Football Manager 2021 Review
The Great One simulator 2021
I love Football Manager. From Football Manager 2013 to 2019, I have a combined 1,192 hours in the franchise. However, as with any sports game, it can also bring out the worst in me. It is especially potent with Football Manager as you don’t control how your team performs on a matchday, leaving you at the mercy of the simulation. Despite this, you can’t fault Football Manager. Well, most of the time. It mirrors the real-life sport and you can’t expect your team to win every match or compete with the financial powerhouses of football at the start. This is no different with the latest release.
Football Manager 2021 is the latest manager simulator in a series that started back in 1992 as Championship Manager. It offers football fans the ability not just to manage your favourite club, but any club you desire. It immerses you in the world of football unlike any game on the market. You essentially get to write your own footballing story and it is one of the series’ biggest strengths. There is nothing as rewarding as taking a semi-professional team from the dregs of non-league football to Premier League and European glory. The bizarre, asymmetric formations, the regens (game created youth players when they’ve run out of real people) and the individual matches are all experiences that stick with you. I can still tell you my starting XI from Football Manager 2013 as the team who went on to dominate English and European Football. That is the power of Football Manager.
Its core DNA hasn’t changed. If you’ve played a Football Manager game before, it feels like returning to an old friend who’s had a facelift. They still look like themselves but ever so slightly different. One of the biggest changes is the matchday UI and how the game presents information to you. Now, during the course of the match, you will see how many goals you’re expected to score, your assistant’s suggestions pop up in a large box in the middle of the screen and your line up is along the bottom. It does take a bit of getting used to as a returning player. Disappointingly, not all UI changes are positive. The biggest offender is how a player’s condition is indicated. Whereas before you would see their condition represented by a percentage, now it is a heart. A full green heart means the condition is between 90-100%. While this sounds ok, it doesn’t give you the exact number. This means you will end up starting players with a lower condition than you would like. It feels unintuitive and is an unnecessary hindrance.
Visually, Football Manager is not going to blow you away. To be fair, it has never pretended that it is going to stand up to games like EA Sports FIFA, but it is the weakest aspect of the experience. The match engine has had some improvements. There are fewer jarring animations from players and as a result the game flows more than previous releases. However, the character models still look more like Subbuteo players than human and the faces of managers and regens can be hilarious. They look more like a waxwork and a mannequin who often venture down uncanny valley.
Licensing is a huge part of football games. Having the rights to players, leagues and competitions is its own selling point. Football Manager does boast some licensed leagues with the Bundesliga and English Football Leagues (not the Premier League). So unfortunately, most of the big teams will not have their correct badges and kits. It doesn’t go down the PES route with made up names save for the clubs who have exclusivity deals such as Juventus. The lack of licensed badges and kits does make the game less authentic but this is a minor bugbear.
Luckily, the visuals were never the focus for Football Manager. It is a simply a means to convey the game. Football Manager still technically works if you were to look at dots moving around the screen like the games of old. The real meat of the game, actually managing a team, is still just as engaging and immersive as it has always been.
The gameplay of the 2021 edition has been left relatively unchanged. If you’ve played any Football Manager game, then the basic mechanics will be familiar to you. Most of your time will be spent in between matches, much like in reality, micro-managing every aspect of the club. You will be in charge of everything from training to scouting, recruitment of both players and staff as well as the financial side of the game with a bit of PR for good measure. You will take press conferences, engage with players and handle contract talks and more. In short, you will be handling a lot. Like any good manager, you can delegate these tasks to other members of staff but this is best left for unimportant decisions.
In saying that, there are some new features added to this year’s release. One of the best is the Agent Availability option on scouting reports. This allows you to talk to the agent of a player to find out if they’re available and if they’re interested in joining your club. They say knowledge is power and if you can find out that chasing a player is a waste of time, then you can focus your efforts elsewhere. The other big addition is body language. Not only can you win friends and alienate people with words, but now with gestures. Certain questions in press conferences can elicit a response such as you shaking your head or slamming your fists on a table. When talking to a player you can shake their hand or put your arm around them and body language can also used to galvanise your players in team talks alongside your motivational speech. While each body language reaction has the effect you’d expect, every option gets explained to you by the game just by hovering over. This adds extra depth to every interaction and goes some way to immersing you in the game.
