Football Manager 2007 Hands-On

Sports Interactive's management sim series is back for the 2006/07 football season, and is looking as sharp as ever.

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Sports Interactive is a name that you're likely to recognise if you've dabbled to any degree in football management games in the past decade or so. Responsible for the creation and development of the Championship Manager series, the company left that title behind a few years ago and started the Football Manager franchise based on the same code and database as in the previous game.

Feeder club relationships must be carefully managed to keep the best young talent coming through.
Feeder club relationships must be carefully managed to keep the best young talent coming through.

This year will see the third FM title released--Football Manager 2007--and SI has declared that there will be more than 100 improvements over last year's very handy effort. We've spent the past few weeks poring over screen after screen of player and team stats, attempting various footballing feats from around the world and generally failing in most of them. Happily, that's a sign that things are as they should be.

For those unfamiliar with the principle of football management games, they're generally based on a lot of individual statistics. Players have ratings for every match (in FM's case, out of 20) in a whole swathe of areas that, when taken together, will give you an idea of how well--or how poorly--they're playing. You can change formations, buy and sell players, arrange training, set up scouting missions, and more. In fact, just about every area of the real-life game is emulated, and Football Manager is among the most advanced in the genre.

But when one company works on a single type of game for such a long time, there's always the suspicion that it can run out of steam. The key question we put to managing director Miles Jacobson back in July was, Just how do the new ideas keep coming? The answer lies very much with the fan base that provides constant feedback on exactly what they want, and don't want, from the game.

Headlining FM2007 is a new scouting module, which is designed to give players better control and more feedback. It seems to do just that, in a couple of principal areas. First, each scout now has a knowledge base that's related to where that person has worked previously. A scout born and bred in the UK with no overseas experience, for example, will be best employed to report on UK-based players, but teams in the higher leagues may want to look for scouts with a broader experience base, to enable them to search overseas more efficiently.

This knowledge base can expand as the game progresses, and as a scout gets a better knowledge of a nation or region his reports will be filed more quickly and feature more accurate information. When you ask a scout to rate a player, he'll come back with a report card that tells you a number of things, including the player's best position, current and potential ability, strengths and weaknesses, and whether or not he'd be a good signing. As well as reporting on individuals, a scout can scour a specific league or region with various instructions on what to look for; each player that makes the list will have a report card. The knowledge base and report cards make it easier for managers to get relevant, helpful information on players, and also to judge how accurate that information might be.

Other improvements are less wide ranging, but lots of little additional details are helping to make FM2007 the most immersive football management game to date. The introduction of feeder (and parent) clubs, for example, are an increasingly common aspect of the modern game, and now FM2007 will allow managers of big clubs to approach the board and ask it to look into finding a smaller club to affiliate with. The board will report back later on with some options--if it approves the decision, that is--and you'll be able to recommend the club you think is most appropriate.

On the flipside, and arguably more important, is the ability for managers of small clubs to ask the board to find a parent club. This way, minnow teams will be able to benefit from not just an annual cash sum, but also the possibility of an influx of better-quality players on loan from the parent club. The details can vary with each arrangement, but you can expect annual friendly matches to feature, as well as other clauses on obligations for each side of the agreement.

Many players of past games have found the start of their careers the most difficult part, especially for those who just want to jump in at the beginning and take a top team to glory. One of the problems with that is that a newly created manager profile has always been completely new to the game, with no reputation and no basis for experience--and that makes the job of taking a top team on much harder, as neither the players nor the fans have respect for you. In fact, unless you got lucky with the first couple of games, you'd most likely get your marching orders fairly swiftly. This led players seeking more viable, longer-term careers to opt for lower-league management in the hope that a lack of reputation would matter less--but that also meant that managing the current crop of top talent before their best years were behind them was pretty much impossible.

SI has addressed this little issue now and made it possible for players to choose a background for their new manager profile. These range from "complete nobody", with no reputation as before, to "former international player", which will carry a fair amount of initial kudos with him into the game. Not only does it make it easier to take on the likes of Chelsea and Barcelona with more authority, but you're also likely to pick up better players in the transfer market, and command more respect from the board.

Scouting has been thoroughly revamped for this version, and is as important as ever.
Scouting has been thoroughly revamped for this version, and is as important as ever.

Interaction with players and other managers within the game has been an area that's slowly improved in the past few years, and it's now possible to ask players in your team to recommend potential new signings, be it player or backroom staffer. This is particularly intriguing regarding any newcomer to your team, as you're able to ask him to recommend any players from his former club as well. It's not an option you're likely to use very often, but it all helps with the overall feel of the game. And when added to improved manager statistics (and contract options), new club statistics (including a club's value and the chairman's dedication), greater board feedback, and prematch team talks, FM2007 does more than any other version of the game to give you a real feeling of immersion in a virtual football world.

The 2D match engine also features enhancements, we're told, and although it's difficult to put a finger on anything specific (other than substitutes warming up at the side of the pitch), it does feel generally more lifelike. Plus, the news items, which in past games sometimes contradicted each other or got a little repetitive, have been improved; from what we've seen so far, they're less generic and more detailed. For example, if a player is involved in a news item, that player's basic profile will appear in the bottom corner to give you a snapshot of what that player is like.

Even better is the general look and feel of the game, which has been tweaked not just for better usability, but to look more pleasing to the eye. Licensed clubs feature proper logos and skins, while unofficial ones still have team colours and a nicer overall visual representation.

The game's speed has always been an issue, and with the amount of information being processed each in-game day, that's unlikely to change significantly in the future. However, support for dual- or multicore machines will speed progress somewhat, while the ability to tone down detail levels for older machines is retained.

Finally, for players new to what's undoubtedly an extremely in-depth and potentially daunting style of game, there are hints and tips displayed on processing screens, as well as a startup wizard that should lend you some assistance.

With still at least a month of tweaking and polishing available to Sports Interactive before any gold master is produced, it seems that only relatively minor issues are still to be resolved. Overall, the game feels more authentic than anything previous, and we will of course have a full review nearer to release date, which, according to SI, will be before Christmas this year.

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