The most addictive database of all time is back, once again dooming a large proportion of football fanatics to late nights, stress, pressure and a lack of sleep. Football Manager might not be the real thing, but those who play it live every moment, agonising over every mouse click. It was inevitable that this year's version would be great, but given such a strong starting point developers Sports Interactive could have rested on their laurels and delivered nothing more than a stat update. Thankfully, Football Manager 2007 is much more than that.
OK, so it's very similar to last year's release, but when you're building on something that's already great, that's not a bad thing. The key here is that the additions, though not so huge they totally change the game, add another couple of layers of depth to the experience. In FM 2006 managers were given the ability to play mind games with rival managers, in the hope that comments said before games would have a negative impact on their team's performance against you. In FM 2007 you can bring the players into it as well.
You can call on your own players to give their opinion on who would be a good signing for the club, either as a player or as a member of staff. Underachievers can even be asked to call a team meeting, in the hope that the team will come out of the meeting with a new sense of vigour. Team talks can now be given before, during and after matches, and you can give each player a one-to-one. Feedback gained from the team talks can then be used to gauge how each player reacts, and to work out what the best course of action is in the future.
None of this is transforms the way the game plays, but it simply gives you more options and makes you feel like you have a larger impact on how the team is performing. Another new introduction is the 'feeder' club system. By linking with a lesser club (or a more prestigious club, depending on who you're in charge of) you get a number of bonuses. The better club has first pick of the other club's best young players and your own youngsters can be farmed off for some vital first-team experience - benefiting the lower club at the same time.
As is happening more and more in real life, your board play a bigger part in the game than ever before, often making decisions more or less for you. If they think an offer for a player is too good to refuse, it's out of your hands, and at the same time, the board could be taken over by some rich oil tycoon hell-bent on making money, without a clue when it comes to football. Of course, this would bring lots of money to the club, but it could also unsettle your players and put extra pressure on them due to increased expectations. Some of the board's decisions aren't that life-like (I managed to keep my job at Tottenham despite being relegated and sitting at the bottom of the league for a whole season), but their involvement is a welcome addition to the game.
In most other areas things have been tweaked, and it all seems to have been for the better. Transfers now give you more options, scouting has been refined, navigation is easier, the 2D match representation seems more realistic, and if anything the whole experience has done the impossible and become even more addictive. Time disappears in a blink of an eye, especially if you're very hands on with every aspect of your team. You can of course assign your assistants to do some of the menial work, and things like team talks and advanced tactics are purely optional, so newcomers shouldn't be too put off by the initial learning curve.
To keep you up to date with all the happenings in the simulated football world you receive daily emails. During the season these often contain important information, such as injury updates, scouting reports, opponent reports, and the like. At the start of a new season, though, and when the transfer window is open, you'll have to churn through a seemingly endless number of messages, often about other clubs' signings that have little interest to you. As problems go, though, this is pretty minor, and highlights just how polished the game is as a whole.
Some criticism could be labelled on the game's simple presentation, but to do so would be to miss the point. Glossy visuals and 3D match representations would get in the way of what is an incredibly complex simulation, and simply aren't needed. If you absolutely need to see your players on the pitch, complete with semi realistic facial features, look at some of the more casual management sims out there. Football Manager is about stats, and its refined presentation does the job perfectly.
Football Manager 2007 would have been great if all we'd received was last year's game with this year's stats. It wouldn't have been a wise move on SEGA and Sports Interactive's part, but it would have still sold well and kept us all up until the wee hours. Thankfully, what we got is new layers of depth that, while not revolutionising the series, have made this year's game a more accurate and more immersive managerial experience. When you're playing a game in a small window, hopping back to it whenever you get a moment free from work, you know it's got you hooked. Football Manager does it year after year, and this year is no exception.