Author paul

Author paul

Football Manager 2012 review

October 31, 2011 Tags: , Reviews 6 comments

Football Manager 2012 is absolutely, totally and utterly brilliant. I can’t imagine that surprises you much, dear reader. Football Manager has been absolutely, totally and utterly brilliant since it was called Championship Manager, and there was a Mitre Magma on the cover. What is really such an extraordinary achievement is that they really do just keep making it better and better.

I’m writing this assuming you have a working knowledge of the Football Manager series. In case you don’t, as the name suggests it’s a football management simulator in which you take on and run a club as you see fit. You handle tactics, transfers, the media, keeping your players sweet, hiring and firing backroom staff and trying to stop the board from sacking you and hiring Steve McClaren as your replacement – the ultimate ignominy.

The thing is, they put one of these out every year. This means they ask us to part with our hard-earned £30 or so for what will inevitably be an incremental upgrade on the previous year. Without the demands of a large multiplayer audience (FM does have multiplayer, but it’s far from the predominant pull to the given the time investment required), the need to have the latest and greatest version is based more on the quality of the product than it is on being part of a community who all need to be playing the same version of a game.

Feature creep is a big part of annualised sports video game franchises – every year the publishers of these games need some bullet points to put on the back of the box. According to Sports Interactive (SI), which makes the game, you would need a pretty big box in this case, being as there are apparently more than 800 new features. There’s an in-depth new tutorial system, and having played the best part of a season attempting to do a better job than Steve Bruce of managing Sunderland, I can’t say I could pick those 800 features out of a line up, but I can say that I am having an amazingly good time.

If you want a detailed breakdown of what all the new features are, I’d recommend putting “what’s new in Football Manager 2012” into Google, but what really jumped out at me were three key changes. The first of these is the most visible – the presentation of information has been fairly radically overhauled. The higher the resolution the screen you are playing on, the more information you’re given on each screen. This is particularly useful on the player information screen – having an overview with attributes, positions, contract, training, form, all displayed at once is incredibly useful and saves many a click. Each section can be clicked into for more detailed information. And my goodness, there is an incredible amount of information.

I mentioned that I haven’t finished a season yet. Sadly, unlike when CM 97/98 came out (shout out to Ibrahima Bakayoko), I have a proper job, so I can’t just sit up all night playing Football Manager. It is not just my life that has changed beyond recognition, though – it’s the game too. It takes a long, long time to play through a season. The most time-consuming period, for me, was pre-season. There is such a lot to do. Finding new staff, somehow managing to bring in new players (the improvements to scouting are brilliant), getting used to the squad, and getting used to the new tactics interface – it all takes time, but there is no doubt that it is a very engaging process. Incidentally, I managed to sign Darron Gibson and immediately changed his nickname to “The G Bomb.” This was an important step toward success. I think SI might rate him a bit higher than we do. Seeing the words “click here to view the G Bomb’s profile keeps making me laugh like the idiot I am.

Football Manager 2012

Football Manager 2012

The second of the changes which has had the most impact on my experience of playing the game is the new “Tone” system for interacting with players, and the vastly improved team talks. You instantly see the effect of your overall team talk on a player’s body language, and can make adjustments by then providing a specific talk to your players by position, or as individuals. You can choose the tone you use, and varying this made it feel like you had a good deal more control. In previous years I have found that I essentially said I was pleased if players got 6.5-7.9 and delighted if they got 8 or better, which soon stopped having an impact. It now seems that you have a greater chance to actually influence the morale and performance of your team through the team talk which has made it into less of a chore than it felt before.

The third big marquee change which has had a noticeable impact on my experience is the vastly improved 3D match engine. I’m old enough to remember the stick figure match engine of the original Football Manager (which came on a tape, kids.) (A tape being like an MP3 player, but in the olden days). Some of my richest childhood gaming experiences came through those stick figures and whilst the actual figures and animations aren’t that really that far removed from their stick figure forebears, what is so impressive is how closely watching an FM simulated game looks like watching a simulated game of football, not in terms of graphical fidelity in a FIFA kind of a way, but in how well the representative figures move, and use the ball. They make the runs you hope they will, make passes which look like real passes and hit every kind of shot. The ball flies like a real ball should. It just feels like football. Sometimes all the players start running on the spot for a bit, and the frame rate wasn’t great on the battered old PC I’ve been playing on, but these are minor annoyances, and certainly not game breaking.

