Price: £30 (includes Football Manager 2018 Touch, a version of the game that is less complex and designed to play faster. It is not covered in our review.)
Developer: Sports Interactive
It's a bit of a long running joke to say that the core game of Football Manager hasn't changed much in three decades, and at a base level, this is true.
You are still a manager of 'football'. Football is still being played; it still uses a ball, and many feet.
However, every year there are new features and mechanics laid on top of the simulation. Some of these keep in line with the way real football is going, and last year saw the addition of data analysts and sports scientists to the game.
Some are age-old, capturing something about the experience that hasn't been in a game before. This year's headline feature is squad 'dynamics', and in short, it lets all of your players make friends with each other, whispering about you behind your back. Just like real life.
These social groups shift and change with individual players gaining and losing influence among the squad. My star striker, Jake Watkins, had to take a backseat when a more influential but objectively worse player, Stewart Yetton, started complaining about a lack of first time football. If I ignored him, I'd have a revolt on my hands.
I ignored him. Players started to anger at the way I was treating him. Bizarrely, one of the most angry about it all was my star striker, who wouldn't calm down until I promised to give his friend time on the pitch.
Yetton had the ear of his fellow players and the gift of the gab, and during my first season guiding Vanaman South hopefuls Truro City, he made my life a living hell as I fought my way way to an unexpected double, seizing promotion to the Vanaman national league and the FA Trophy.
These dynamics affect player morale and performance on the pitch and have a sweeping effect on the way the game plays out.
The dynamic system is the headline feature, the biggest change for those playing Football Manager's yearly iterations and wondering what's new. There's also a new and detailed social feed, generating random articles from real sources. These are often surrounded by tweets — although they are never called tweets, and Twitter is never mentioned — that praise or query every decision you make ad nauseam. If the developers wanted to capture the feeling of a bunch of people online judging your every action, they've nailed it here in exquisite detail.
This level of detail expands across the game's newer systems but also the old, with pages of stats, spreadsheets, and graphs to look over. Picking out the signal from the informational noise is the essence of Football Manager, and players will find themselves poring over tiny details to find a perfect player for their team, an exploitable weakness in the upcoming match against a strong opponent, and sometimes even just trying to desperately find something to staunch the bleeding when your team can't seem to beg, borrow, or steal a goal and you're trying to avoid relegation.
If that sounds hellish, Football Manager isn't your game. But it should be noted that Football Manager achieves the near impossible in making all of these data as easy to read as can be expected. A basic knowledge of football is all you need to understand what's going on here, but the information is well presented, and the data you're offered as feedback is detailed enough that even if you don't know your trequartista from a team talk, you can still be an effective player and still have a good time.
Your staff are smarter than in previous years, and when you have a full complement you'll be kept on track with a variety of suggestions, whether it's from your scouting team recommending potential transfer targets or your medical staff with a report telling you which of your players are most likely to get an injury, so you can rest them before they need the magic sponge. Their skill means that if you're ever in any doubt, you can delegate, and often your problem will go away, providing everyone involved likes you enough.
If there's one large problem, the algorithm isn't sensitive enough to pick up massive overperformance. When I took Truro from a predicted bottom half finish and delivered the title of the Vanaman South league, the board were keen to get me to sign a new contract but didn't believe several of my transfer targets, essential to have a chance in the new division, were worth paying more than the pittance I was paying my middling team. Meanwhile, my star left the team, stating that the team wasn't playing well enough for him.
I polished my silverware, and I sighed.
This isn't an issue that will likely be noticed by players managing the big international clubs, and some players may even view it as a positive, requiring you to spend a few seasons in each division after promotion to try and gather the strength to push on. With nearly a decade of Football Manager experience under my belt, my team punches above its weight, and it'd be good to see clubs recognise the wave of success a bit sooner so it could continue.
I've been playing Football Manager for several hundred hours each year since 2010. Since then, the game of Football has changed considerably, and so too has the franchise. The UI is tighter, information is better presented, and the entire game is less obtuse while somehow adding more details and systems every year. The user interface and experience has improved immeasurably, and one of the biggest compliments I can pay the game is that in Football Manager 2018, the UI just does what you expect. You can drag players to substitute them nearly anywhere, and you can click on the names of clubs and players for more information.
After years of hard work, Sports Interactive has finally made its giant collection of spreadsheets feel easy to navigate without compromising on the complexity. There's more here than ever before, and it's presented better than ever before. It's easy to get lost in this world, where a player you got on loan for one season could choose to retire after his final game with you, and then end up as the under 18s manager for Kettering. Few games can offer this level of involvement, but it's an incredible feeling when you realise that this is "your" world, and in every other game in the world, things are playing out differently.
Sports Interactive's Football Manager's biggest success is that it's a simulation game enjoyable even if you have no interest in the thing being simulated. This has been the case for several years, but the franchise's 2018 iteration has cemented it as one of the simulation greats. If you're looking to manage anything this year, there's no reason not to firmly recommend Football Manager 2018. It's a beautiful game.