This depth does have drawbacks, however. It can be difficult for a newcomer to get to grips with the game. There are tons of options that get thrown at you as well as information which is hidden in the menus. If you don’t know what to look for, it is easy to miss something important. The game does try to be more accessible. There are options for new players to have everything explained to them, and a feature for returning players to have the new systems explained. It is admirable, but Football Manager is still intimidatingly complex.
The complexity can take some time to get over, but it is worth the perseverance. It isn’t complex for the sake of being complex. There always comes the moment where everything just clicks. Once you’ve reached that point, it is impossible not to get sucked in. It makes you feel like a football manager, for lack of a better phrase. There is nothing better than messing around with a new tactic for it to come off spectacularly against a superior team. The tension you feel when winning by one goal going into the final 10 minutes of a match is something that will never dissipate. These emotions are only possible because of all the options and control the game gives you. If you only had control of the formation and starting eleven, it would impossible to get invested. So, Football Manager’s complexity is a weakness and also its strength, provided you can push through.
Football Manager 2021 only provides you with 2 single player modes, which is one more than it needs. The main game mode is the career and it is where most people will spend most of their time. There is also a Create a Club mode where you can edit an existing club into your preferred image. It is a fun extra mode, but being the manager of a real club is where the heart of the game is.
When taking control of a club, you will be introduced to the board, the staff, the press and the players. This is the point you can begin to stamp your vision on the club. If the finances provide, you can bring in your own players and staff to improve the team. Football Manager is a great game to create your own narrative. This world is your metaphorical oyster. There is no football game out there that allows you to build the kind of cult of personality that surrounds some managers. You can literally be the next Sir Alex Ferguson or Bill Shankley and it is genuinely exciting to see you talked about in that kind of company.
There are multiple ways you can build up a personality. This is done through interactions with the press, your players and other managers. You won’t be friends with everyone but you can be a generally amiable person or a manager with an ego as big as the solar system. You can actually role-play as your favourite manager if you want. I have to admit, it is fun to have a bit of an ego and tempt a reaction out of a rival. However, you will notice that most interactions are the same and press conferences in particular can become tedious very quickly. You will be asked the same questions every week and it gets old within your first season, let alone 5 to 10 seasons in.
Football Manager can also be frustrating. Much like real life, everything doesn’t go according to plan. In fact, it can often go horribly wrong. It would be incredibly boring if you won every match and every trophy at the first time of asking. The frustration mostly stems from the lack of control you have over a team’s performance. You can set the tactic and motivate them, but if they play badly there’s nothing you can do about it. Of course, you can substitute them off or change tactics but it doesn’t help when you’re 3 goals down.
However, the simulation can go too far and the uniqueness of the match engine can throw out some unusual scenarios. There are some moments where a player seems to lose any ability to play football and does something so mind-boggling stupid, it is hard to comprehend. These moments can happen in real life, but they pop up with an alarming regularity in game. These annoyances don’t ruin the game as a whole but can briefly sour the experience.
If you’re playing on PC, Football Manager is an easy game to run. It does require more of your CPU but there were no issues for me. The matches had no frame rate dips and near enough any system will be able to run the game in some capacity and any decent system can run it at the highest settings.
The multiplayer is a fantastic element of Football Manager. You have the option to have a career mode with friends being managers at other teams. It adds an extra element of competition when you and your friends are fighting it out for a league title. It is the exact same as a single player career mode with no compromises. The second game mode is an online draft, where you and friends can play a competition with whatever team you can afford. If you want a front three of Mbappe, Haaland and Messi then you can! As long as no one else drafts them first. These modes are just as worthy of your time as the single player portion of the game.
In either game mode, all players work on the same schedule. In essence, everyone acts at the same time and all players need to click to continue before progress is made. This means the slowest player dictates when the game continues and the progress stops if any player has an issue that requires attention. This could be anything from an impending transfer or a press question. You will also usually wait for other players to finish their own matches unless you’re both scheduled to play at the same time. Essentially, all players take their decisions at the same time and wait for everyone else to finish their tasks before the game moves on. The only downside to the online is that there is a major input delay. It can take upwards of a minute sometimes for the game to register your click to continue.
If you’re a fan of football, then this is the best football game out there. While it is not the most visually appealing game on the market, it excels in every other area. There is nothing like managing your team to major domestic and international success. The multiplayer simply replicates a winning formula with your friends as well as adds onto the core game with a great draft mode. Football Manager 2021 builds on the previous entries in the franchise to create a more polished version of a great game.