There is a new option – the Director’s camera which mostly uses the up in the stands angle, but cuts occasionally to a different view at key moments – behind the back for a direct free kick or penalty, for example. It’s a view which mostly works well, but does not seem to know the 180 degree rule. If you’ll allow me to quote Wikipedia – “In filmmaking, the 180° rule is a basic guideline that states that two characters (or other elements) in the same scene should always have the same left/right relationship to each other. If the camera passes over the imaginary axis connecting the two subjects, it is called crossing the line” This might seem like an overly technical complaint, but it actually makes a big difference to the experience of watching matches – it’s disorienting when this rule is ignored.

Football Manager 2012

Football Manager 2012

My only other significant gripe is one which has been a problem for a long while with the FM series – it takes a really long time, sometimes, for it to simulate in the background, all the games that you’re not involved in. This is a particular problem in international weeks, it seems. I was running one league with a small database (because of the aforementioned battered old PC) but the game really chugged in those spots. They have tried to moderate this problem by giving you the option to browse the standard menus and information whilst it processes matches in the background, but I still found there was a good deal of downtime.

So it’s not flawless, then, but Football Manager is one of the crowning achievements in the medium of computer games. There is a lot of debate in video game criticism about the real strengths of the medium – especially when it comes to providing a narrative experience, Football Manager allows you to create your own narrative – relationships with players, ups and downs, key games won or lost on the form of a star striker, or a poor offside decision. As a manager you have enormous influence, but not omnipotence. Which, of course, is very much like real football. You need patience, and some time on your hands and be prepared to sift through an enormous amount of information to get the best out of this game. If you do, though, it’s an incredibly rich, deep and rewarding experience and incremental update on last year or not, really fantastic value for money.

Football Manager 2012, developed by SI Games and published by SEGA, is available now.

Review: “Red” by Gary Neville

October 4, 2011 Tags: , , Reviews 11 comments

There are moments in “Red”, Gary Neville’s autobiography, when you are reminded what an absolutely extraordinary career he, his brother and – as he never fails to refer to them – “Butty, Becks, Giggsy and Scholesey” had together. In the second batch of photographs included there is an image, captured in the dressing room before Neville’s testimonial, of the six of them with Sir Alex Ferguson, and I am ever so slightly ashamed to admit that seeing it again made me  well up. Six pals who have achieved extraordinary things, many of them together.

That this image had such a profound affect on me is perhaps not a great reflection of the quality of the prose. It feels a bit hacky to compare Red’s functional, consistent and only rarely exceptional style to its author’s playing career, but I am going to do it anyway, because it is just so appropriate.

Gary tells his story in strict chronological order, cataloguing the highs and lows of a career spent living out a childhood dream. The title is not an accident, the song sung throughout his career is true – Gary Neville really is a Red.

Spending a few hours in his literary company is enjoyable enough, because for any United fan it means spending a few hours on a pleasing trip through the incredible successes of the past twenty years. Incidentally, if you are not a United fan and have somehow stumbled across this review, I’m not sure Red is for you…

There is not much in the way of new insight in this book – the United way means being hard working, never complacent, and not knowing when you’re beaten. Sir Alex shouts at players when they don’t play well and occasionally they shout back and that never ends well. Eric Cantona was good.

The few titbits of new information I won’t share here because they are a rare treat to discover yourself. Generally speaking, in spite of the lack of sparkling prose, the momentum of United’s triumphs are entertaining enough to keep the reader engaged.

The momentum is only broken by the chapters covering Nev’s England career. Much like actually watching England’s underachievement on the pitch for the last 20 years, reading about it is pretty dull. If I’d played 85 times for my country, I’d probably devote a fair chunk of my career memoirs to it, but there are few surprises in his recanting of his time with the national team. Venables was good, Hoddle was tactically astute but a terrible man-manager, Sven’s reign started promisingly but then the indiscipline around the squad got out of hand. There is a chapter for each England manager – this could have been the work of a single chapter, and I would have been satiated.

