Football Manager 2017 [official site] is out tomorrow but I've been playing the beta for a couple of weeks now, striving to climb from the lower leagues to the dizzy heights, and seeing if I can do a better job with post-Ferguson Manchester United than Jose Mourinho. Neither of us know quite what to do with Paul Pogba, I have concluded.
Along the way to trophies and triumph, I've had to deal with social media, new artificial intelligence routines and a coaching staff that are chattier than ever. Here's wot I think.
Reviewing the annual release of a well-established series is tricky. Football Manager is, and always has been, a game about being a football manager. That has not changed and it isnt going to change. Each edition of the game iterates on some of the fundamentals of the simulation - improving the user interface, providing more precise and useful data, and building better AI – while adding new features that either reflect changes to the real-world sport or that alter the way the game functions.
For a few years now, there havent been any changes of the latter variety. Football Manager works, broadly speaking, on two levels – short-term tactical approaches to individual matches, and long-term strategic squad-building and club development. There are lots of different threads within both of those categories and plenty of overlap between them, but the distinction helps when looking at how Football Manager 2017 has improved on its predecessors.
On the tactical side, the last major change came with FM 2014, which shifted from sliders to player roles and instructions. In short, rather than attempting to tweak an individual's on-pitch behaviour as if he were a machine, you would now slot him into not just a position but a role within that position. Further instructions could then be given, to the team as a whole and individual players, in order to create custom tactics.
That is still the meat of the tactical game. Since 2014, players' understanding of roles has been improved and a few new roles have been added (though none this year), but there hasn't been a major overhaul in that department for a few years now.
The long-term strategic side of the game, in which I'm including everything from transfers and youth development to job-switching and contract negotiations, also plays out much the same in terms of the things you can and cannot do. There are no new playable options for management, such as youth team or assistant positions, but there are new intricacies for interactions, whether organising loan deals or promises for the future.
On the whole though, this isn't an edition in which new features stand out. Instead, it's the work that has gone on under the hood, the tightening and embellishing of existing systems, that impresses over time. And I have been impressed; greatly impressed at times.
The match engine is better than ever. Whether you play in the 3D view or not, the calculations that simulate player intelligence and the shape of the team are more convincing than ever. Sports Interactive say they've doubled the number of decisions that each character makes and the results are immediately noticeable. Players in the final third rarely run toward the touchline and then shoot from impossible angles, as they did so often in last year's game. Instead, they'll stop, hold up play, and look for a teammate making a run into the box, or at its edge. Or maybe they'll play the ball of a defender to win a corner.
Defensive AI, meanwhile, sees players holding position much more effectively, but also making last ditch tackles that sometimes work a treat, dispossessing a forward who his through on goal, and sometimes lead to penalties and red cards. More than ever, you can see the interplay of the statistics that make up a player's abilities and the instructions that you provide at the beginning of a match, and change as things develop on the pitch. While you'll still lose games because of mistakes or bad luck (it wouldn't be football otherwise), players are much more responsive to you orders, and you can see your influence on matches, for better and for worse.
Even though your actual input and the tools at your disposal haven't changed when it comes to tactics, the improved AI and its responsiveness make matchdays more enjoyable than ever. If you care for the 3D match engine – and I do – you'll be able to see a very decent rendition of the match. Even if you find the pre-match warm-ups and other incidentals unnecessary, the actual flow of football is better represented, mainly through more loose balls and the chaos that can ensue, and players using their strength to tackle, block and control rather than simply to hurl themselves at opponents.
In the long-term, change comes in the form of improvement to existing systems as well. There's been a focused effort to overhaul AI squad-building and it appears to have paid off. Although I haven't tested the game anywhere near enough with decade-plus saves to confirm that you won't end up with a league of rivals who struggle to fill the obvious holes in their teamsheet a few years down the line, my two longhaul experiments suggest the AI has some clever tricks up its sleeve.
