E3 06: LMA Manager 2007 Preshow Impressions

Codemasters' football-management title is headed to the PC and the Xbox 360 for the first time; we get an early look at how the game is shaping up.

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Currently scheduled for release at the end of September, LMA Manager 2007 will be the first entry in Codemasters' football-management series to be released for the PC and the Xbox 360. We were fortunate enough to have a first look of the game during a recent visit to Codemasters' HQ, where executive producer John Jennings and designer Adam Keyte walked us through its new features.

You'll get to manage your chosen team for 20 years.
You'll get to manage your chosen team for 20 years.

The PC and Xbox 360 games are being handled by the same development team as the PlayStation 2 original, and the two versions share exactly the same feature set. The necessary tweaks have been made in the control department, although the menu layout and navigation remain the same. The 360 interface boasts larger text and icons, because the abundance of information presented on the PC menus would be unreadable on a standard-definition TV.

The main thrust of the game is a 20-year career as a football manager, taking control of one team at a time and guiding them through the same league, cup, and international club matches that they would face in real life. LMA has a selection of teams from eight countries with up to five leagues per country, and the acquisition of the FIFAPro license means that all team names and players are up-to-date and correct. We were shown the English selection, with all Premiership, Championship, League 1, League 2, and Conference teams available. The game also has a database of teams and players from no fewer than 51 countries, with players from the non-playable nations available for hire. As the game includes the "2007" moniker, all team rosters will be up to date for the new season when it kicks off in August.

Most people will undoubtedly start their career as their favourite team, but if you're a football fan without any allegiances you can opt to create a fantasy football team. Using your budget to mix proven players with rising stars, the challenge here is to create the perfect mix of talent and finally put one of the ultimate pub arguments to bed. On the Xbox 360 you can make this fantasy team available for download, or play it against other user-created teams in one-off friendly matches.

On both the Xbox 360 and PC, one of the primary design choices was to make LMA as accessible as possible for the novice football manager. The "normal" difficulty mode offers assistance at every stage of the game, even going as far as allowing you to delegate responsibility for features such as the financial running of the club. "Expert" mode is more suited to management game veterans, and while they can still defer certain duties, they will receive less opponent information--which one of the Codemasters representatives likened to the "fog of war" mechanic employed in many strategy games.

As in the recently released Pro Evolution Soccer Management, customizing your manager's appearance is intended to give you more attachment to the game. The number of options for facial details and such that are available means that you can choose to create a manager in something resembling your own image, or for comic effect you can go for a stereotypical manager replete with the sheepskin jacket and flat cap. Whatever you decide, your avatar will be seen leading the players out on to the pitch before every match, as well as announcing new player signings on TV and fielding journalists' questions at press conferences.

Different difficulty settings and delegation options let you customize your experience.
Different difficulty settings and delegation options let you customize your experience.

Media engagements are by no means the main part of the career mode, but Codemasters has created a separate "Football One" interface with input from British football pundits Gary Lineker and Alan Hansen. The two present a Match of the Day-style programme on each Saturday of the league calendar, presented with highlights of all the major games. Lineker also handles the cup draw, announcing which teams will face each other in tournaments.

Sorting through this wealth of information on the Xbox 360 had the potential to be a real nightmare, but it's elegantly handled via the controller's four shoulder buttons. LMA's interface is elegantly designed, with information related to each category housed on the right of the screen. This means that you can compare two players or teams at the same time, and adjust their formation on the pitch without ever having to leave the same menu. Icons also replace text where possible, and the overall presentation is slicker than we've seen from any other console management game.

The right mixture of players and tactics is the crux of any management game, and the 2007 version has really upped the ante over previous iterations. You now have a selection of up to five preset tactics to change in-game, and you can save an infinite amount to the hard drive to share with other users online. Moving players into position is done on a visual representation of the pitch, allowing you to drag and drop individual players into positions all over the pitch. From here, you can also instruct them to make runs and to seek out other players when passing the ball, based on information you gather on the opponent's weak areas. If you get stuck, there are also around 20 classic tactical formations to play around with, such as the heavily defensive formation of Inter Milan 64-67 that was shown to us.

Every match in the game is played out convincingly on a 3D pitch.
Every match in the game is played out convincingly on a 3D pitch.

Training has been hidden away in previous LMA games, but now it is at the forefront of the game's strategic development. You can redesign your training ground, which the developers promise has an effect on player performance and morale, and if you have enough players you can play your first team against the subs and youth team to put tactics to the test. Of course, seeing how well your players are actually doing has involved a great deal of imagination in other football management games, with matches played out either in an overhead perspective with coloured balls for players, or with a tickertape commentary. In LMA Manager 2007, all games (including training matches) are played out in an extremely convincing 3D environment. Played at regular speed, these matches last for around eight minutes, but you can skip through them at a faster pace if you like, with a trail behind the ball so you still have an idea of what's happening.

While not as comprehensive as Football Manager, LMA Football Manager 2007 has stats for some 1,100 clubs, all correct for the upcoming season. The development team was eager to show off how the stadia can be adapted if you have the capital to do so, and you can adapt the blueprints to accommodate more fans or introduce new features such as a roof. The designers have really gone to town demonstrating this new feature with some huge, if structurally impossible, masterpieces. If the new Wembley Stadium has taken many years to get to its current state, then the Enormodome--a humongous circular structure that was knocked up by one of the designers in a gamut of creative flourishes--would likely take decades to build. Thankfully, virtual construction is so much quicker than real-life, and Wembley is ready to be dropped into the game for the 2007 season, assuming that the real Wembley is actually finished on time.

The transfer system has been given an overhaul for the 2007 version of LMA Manager, and the number of players available for hire means that you'll have to make use of your international scouts. Their search criteria can now be narrowed down with pinpoint accuracy, and you can send them off to any of the included countries to scout for that offensive midfielder with a killer left foot. Whereas you could only previously make a cash offer for new players, the system in LMA 2007 allows you to part-exchange players and add clauses to the contract for appearance-based payments and sell-on fees.

If you have enough capital at your disposal, you'll be able to expand your team's stadium.
If you have enough capital at your disposal, you'll be able to expand your team's stadium.

The football-management elite may be used to a PC control scheme, but only the latest desktops will be able to keep up with the 360 version for speed. Far from being just a graphical powerhouse, the 360's triple-core architecture has been utilised by the programming team to process the mass of transfer data and game results between the games that your team is playing. Even in its nonoptimised state, the 360 version was able to process a full month's action in less than 30 seconds. The 3D matches were also particularly impressive to behold in hi-def via the 360, and while some aspects of the stadium had yet to be built, the games were enjoyable enough to just watch in their own right. Pro Evolution Soccer Management taught us that we don't always actually want to sit through every game, but we were impressed with how well LMA's matches compared to those in the aforementioned Konami game.

Seeing this early build of LMA Manager 2007, it's clear that the team's aim is to make it as light or as in-depth as the player likes. If you're a newcomer to the genre, the excellent interface and 3D match engine will ease you in nicely, and as a full career lasts for 20 years, you should have enough time to become an expert over the course of a game. The PC and Xbox 360 versions are shaping up nicely for their September 2006 release, and we'll bring you more information as soon as it becomes available.

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