Red is a perfectly decent sporting autobiography, rather than an excellent one. Still, because of it, I have spent the last five days with a song stuck in my head. Altogether now…”Gary Neville is a red, is a red, is a red! Gary Neville is a red, he writes boo-ooks.”

“Red: My Autobiography” by Gary Neville is published by Bantam Press and available in hardcover now.

“Life With Sir Alex” by Will Tidey

My Life With Sir Alex - Will TideyTidey’s book, published in paperback by Bloomsbury, benefits and suffers from all chronicles of supporter experiences. Tidey’s prose draws readers into the action as if not solely recalling the experience but reliving it. The book is, after all, Tidey’s personal experiences of supporting the club since childhood.

These are emotions – the highs and lows of supporterdom – with which all Manchester United fans can identify. The preface to ‘My Life’ is a case in point, describing the explosion of passion and joy as Ole Gunnar-Solskjaer’s flicked winner lit the fires of joy at Camp Nou in 1999. It was the seminal moment of Sir Alex Ferguson’s time in charge of United.

But Tidey’s work also is recollection of events over the course of 25 years of Ferguson’s tenure at Old Trafford, and in strict chronilogical order at that. There is much to enjoy in the many victories; plenty to rue in the defeats. Each has made Ferguson’s time at Old Trafford so memorable. Tidey’s work is also a remembrance of the minutiae, as well as the improbably glorious. There are moments that the reader will simply have forgotten, or placed in the deep recesses of memory at least. There is joy in that too.

And yet for all that there is nothing particularly revelatory here. Why should there be? Tidey’s work, almost a personal diary over a quarter of a century, was never intended to be. Passionate, witty and smart, Tidey neatly sums up the fans-eye view of Ferguson’s time at Old Trafford. For that, it is well worth the read.

“Life with Sir Alex” by Will Tidey is published by Bloomsbury and available in paperback now.

This article originally appeared in Rant Monthly Issue 3, October 2011.

Fifa 11 Review – the best football game in the world but is that enough?

December 19, 2010 Tags: , Reviews 7 comments

Rant almost always refers to itself in the third person, but when you’re attempting to critically appraise a work of art or entertainment, there really is no room for the third person – none of this is “Rant’s” opinion – it’s all mine. For the purposes of establishing credentials, I have a long history with video game versions of the football.

Me and the esteemed editor of this very website once had an actual 90 minute game of Match Day 2 on his Amstrad CPC464 – the scoreboard broke after 10 goals, and I think I may have won by infinity to infinity minus 3.

We’ve all come a long way since then and FIFA 11 from EA sports will be in many a video game playing football fan’s Christmas stocking next week.

That imaginary video game playing football fan will have much cause to be please with their gift because, with the exception of a few hold-outs waving the Pro-Evo flag, most people acknowledge that FIFA, long the slickest and best presented football game going, is now also the one with the richest, deepest and most satisfying game-play engine. That this is an uncontroversial position to hold is a remarkable turnaround for a franchise long dogged by accusations of style-over-substance.

The difficulty in reviewing annualised sports franchises comes in asking the question “who is this review for?” If it is for people who are getting their first 360 or PS3 for Christmas then there’s absolutely no question that if they have any interest whatsoever in playing football on it, they should run out and buy FIFA 11.

In return for their hard-earned they will be getting a product chock full of features – licensed leagues from across Europe, some startlingly accurate player likenesses (and some not quite so accurate – Darren Fletcher’s hair has NEVER been that colour), wonderful animation, and in spite of a limited number of properly modelled grounds, Old Trafford is replicated in all its glory. So who cares if Fulham, Aston Villa and Bolton all play in identical generic stadia?

The control scheme has been incremented upon – last year’s genuine analogue directional movement remains, shooting from range is improved (I scored an absolute belter with Nani the other day), and whilst I still can’t score from or even hit half decent free kicks, that could just be me.

