In any great football team, strength comes from stability. Wholesale change doesn't breed success, but incremental improvements usually do. This is also the case for Football Manager--or Worldwide Soccer Manager, as it's known in some regions--as developer Sports Interactive has demonstrated with the continual progress of the franchise since its rebirth in 2004.
You start out by creating a manager, who for the first time can be female, and you then choose to work for one of thousands of clubs in more than 50 countries. Launched straight into preseason, you have to try to get your house in order and make any last-minute signings before playing any games. With your management in place, you have to decide on your first team to take on a few friendly matches before the first season gets underway.
Football Manager 09 covers pretty much every conceivable aspect of being a real manager. Before matches, you have to give your team words of encouragement--urging them to "do it for the fans" and other such platitudes--and set up instructions for dealing with the opposition players. If there's a player whose temper may fray a little easily, you can instruct your players to mark him very closely and tackle him hard in an attempt to frustrate them. If there's someone who you know will be particularly dangerous, then ideally you want to make your defenders close him down whenever possible.
During the match itself, you can control your formation and lineup at all times, but major changes won't come into effect until a stop in play. Other more subtle tweaks, such as wasting time when you're trying to hang on to a narrow margin, can be made instantly via the tactics menu. These changes do add up to significant differences on the pitch; fail to pick up the opposition's target man and you're scuppered, but take advantage of an opponent's lack of width after a substitution and you can make a game turn on a sixpence.
Although the differences in the actual gameplay of Football Manager 08 and 09 are not as marked as they were between 07 and 08, there are a number of notable improvements to justify the upgrade. The headline feature is the new match engine, which has finally made the transition to 3D. This serves to increase your immersion because it helps remove the feeling that you're just poking a spreadsheet.
However, the new view isn't without its issues. Although some players are recognisable, the vast majority lack the appearance and movement of their real-life counterparts. There are also innumerable visual inconsistencies with the way players run, turn, and move, all of which put a damper on proceedings. Another thing that may grate is the fact that stadiums are not shown in this view, either; they appear simply as odd grey blocks around the pitch, with no detail whatsoever and little to differentiate any one ground from any other. Although the ability to watch the crowd rather than the players would be a foolish move, the lack of anything surrounding the action is an odd choice that further serves to give you the impression that the engine isn't ready for public consumption quite yet.
However, the change of engine does bring with it a few perks. The TV view is a boon because it offers a range of customisable information displayed around the action. This can include your players' fitness, how well they're playing, and even detailed notes about what the team as a whole is doing well and how they could improve.
Some of the less obvious changes are just as rewarding. After the revamp to the help and wizard systems last year, your right-hand man has now been improved to help you get the most out of the game. Whereas before he would pick your team when you were too lazy to work out who your best 11 were, now he gives comprehensive feedback when asked about your players, tactics, or the opposition; in fact, he's the man who offers all of the real-time match-day feedback. This can be useful, even for experienced managers, especially when you're driven to distraction trying to work out why your all-star team is a goal down to Scunthorpe.
Training has also received some subtle tweaks to make the setup more realistic. You can no longer put your charges through unreasonably harsh regimes to boost their skills without expecting to see a drop-off in performance due to overwork or injury. Then there's the obligatory overhaul of the 300,000-player database, retaining Football Manager's place as the most authentic game in its genre.
Outside of match days, the game looks very much as it did last year. The visual style that was introduced in FM08 is still very much in evidence, but the game lacks music and there are very few sound effects outside of matches. Online play exists in the rudimentary form that has existed in the franchise for many years, allowing for directly connected players to control teams in the same league, but this is unlikely to be of interest to any but a very select few.
Football Manager 09 feels like a much lighter update than last year, and though the match engine does represent a major new feature, it's definitely flawed. That said, the improvements around the engine do serve to enhance the match-day experience, and the core game still sucks you in with its immersive and comprehensive gameplay, even if it's not the most attractive game in the world to look at. Football Manager 2009 is a great game that captures the highs and lows of following a real football team, and it once again manages to justify the ticket price, even for those who coughed up last season.