Game review: Football Manager 2017 – the best in the series, but only for dedicated fans
For diehard followers, purchasing the latest instalment in the Football Manager series is a no-brainer, but it doesn’t offer enough of a change for anyone outside the hardcore fanbase to warrant coughing up the cash
The question every annual franchise has to answer is whether the new entry in the series expands enough on the previous title to justify a purchase. This year, and for the first time in a few seasons, Football Manager 2017 doesn’t make enough of a step to confidently recommend it outright.
Though it does build on the strengths of its excellent predecessor, Football Manager 2016, it doesn’t offer enough of a change for anyone outside the hardcore fanbase to warrant an immediate purchase.
This feels like a strange thing to write, because in many ways – through a series of small but positive changes to the way players interact with the game – FM 2017 offers the best experience of pretending to be a football manager there’s ever been. Although the series shares the lineage of Championship Manager, FM 2017 is getting closer than ever to abolishing that game’s reputation as glorified football spreadsheet.
Three key shifts have occurred in this direction. One is the continuation of the trend in FM 2016 towards providing visual, rather than numerical, assets to the manager. Newly designed menu screens and reports provide heat maps, passing diagrams and even visual representations of on-pitch gaffes that allow you to easily see where your strengths or weaknesses are.
Meanwhile, FM 2017 also successfully surfaces more information that gives players what they need to do their job properly. Rather than tucking away player fitness, performance stats or other information into menus, the in-game inbox provides much more practical data. This saves you from spending hours on end diving deeper and deeper into a menu maze, giving you more time to play the game.
Furthermore, the information being brought to the surface includes an ongoing explanation of how the game can be played more successfully. Instead of treating the match engine as some sort of mystery box, FM 2017 feeds tips on how your mentality, shape and number of defending, support or attacking roles affect your chances of success – a welcome move for casual players.
The third major in-game shift has been the speeding up of the decision-making process. While you can still micromanage players like fussy old Pep Guardiola, you can now tick boxes in your inbox to apply staff advice about transfers, training, coach hiring and more. The result is a much faster flow through the admin side of the game, which allows you to get into matches much more quickly.
This means FM players are able to spend more time managing their teams out on the pitch, which is a treat owing to the changes in the match engine. Although FM 2017 is still far away from looking like Fifa 17, improved player animations, vibrant stadiums and little touches such as referees applying vanishing spray make matches look more authentically like soccer games.
There are also some welcome tweaks to the match engine. Player AI seems to have improved on the pitch, which means fewer frustrating moments where a defender passes the ball directly out for a corner or a winger slams a shot into the side netting. There’s also more challenge from the AI managers, who seem much more willing to adapt to your cunning/desperate plans during a game.
Despite all these changes being welcome, they don’t feel like they add up to a drastic evolution.
Worryingly, FM 2017 actually ends up falling flat in the areas where it does attempt to differentiate itself from its predecessors.
For example, the addition of data analysts and sports scientists to coaching teams is pretty slack by the series’ standards. Though they do assist your team by producing reports and reducing injuries, their impact is poorly explained and you’re given no guidance on how to hire them. This is in contrast to every other staff role in the game, suggesting that their implementation hasn’t been fully thought through.
Additionally, the inclusion of face-scanning tech for your manager avatar is a relatively meaningless cosmetic improvement. While it is funny to see your face in the game (and to turn your manager avatar into a horrifying clown figure ready to scare opposing teams to death on the touchline), it lacks any real substance beyond the aesthetic.
Most problematic of all is the inclusion of social media in the game. While the idea behind it is sound, it feels like a noisy inconvenience that disrupts the flow of the game. At best, the inclusion is a delicious satire on the state of Twitter today. At worst, it’s utterly inconsequential.
Over the past four years, Football Manager editions have shaken up the way players create tactics, introduce in-game manager stats or provide new game modes to play. FM 2017 offers none of that. As a result, it is difficult to recommend beyond the dedicated fanbase. For those who love the series and have dedicated hundreds of hours to it, purchasing the game is an unavoidable ritual. It’s more of what you want, with a lick of paint and up-to-date player stats.
But for everyone else, it may be better to sit this one out, or wait for some sort of mid-season overhaul.