In fact a good few of my criticisms of the game play may stem from the fact that nowadays, as may be inferred from my reference to 8-bit games, I am a grown up and don’t have the time or manual dexterity to truly master everything on offer here. Games occasionally become very bogged down in midfield because I lack the subtlety to implement much of the right stick skill moves which I imagine could cut open stubborn defences in a way my hopeful through ball can’t.

If the review is for someone who has last year’s edition, or even, as is the case for me, 09’s then the value proposition becomes very different. If what the Americans call “The Roster Update” is appealing to you and the nuanced visual appeal that comes from more years of graphical polish and engine refinement then you won’t be disappointed. And, of course, if online multiplayer is important to you, then the new edition means drastically reduced numbers playing last year’s edition.

For me, though, I think if I hadn’t been sent a review copy I would have thought long and hard before parting with the £35+ needed to pick up a new copy of this badboy. The differences are so incremental, and my own abilities so relatively unsophisticated as to render the game play changes of minimal effect. And the big shiny new addition of playable goalkeepers, whilst competent, is hardly earth earth-shattering.

Be a pro mode has been through some pretty serious changes, some very much for the better, some for want of a better word, bizarre. Instead of playing matches and being assigned points based on your performance after the game to improve your dude’s skills, your skills improve as you pull off moves in games – so running with the ball might improve your stamina, making successful short passes may improve your passing, and so on.

You can also use your pro across all modes of play now, rather than only in “be-a-pro” seasons, which is very neat, and the fact that progress made in exhibition games, or even the arena, is a really nice touch. What isn’t such a nice touch is that, as far as I could work out, you no longer get to play in reserve matches when you’re not in the first team squad, and EA Sports have implemented their terrible, terrible, terrible calendar system which “sims” other matches whilst you SIT IN FRONT OF YOUR TELLY HITTING X AND NOT GETTING TO PLAY YOUR GAME!

Fight Night Round 4 had a very similar problem – I’m not familiar with Madden or the NHL games, but I believe they may have this problem too. This is bad enough when you’re playing a season as an entire team, and having to wait in between matches, but when you’re only getting picked once every six games or so, as you are at the start of your be-a-pro career it’s an absolutely disgrace of a design decision. (Hey, this website does have rant in the title). The long and the short of it is – I just want to play the game. I don’t care that you accurately sim the result of Fulham vs Chelsea.

Enough of the griping though, about value and the very silly calendar thing. Playing local multiplayer is a huge amount of fun, as it always is with good sports games. The AI is the best it has ever been and means that when you don’t have friends round, and you don’t want to be pwned by 12-year-old ninjas on Xbox live, you can still get plenty of enjoyment out of this.

I cannot stress enough how fantastic it looks, and the sound design is great – they’ve added some more texture to the commentary, certain fixtures and individual players get extra attention from Martin and Andy, and whilst Andy’s still occasionally a bit on the wooden side, it certainly works well enough that I left it on for a few games before giving up on them.

FIFA 11 is a must buy if you don’t have a football game, and my personal upgrade cycle for sports games means it’s probably a must buy if you have FIFA 08. Even if you do have 10 though and fancy treating yourself, you know that you’ll be getting a pretty fantastic package, just perhaps not one that’s that different from what you’re already playing.

I’m off to level up my pro – I do feel a little guilty though – I’m keeping Berba out of the side.

FIFA 11 is available on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC.

Everybody sing! 5-2, even Berba scored…

April 25, 2009 Tags: Shorts No comments

Dimi’s come in for quite a bit of grief lately, which is vaguely understandable, but there’s much to celebrate about the languid Bulgarian. When he scored against Spurs, his apparently nonchalant turn away from the goal masked the massive relief. When he was mobbed by his team mates (surely a sign about the esteem they hold him in) he couldn’t contain his delight any longer and broke out into a massive grin, and gave a double fisted pump of joy. Unless Rooney was media savvy enough to whisper “Berba, you big numpty, at least look like you’re pleased,” I think Dimi might actually have been displaying the commitment to the cause we all want to see from him.