Part of the solution is in creating intentional errors of judgement rather than striving for perfection. That's most noticeable when a club bids a daft amount of money for a player they don't necessarily need, an £80m square peg when all the holes in their squad are round. When a player achieves world class status, the big clubs come sniffing around with their wallets open. Protracted transfer sagas play out across social media and you can sit chuckling as idiots vie for the latest hot thing while you bide your time looking for a bargain.
There's much more movement on the whole, with China and the USA attractive destinations for players now, particularly those who are coming to the end of their careers or have ended up saddled with a pricetag that over-eggs their qualities. It's also much easier to retrain players for new positions, which is useful for those who have lost pace or their place in the team but still seem worth keeping around, even if just for sentimental reasons.
Significant AI reworking aside, consolidation is the word that comes to mind. That might not be a very exciting word – a marketing team would probably prefer visceral or immersive – but when you're creating a game that asks players to absorb and work with enormous quantities of data, ensuring that visual representations of that data are useful and accessible at appropriate times is extremely important. And this is why Football Manager turns me into a bigger nerd than any D&D-inflected RPG I can think of; my favourite thing about 2017 is a single screen.
The squad depth screen is beautiful. It contains just about everything you need to know when looking to buy a player or set up a team on a matchday, and it's all in one place. If you want to experiment with formations, this is the place to look. If you want to figure out where an injury would cause the greatest crisis, the information is right there. It's a one-stop shop for all of your managerial needs and I already love it dearly.
I'm less fond of the social media feed. It serves a purpose, adding some extra flavour to news with fan reactions and embedded video highlights, but it plays out very predictably. Signings, man of the match awards and just about any else of significance tend to generate a positive reaction, a negative reaction and a neutral reaction. A young striker, promoted through the ranks and a local lad to boot, could score a hatrick on his debut and one fan will wonder what all the fuss was about, saying he didn't see anything special in the performance.
What would be useful, for the flavour as well as to help with analysis of fan reaction, would be to see all three responses – the positive, the negative and the indifferent – along with percentages indicating what portion of social media commentary was of that form. That happens with rumoured signings, showing how keen fans are, and is a good indicator of the actual reaction if a deal goes through. As it is, the social feed is more useful as another tool for consolidation, putting lots of useful information in one place (and the info you see is fully customisable, to a greater extent than the old inbox subscriptions even) and providing a single screen on which to keep track of goings-on around your club and league.
This is the best Football Manager when it comes to presenting useful information at useful times. Staff advice pops up frequently (as frequently as you ask it to, as a matter of fact) and is much easier to parse and put into action should you choose to follow it. That makes even the full-fat version of the game, as opposed to the separate stripped-down Touch version, more accessible than recent editions. You can set staff responsibilities to handle almost everything bar the matchday itself, taking over tasks as you become comfortable with them or as you decide the time is right. Of course, that puts your club in the hands of imperfect AI characters with their own strengths and weaknesses – particularly risky in lower leagues – but it's a good way to learn the ropes.
It's clearly a strange year for Football Manager when the headline feature is Brexit (it's a fascinating event when playing as a British team, with the potential to seriously disrupt plans; it reminds me of the Black Death in Crusader Kings II). That may be as much because of the headline-generating potential of the feature and its timeliness, but it also speaks to the lack of hot new things to shout about.
It's a much better game than last year's edition though, the time in between having been spent on significant and healthy rewrites of AI processes at both the tactical and strategic levels. That it is the most visually appealing game in the series, in terms of both clarity off the pitch and improvements on the pitch, is a bonus.
You probably already know whether you want a new Football Manager in your life right now. If you do, this is a better option than last year's edition, particularly given its improvements for those playing long-term saves. It's evolution not revolution, but that was needed given how much the match engine and transfer intelligence seemed to be creaking after years without a significant tune-up. I've been playing with a release candidate for the last couple of days, and I'm two seasons in on a save with Bury FC that I imagine I'll still be playing by this time next year. Here's to the next eight hundred hours in the dugout.