The latest iteration in the long-running Football Manager series is here – so is the 2021 worth it, or does it overwhelm with numbers instead of fun? A PC exclusive, we tested it to find out.
The Football Manager series certainly takes me back, all the way to my Atari ST days where it was known as Championship Manager and was published by Domark – which later turned into Eidos and ultimately Square Enix. The franchise left those origins years ago and is a SEGA brand now, and although that will probably always feel a little weird to me it’s still very much close to its roots, despite the name change.
To put things in perspective, Championship Manager came out when Kick Off 2 and Sensible Soccer reigned supreme for your on the pitch action, and look at where we are now in terms of graphical fidelity and gameplay in football games. Although it’s added a 3D match interface over the year, innovation for Football Manager had to come from somewhere else, since it’s essentially a game that bases itself on stats and your ability to interpret and predict them.
And although training, scouting and arranging transfers are a big part of things, it’s ultimately the mechanics of a match day that matter most – and this is where the franchise has made its biggest strides since the early days, and has refined itself since last year. While that version felt like a “one size fits all” solution once you had assembled a strong enough team, picking the right tactics on a team or even player level is much more important now.
The game also relies far less on pure player skill alone, and a less talented player might be your best choice as long as it’s someone who keeps his cool under pressure and functions well within a team – allowing you to save up some money for the big striker purchase in the process. This – as long as you assemble your squad accordingly – also drastically reduces those “why on earth did he do that?!?” moments where attackers keep pressing for a goal when there’s clearly no opening. Instead, they’ll now turn the ball over to midfield again, and search for a new gap in the defense.
This makes match simulations more exciting to watch, since they’re a lot less one-dimensional this time around, with more diversity in the attacks and a substitution with more opportunistic players clearly making a difference when you’re pushing for that last minute winner. New and better visualizations help you with this decision making too, as they can highlight whether it’s a substitution or a tactical change you need to be making.
How you communicate also matters in how your decisions are received by players, with things like gestures and body language strengthening the message you’re trying to get across. I still think the interface for all this could be streamlined more (after all, it’s intuitive behavior in real life), but from a stats perspective I get that you have a wide array of choices and they all factor into the outcome. While that’s great when analyzing matches, I’m not sure I want the off-the-pitch part – which includes press conference – to also be turned into a game of stats. That’s especially true when it feels like a distraction, because ultimately it’s what happens on the pitch that matters most in the dynamic between the manager and his players.
For some, it will add to the immersion, but for me that had already been achieved with the improved match day engine. If you enjoy watching pundits outline player runs and movements on screen then you’ll love the new interface, figuring out where your biggest problems lie and fixing them in real time or through training, practice and transfers. The foundation of the game is the strongest it’s ever been because of this, and although I have a hard time recommending this as an annual purchase the 2021 edition is certainly a good moment to jump back in again.