I used to spend most of my waking hours in front of Football Manager, attempting to turn perennial mid-tablers Spurs into title contenders. Hours would fly by. I'd become so engrossed that my virtual team would spill over into real life, causing confusion. And it was pretty much the only game I needed. I even lost weeks to the Xbox 360 versions. But all this changed with the release of Football Manager Live, Sports Interactive's online version of the game that sees each team managed by a real person. From that day on the offline game didn't seem as engaging. So, with my FM Live team having to make do without me for a few days, I entered the more enclosed world of FM 2010.
Over the past few years Sports Interactive has gradually made the game more accessible, introducing tips displayed on every loading screen and a handy advisor system that holds your hand throughout the experience. This year the interface has undergone a makeover, with a tab system in theory making everything easier to access. It was baffling, at first, and even a long-time player it took some getting used to. It's also nothing like the interface in Football Manager Live, so addicts like me will find things especially awkward. Stick with it, though, as the guys at Sports Interactive clearly know what they're doing. By the time I was half way through my first season everything had fallen into place and the information I needed never felt far away.
Getting into the game is easier than ever, with menus more or less walking you through the entire process. The setup wizard asks which leagues you're ever going to want to manage in (the more you choose the slower the game will be to process data), and which team you actually want to manage - I chose Spurs of course. So, Sweary McMarmot (what I'm likely to do while playing and the stuffed toy sat on my desk) took over from Harry Redknapp much to the displeasure of the Tottenham faithful.
The home screen features next match info, fixtures, the news feed, your email inbox, league table, squad status (injuries and such) and pending transfers. All the basic stuff you need is right there, but look beneath the initial few screens and you find a wealth of options at your fingertips. Click through to a player's profile and you can set individual training schedules, offer new contracts or even put them on the transfer market.
Hidden in your team's page is the ability to create new custom tactics through an eight-step wizard (similar to what's recently been added to FM Live). You can tell players what to do during set-pieces, make your wingers target certain zones with their crosses, and more. If you're old-school you can switch to classic tactical controls, including dragging arrows around to make players make runs - something handled via a menu in the new tactics system.
The classic system also gets rid of the new touchline tactics. With the new quick access menu you can shout instructions at your players without leaving the action. Top level options allow you to switch overall tactics, such as defensive, attacking or overload (throwing everything but the kitchen sink forward), but there are more subtle options. You can shout out instructions to tell your team to get the ball forward, retain possession, take more risks, clear the ball to the flanks and loads more. It's another system that is already in FM Live and makes a huge difference to how you interact with your team during a game. You can still adjust things manually, and give half and full-time team talks, but these shouted commands are a great addition.
Things weren't looking great for Spurs. The board expected a mid-table finish and as such only gave me a meagre £6M transfer budget. I told them I'd get Spurs into Europe, expecting a big increase to that budget, but the extra £1M offered didn't fill me with confidence. Before I started my time in FM 2010 I'd given myself a few goals. The first was to sign the traitorous ex-Spurs super striker Dimitar Berbatov back from ManU. The second was to sign Chelsea skipper John Terry. Spurs had injury problems at the back and I wanted to do something that would annoy our deputy editor Wez. £7M wouldn't even get me one of Berba's legs, so I had to do some wheeling and dealing in the transfer market.
One of the problems with FM 2010 is the strange valuation of players. Spurs winger and England international Aaron Lennon is, according to the game, worth less than £6M. Wayne Rooney is one of the most valuable players in the Premier League, yet his valuation is a bargain-tastic £26M. Considering the wages appear to be realistic, running into the hundreds of thousands per week, the low player valuations stick out like a sore thumb. Anyway, I proceeded to use the game's comprehensive transfer negotiation tools to try and get my men. I failed. No one wanted Spurs misfit Roman Pavlyuchenko for the £10M price tag I slapped on him. Plenty of teams wanted midfield maestro Luka Modric (ManU offered almost £20M) and Liverpool came in with £12M for Lennon, but I wasn't going to offload my two best players. My chase for Berbatov and Terry was over.
At times there's so much going on that it's hard to keep a handle on all of it. You do get lots of advice, though, with backroom staff members chipping in. This ties in with how Sports Interactive has made this year's game more accessible. I'd wager that even a novice football fan would be able to get through their first season easily if they followed all the advice given, both from in-game tips and staff. The more complicated stuff, like analysing your performance post-match, is probably best left for experts, but it's there if you want it - and we know some of you want to look at each and every pass.
FM 2010's overall design is clean and easy on the eye, but for the most part you're still going to be looking at nicely presented numbers. During games you can use the classic overhead 2D view, complete with blobs that run around, but there's also a 3D match engine, as first seen in the 2009 edition of FM. It's seen a number of visual improvements since then, making the action appear more realistic, but I found it hard to switch from what I knew. Newcomers may well find it easier to jump straight in to the 3D viewing mode, but for me viewing little round blobs is the only way to watch games in FM.
Little things certainly could be done better. The press conference system, which is nice enough and does the job, isn't as realistic as I'd liked. Your choice of answers to each question rarely allows you to say what you want to, and there's almost no sense of personality to be gained from doing it. A system that allowed for more subtlety in responses would certainly be tough to pull off, but at the moment the system feels robotic. I also encountered a few oddities, such as scouts recommending players so old and past it that they would struggle to get in Notts County's first 11.
Football Manager 2010 is undoubtedly a high quality product. Sports Interactive has built on last year's game to produce the best version yet (we must say this every year), so it's easy to recommend FM 2010 to anyone with an interest in taking their team to league and cup glory. If you can't get into the wonder that is Football Manager Live or just prefer the more solitary experience standard FM offers, this will keep you hooked to your PC monitor for months.