It's time for another entry in the Football Manager series. Usually these reviews go along the lines of detailing the handful of new features and refinements, before ending with a comment that basically says that this year's game is the best yet, but really isn't all that different from the previous game. FM 2011 isn't an entirely new game by any stretch of the imagination, but it is quite possibly the version that has seen more changes than ever before - making it a game that fans will find extremely hard to overlook.
There's far too much to cover than one review ever could, so I'll focus on what I believe are the additions and improvements that make the biggest difference to this year's game. Top of the list is the new way in which you interact with AI, whether it be players, agents, the press or the board of your club. You're presented with questions, each with a series of possible answers, which usually can be followed up with another question. It often makes for some great discussions over matters like the size of your stadium, ambitions and player wishes, and is a huge improvement over what's gone before.
What still needs working on is the emotion and personality of the people you deal with. Representatives from the board can get away with being a little dour, almost robot-like (which they essentially are), but players need to have more personality. With FIFA 11 EA introduced personality into the game, meaning individual players' strengths and weaknesses were brought out on the pitch, and something similar needs to be done in FM for interactions to feel more natural. Still, what we've got in 2011 is a great deal better than last year's game.
Transfer wheeling and dealing is always one of FM's biggest time sinks, and this year the whole process has been improved to make it even more entertaining and realistic. Agents get very involved with deals, going as far as detailing exactly why a player doesn't want to join your club. On the flip side, get rid of a player against his wishes and you could be on the end of a backlash, either conducted through the media or in the dressing room - something that is an excellent reflection of the current power players have in the football world.
As ever your backroom staff are keen to offer opinions, which you can ignore completely if you want, but they're often very useful nuggets of advice and are integrated into discussions with various AI characters. It's fair to say that no football management game outside of Football Manager Live has made me feel so involved with the day to day running of a football club.
As a bit of an old-school Football Manager player (from the days when it was Championship Manager) I just can't get on with any match view other than classic 2D - those little blobs will never be beaten in my book - but for lots of players the relatively new 3D match engine is the only option. This year's game has seen this improve considerably, with better animations and more realistic football action. It's still a long way short of looking like a proper football video game, but it's getting there.
Training, too, has been tweaked. There are now more options to train for certain things, such as set formations or disciplines, so it's possible to get your team ready for games in which you want to go on the offensive or if you want to park the bus. Pre and post-match team and individual talks have also been given more options, although sadly there's still no way to tell Tottenham's Heurelho Gomes to stop whinging about nothing.
Developer Sports Interactive has been trying to make FM more accessible for quite a while now, and the 2011 edition is easily the best yet in terms of introducing newcomers to what is a very complicated game. On-screen pop up boxes ask you if you'd like help and then you're guided around the game to do certain actions, with the areas of interest highlighted so they're easy to find on the screen. In truth it's still going to be a challenge for complete novices to get to grips with all the game has to offer, but with the tips system and plenty of assistants to do some of the more menial tasks, there's never been a better time to give FM a whirl.
Little niggles still persist, but on the whole aren't annoying enough to hurt overall enjoyment. Player values still seem far too low and way of out touch with the real world, while the game is still prone to throw up ridiculous results that simply wouldn't happen in real life. Yes, football is often unpredictable, but only to a certain degree. A full strength Tottenham team isn't going to get beaten 5-0 in the FA cup to a team in the English npower League 2. But maybe I'm just a bit bitter.
More important than all the above is the fact that Football Manager 2011 is a huge time sink that will keep you playing for hours on end for months to come. There has often been an argument for add-ons to the previous year's version, simply fixing a few things and updating stats, but this year Sports Interactive has made a game that feels like the most essential for a very long time. Being a manager has never been so realistic or as much fun.