Football football football. Does it ever end? If you're not a football fanatic, gaming must sometimes feel like a testosterone-fuelled nightmare. It's everywhere. Whether it be talented Shrek-alike Wayne Rooney not actually doing anything or Newcastle sick-note Michael Owen doing something highly irregular - kicking a ball for his club - it's hard to escape the autumn football game marketing blitz. Now, brace yourself for another virtual footballing stalwart to join the club - Football Manager is back.
If you didn't know, Football Manager is what relationship-killing classic Championship Manager turned into after UK developer Sports Interactive left publisher Eidos in 2003 and became a part of SEGA. Essentially Football Manager is Championship Manager in everything but name, and, thus, the greatest football management sim there is.
As lead developer Miles Jacobson has said, Football Manager 2008 is an evolution of the series, not a revolution. SI has clearly taken a "if it 'aint broke don't fix it" philosophy here, and that's just what was needed. No new engine. No farcical Championship Manager 4 bug-fest. Just good, solid, Football Manager fun.
Even if you don't play Football Manager, you probably know about it. But just in case you're one of the few very special people that hasn't got a clue what all the fuss is about, let us enlighten you. Football Manager lets you take control of a football club and manage it to the top. It's that simple. As the series has evolved, it's tried to add features that make it more realistic, so much so, in fact, that it has become as time consuming as actually managing a football club. And with Football Manager 2008, they've gone and added even more features, without messing about with the fundamental way the game works, that, yes you guessed it, makes it even more time consuming.
And addictive. Football Manager was always addictive, yes, but what SI has done is give the game a 2007 social networking sheen, making the skin look cleaner, more easily navigable and, well, whiter. There's more than a passing resemblance to music download portal iTunes, and 'thing through which you stalk people you're scared to speak to in real life' Facebook. The skin is white, has nice tabs everywhere and a helpful advisor that is supposed to be less annoying than the MS Office paper-clip guy but doesn't quite save itself from being turned off. I found it much easier to play the game and much easier to find random and pointless information, for example the dimensions of my beloved Stamford Bridge. The subtle tweaks have made playing the game quicker also, because you can get to where you want to go in a much more efficient way. The continue button is now at the top and the bottom right of the screen, making progression quicker. There is a line of icons at the top of the screen which provide easy access to pretty much everything in the game - home, inbox, news, tactics, your squad and the transfer centre to name a few. You could always get to this information before, it's just now there are multiple ways of doing it. And it's welcome. With so much to worry about in modern football, who has time to fumble for the fixture list?
So, new stuff. There's a new confidence feature, implemented because the design team felt managers weren't getting enough feedback from the board. So now you get long-term expectations and expectations for each individual competition. If you pick Chelsea for example, there will be a lot of pressure on you to succeed. Do poorly in the English Premier League, as I have done, and your confidence slider will slowly recede and you'll start to look in trouble. Start with Spurs, however, and no-one will expect much of anything. Oh wait...
You can try and convince the board that you'll do better than they think you will and thus give you more money to spend in the transfer market. But this is a dangerous ploy, especially if you fritter it away on rubbish bean-pole strikers.
You've got fan confidence as well, and you'll regularly receive messages from a fan spokesperson revealing how concerned they are that some guy no-one's ever heard of has taken over their beloved club. It's a nice touch, and is further evidence of the series' evolution towards a more realistic experience. You can adjust budgets too, taking some from the wage budget to boost your spending power or vice-versa. This won't be much use if you're a rich club, but tweaking the financials of a lower league club is part and parcel of the game, and key to survival. SI have re jigged the bonus system too, as a result of an agent phoning them up to tell them they had it wrong. Where before you could set individual bonuses for each player, now you have an overall squad bonus that is shared between everyone, which is apparently the way it's done in real life. You can set bonuses for each competition too, so, say you want to prioritise the European Cup, which I did with Chelsea, you might want to make the bonus for that more than for the league.
There's also a face generator which will create faces for new players that come through the youth system. The faces will even change over time as they get older, which helps you bond with players you've moulded into superstars. Again, nothing to shout home about, but a nice touch nonetheless.
Of more importance are the new coach reports. Your assistant manager now provides you with a detailed report on every player in the squad, so if you fancy taking control of Colo Colo from Chile, for example, you'll have player reports to give you a heads up at least. While this is less useful if you start with the club you support, or a well known club, it's quite useful for those of you who like to take control of a team from the lower leagues and work their way through the divisions. We liked the media predictions too, which come from real-life publications, like worldsoccer.com and football365.com. There's even betting odds from SkyBet. Journalists will ask you what you thought about contentious decisions as well, and you can, of course, do a Wenger and feign ignorance or do a Ferguson and threaten to murder the ref. This will be largely pointless for some, but absolute management gold for others. There have been a few tweaks to the match flow as well. Now you can make substitutions while viewing a small version of the match engine in the corner of the screen at the same time, so you don't have to pause the match. As Miles Jacobson has said: "Alex Ferguson doesn't ask for a time out".
That's enough, now. There's over 100 new features in Football Manager 2008. It would be pointless and boring to go through every single one and, to be honest, we haven't discovered them all. Part of the fun for fans of the series is in discovering all the new things SI has put in each new game. Suffice it to say that they're all designed to add authenticity to an already massively in-depth management sim. But what's important is how the game plays.
Essentially, Football Manager 2008 plays like the last game, except with an updated squad list (Avram Grant is manager of Chelsea by the way, ex-QPR boss John Gregory is still there - he got fired just after the game went gold). So why fork out £25 for it if you've already got Football Manager 2007?
The biggest reason is the usability of the game. It's worth the admission fee alone. You can glide through the menus as easily as Cristiano Ronaldo glides past fullbacks. It's a much more pleasant, enjoyable experience, especially when using the iTunes-esque skin (you can change it if you want). But if you've never noticed a problem before, perhaps there's not so much of a motivation for you to invest.
If you're a lapsed Football Manager gamer however, perhaps you lost a girlfriend to it back at university when it was Championship Manager, we wholeheartedly recommend you dust off that sheep-skin coat and start practising the hair dryer treatment, because there's never been a better time to get back into the game.
What's brilliant about Football Manager is how accessible it is, and how it caters for so many people, and this is about the most accessible version of the game yet.
Miles Jacobson talks about whores, so we'll extend the analogy. "Some are transfer whores, some are tactics whores, some are training whores, although those people are insane as far as I'm concerned", he told us recently in an interview. He's right. If you want to spend hours tweaking the tactics sliders you can. If you want to get your calculator out and sweat on the financials, it's up to you. But if you just want to go from match to match, bidding for the odd player here and there, you can. You can set your assistant manager to look after all the boring crap and get on with the good stuff - winning.
So since SI hasn't broken this essential feel of the game, we expect fans of the series and newcomers alike to be wholly satisfied with Football Manager 2008. Time to lock the door, order some pizza and unscrew the coke. Steven Gerrard's in great form and it's up to you to deal with him.