For many, there are two soccer video games: FIFA and PES. They are what you expect when you play a soccer video game, or, really, any sports game. You do some dirty work off the pitch/field/court/diamond/ice, usually by constructing a roster and going through training exercises, but for the most part, the games are about going onto the playing surface and participating in a game.
Think of all the sports games you’ve played. Odds are, the main objective at the end of the day is for you to be better at controlling virtual athletes than anything. There have been games that have tried to give you a different experience — football fans will remember the NFL Head Coach games — but generally, you’re supposed to play and win a game.
This is what makes Football Manager series, developed by Sports Interactive and published by SEGA, so different. You are not supposed to be able to fire a through ball into your striker, who needs one touch and a turn to beat a center back before rifling a ball into the upper 90.
Instead, you are building a squad. You are in charge of its chemistry, its tactics, the way it plays, its coaches, everything. You are, as the title suggests, a manager in the most immersive and tactically-driven video game on the planet. And you’re not just running your team — you’re running your entire club, including the U23s and U18s. Sure, you have the flexibility to allocate roles to others in your organization, but this is a game about how you will run your club from top to bottom.
This year’s game, Football Manager 18, follows that same tried and true formula. You are tasked with being a manager, with everything — from game prep, to managing a match, to making sure that you build the best possible squad in terms of players and chemistry.
This year, Sports Interactive and SEGA tried to make a number of tweaks to the game. It placed a bigger emphasis on the locker room, making the influence the manager has on the players and their happiness/fit within a squad more important than ever. The game has a hierarchy of players within a club, kind of like how you’d imagine any team would have, and it did a tremendous job of making sure it acknowledged the oftentimes symbiotic relationship between success on the pitch and morale within the locker room.
It also made its scouting system more lifelike. Same with the way that you tactically prepare for matches, with new player roles (in terms of positioning, instructions, and set piece options) and pre-match briefings. There’s also more of an emphasis on things like data analysis and sports science, whether that is pertaining to the health of your players or the way that players fit into roles on the pitch so they are put into the best position possible to succeed.
As Miles Jacobson of Sports Interactive told Wired, “The AI is split into a lot of different areas such as the manager AI, the player personality AI, the tactical AI, match engine AI, transfer market AI, the AI of team owners and more. There are lots of different types of non-playable characters in the game, and literally hundreds of thousands of individual characters. All of them are driven by different AI modules that all talk to each other and make sense of each other. Everything is tied to everything else.” By playing Football Manager 18, you realize that this was accomplished.
While games like FIFA and PES want to make the act of playing soccer as lifelike as possible, Football Manager 18 strives to make the act of preparing for a match as lifelike as possible. Whether that means the way that you prepare a team tactically, the way that you inspire your club before it takes the pitch, or the way that you build your organization to be the best in the world, the weight of the (virtual soccer) world is put on your shoulders. You will feel like an honest to goodness manager of a football club, even if you are not.
The game has some downsides. For one, controlling the tactics and being able to adjust them during a match is really cool, but if you like controlling the players and all of their on-field actions like you do in FIFA or PES, it’s going to be an adjustment. Also, the in-match graphics aren’t the most visually appealing things in the world, although seeing as how they’re not super important, that’s more of a nitpick than anything. And be warned, there have been issues with the game’s in-match editor for some users, although work is being done to resolve the problem.
There’s also the fact that the game is just such a massive undertaking. It’s like an IPA — experienced beer drinkers love them because they are complex and take time to enjoy, but the more casual imbiber would rather just drink any old beer.
So yes. Football Manager 18 is not for everyone. For fans who like playing video games like normal and having fun, you will not enjoy this game. But for fans who want to get into the nuances of total control over a team, giving you the feeling of actually being a manager who has to out-wit their opponent and hope their players can do the rest, this game is for you. The more hardcore soccer (and sports gaming) fans will love the fact that it’s a game that requires time and effort to master all the nuances of the game, namely the tactical ones. I promise, it will be worth your time.
And if you fall into that second group of people, best of luck with the latest version of the San Marino challenge.
This review was written due in part to a copy of the game provided by SEGA.