fictional self, you essentially gain a free coach. This is great at all levels but it’s a godsend for lower-league clubs who are always desperate to make the most out of their meagre budgets. By min-maxing your coach’s stats (usually by setting Goalkeeping and Fitness to “1”), you can create a manager capable of handling either the offensive or defensive responsibilities of training, leaving the other half to your assistant coach. Add in a goalkeeping and/or fitness coach to round out the team and bam, bare minimum standard of coaching achieved! Conversely, I have yet to see a major impact by focusing on the mental half of management (Adaptability, Motivating and so forth), with the notable exception of Player Knowledge. That’s pretty much a mandatory stat if you plan on correctly identifying talent both inside and outside the team.

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Players with high potential are all well and good, but does your team have the training ground to help them fully develop?

It seems like with every new release of Football Manager, one lucky segment of the game gets an overhaul. This year, the scouting system got some love and good golly, does it show! A return to the pro/con report cards mixed in with a variable five-star rating system means that you’ll now be properly rewarded for spending time researching a player. Conversely, taking a flyer on what looks to be the next wunderkind without proper investigation is now suitably risky. Do all those blacked-out, yet-to-be-determined stars under Player Potential mean “five-star stud” or “one-and-a-half-star dud”? Being able to set scouting assignments through your chief scout with a variety of conditions and goals will help neophytes ease into the mechanics of scouting and the expanded maximum scout time of three months(!) per player is greatly appreciated. Under the current system, it would be nigh-impossible to get a proper read on a player after only two weeks (the previous maximum), barring having the best scouting team on the planet.

Now, I know I’m a game-play-first-graphics-later kind of guy and have said as much many times. Be that as it may, it’s tough not to appreciate the motion capture work that has gone into this year’s match engine. Player movement is leaps and bounds ahead of last year’s engine – with dives, kicks, jukes, saves, flails, back-heels, tackles and more, recreated in plenty of variety. It’s still not going to make you forget FIFA or, y’know, an actual soccer game, but for a game of spreadsheets it’s spiffy as heck and gives you even more of a reason to watch the engine play out as opposed to speeding past each game on the “text only” setting. The player AI is still a bit questionable in places, though the latest patches have fixed some (but not all) of the bizarre goalkeeping gaffes and own-goal scenarios. I still see far too much “shuffling in place with the ball while pressured and not passing” with my midfielders, which has on no small number of occasions caused me to scream rather rude things at my monitor2. Middling graphics I can live with. Middling AI? Not a chance! In addition, there seems to be an over-abundance of “what an amazing goal” calls from the play-by-play in lower-league games. Considering the quality (or considerable lack thereof) of goalkeeping at the lower levels, I would contend it’s less a clever move by so-and-so and more an atrocious mistake by you-know-who.

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Fifteen seconds into the match, everyone noticed the burger trucks on the corner and immediately ran off the pitch for a bite to eat.

If you’re reading this review, it’s likely you’re in North America, enjoy soccer and are probably familiar with Major League Soccer (MLS). If so, you’ll be happy to know that the roster rules have received another revision to bring them closer in line to the real deal. Again, if you’re familiar with MLS, then you’re familiar with how complex and daunting the squad registration process is for real-life clubs. That SI has managed to recreate a version fairly close to the real thing in FM15 deserves praise. That SI did so while also adding expansion clubs Orlando City SC and NYCFC along with the rules for the rare expansion draft is fantastic. That SI did all that and still left the Supplemental Draft (which no longer exists) in place is mind-boggling. You’d think something as major as a change to MLS’ flagship preseason event would catch the attention of SI’s coders; apparently not3.

Multi-player and modding are still available options through Steam, though in the latter case you are still free to download skins, name and logo packs, custom leagues and so forth outside the game and add the files manually. Good thing, too, since right now the Steam Workshop for Football Manager 2015 seems to be clogged full of custom tactics of dubious effectiveness. Over time, this should balance out; I’m already seeing custom leagues and legendary historical players popping up amidst the 4-3-3s and 5-3-2s. Multi-player is an interesting beast; in theory, it’s a great idea to be able to export your current team and take it online to compare against others, or to start an online league where AI managers are replaced by as many players as you can get in. In practice, getting all the players for a league ready to play on the same day is a masterclass in herding cats and/or sheep. In one league I’m currently running, we’ve managed all of two play sessions – barely enough to finish the preseason – where the three of us are free at the same time. Again, that’s three people – three! I shudder to think of the logistics required to get an entire league’s worth of players going.

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Translation: lots of goals going into my net, not enough going into the other team’s net. That’s not good.

Above all else, Football Manager 2015 succeeds because it makes you want to play. We all know Sid Meier’s Civilization series as being the archetypal “just one more turn” game; Football Manager is in that same company when it comes to wanting to see how things turn out. A typical evening for me often ends like this: “I should probably stop here… oh, but I did want to see that scouting report. Well, I’ll just read that. Oh, maybe I should update training plans in case the new player’s development needs adjusting. Hm, but how will that affect the team? I’ll just see how things look tomorrow… oh, but we have a game now? Fine, I’ll play that out.”

…and then it’s one in the morning and I realize I’m very tired. On the plus side, I just got two new strikers and we’re one good result away from a playoff spot, so, it was worth it.

Hm, maybe I’ll just play one more turn…

1 – The world may call it football but over here it’s still soccer. You can read this as an apology or a defiant stand, depending on your preference of vernacular. I’m fine with either.
2 – Hey, at least I didn’t throw a console out the window.
3 – Other things I found incorrect in my neck of the woods: Vancouver’s captain is incorrectly listed as Russell Teibert, the wrong jersey numbers are given to Teibert, Andy O’Brien and Mauro Rosales, and my beloved Victoria Highlanders are still listed as playing at their old stadium. Looks like I’ll need to spam the SI forums harder.

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