I have to confess that I haven't played a football management game since Championship Manger 3, a game which devoured months of my life. Since Championship Manger 3, a lack of free time has forced me to halt my football management gaming sessions. The question is whether or not FIFA Manager 06 has what it takes to rejuvenate my career as a big time football manager.
FIFA Manger 06, as you can guess by the name, is a fully FIFA licensed football management game from EA, and it has more teams, players, managers and backroom staff than you could shake a stick at. When you begin you're offered the chance to start off with whichever team you wish, so you can go straight in at the top as the manager of a Premiership club or start right at the bottom and slowly work your way up - you're even given the option to be an international manager.
I began as Manager for Spurs. Despite Martin Jol's great start as manager I felt that I would get most enjoyment from the game when managing players I knew and playing against the teams in the Premiership. I therefore kicked out Jol and took control of the club. As manager you can be as hands-on as you wish, with tasks such as managing club finances, ground facilities and player signings all within the realms of the game. In-fact, if you wish you can hand over all your responsibilities to other staff and just sit back and watch what happens, but what would be the fun in that.
I chose to be fully hands-on and took control of pretty much everything, bar organising the reserve team and sideboard advertising. I began by checking out my squad and I was pleased to see all the recent signings from the last transfer window. From the game's multitude of menus you can easily choose your team, together with formation and team tactics. You can easily set formations by moving around player icons on an overhead view of the pitch, and even set different player positions depending on where the ball is. This means you can make your wing backs push forward when the ball is in the opposition's half, but also tell the wide attacking players to come back and defend when the ball is in a dangerous position in your half.
As a new manger you will probably want to make a few new signings both for the team and the backroom support staff, and this can be done fairly simply. When signing players you can check out the transfer list or try and approach players directly. I have to say that the former of the two methods proved much more successful, as I managed to sign Hasselbaink cheaply from Middlesbrough to offer some much needed experience to my front line. When signing a player you start off by making an offer to the club and then, if accepted, you have to agree personal terms with the player. There are a multitude of variables you can change in the contract, from the basic player wage to relegation clauses and buy out fees. I really felt that the changes I made to contracts had an affect on whether or not players signed for the club.
You can hire staff in a similar way and once you agree personal terms the man is yours. I signed two scouts, a physio, a medic and a community manager, who could take on the day to day running of the stadium and its associated club shop. This meant I had more time to concentrate on the nitty gritty of my team. I assigned one scout to report back on my next opponent and the other scout was given instructions to look for specific types of player off in some foreign leagues. When the scouts have completed there assignments you will get an email informing you that a report is ready to read. This is how all information is delivered to you in the game, including injury reports and player negotiations. As you move through time in the game, should new emails arrive you will be notified of these messages and are required to respond to those which require action.
When you finally get down to a match you're given the option to view the game in 3D, text mode or simply go straight to the result. Skipping the game will mean you have no control of team tactics/formations or substitutions that take place during the game and I see no point in doing this. FIFA Manager 06 has a full 3D match engine, complete with commentary, which enables you to watch the match in pseudo real-time (the game speed is normal but the match only lasts around 30 minutes) or through key events via a number of highlight packages. You can choose to only see shots or even just the goals, but even then you're given a text commentary of the action and can step in at any time with new team tactics or substitutions. The matches can also be run at a really fast speed so that you can quickly get through games, but still have some interaction as the match progresses. Watching the game in text mode is a little strange as the game allows you to choose what your players do at certain times on the pitch. You can tell your winger to dribble or pass, or your penalty taker to go low and right, for example. You can only do this when prompted to do so and whilst keeping you involved in the game it isn't something a manager can actually do in real life.
Whilst the game is predominantly menu driven it still has that certain EA sheen to it, complete with in-game music from the likes of the Stereophonics. Menus are sharp and clear to view, with all the information you want nicely presented. The 3D match engine is also rather nice and combined with the match commentary it does a great job of conveying a real-life match. Another nice touch is the in-game jukebox, allowing you to load your favourite tracks into the game. If the MP3s are tagged correctly the track details will appear on screen when they begin to play and feel like they were always part of the game. Another plus point is the game's ability to run on a very modest system. I had it running very nicely on a Celeron M based laptop using an Intel integrated graphics chipset, so those of you with low spec machines should have no trouble playing the game.
I have to say that I have enjoyed playing FIFA Manager 06 and it certainly had me engrossed, although I'm not sure how much this has to do with the game concept rather than the game itself. Despite my enjoyment and prolonged periods of play I was a little disappointed by a few things. Whilst the 3D matches are great they do seem to produce some rather strange occurrences - usually in the form of defensive errors. Never in the Premiership will you see your goalie attempt to pick up the ball, only to turn around and kick it into his net. Other similar comical miss-haps seem to happen in every game, and although the results produced seem to be realistic, I can't help but wonder if this is happening because of poor match simulation. I also noticed that a goal can be scored, but not shown in the 3D match engine, meaning the end result can sometimes come as a surprise.
Having not played any recent footy management games I can't really tell you how it compares to what else is on the market, but I can say that it's a thoroughly enjoyable and engrossing experience. The game offers a great deal of depth, most of which I haven't been able to discuss in this review, but it's there should you wish to explore. If you want a more simplistic management game then FIFA Manager 06 can also deliver, thanks your ability to assign much of the day-to-day tasks over to backroom staff. Obviously, if you're not a football fan, much of the game's appeal will be lost, but for those that enjoy the beautiful game, FIFA Manager 06 will provide months of entertainment, with a little more gloss than rival football management games.