Tuesday, December 23, 2008

What is wrong with lying?

Okay, so I lied. This post won't be about an article for The West and my sojourn to Port Hedland, shoot me. Instead I thought you (the google bots that crawl this page) would get a kick out of following a piece of writing from the moment of conception to the publishing stage.

Okay, so here's the premise. After writing journalism for yonks (I believe that's the technical term for it anyhow) my other styles of writing have been suffering and in particular, my review skills. You see, I used to be able to write a mean review, so I've found my skills to be slipping lately, so I thought what better way to get back into the swing of things than trying to get a review published?

My target, the guest review spot on The Escapist. I chose it because they're known for great quality writing and submitting to them would put my writing through some pretty stringent standards.

So I've submitted a couple of reviews so far, and the feedback (excellent feedback from Susan Arendt by the by) I've gotten back is basically 'You're a good writer, but this is a bit self-indulgent', which is fair, but they asked for a 'unique voice' in all guest submissions, and how you're supposed to add voice without becoming self-indulgent is proving to be a tightrope.

So, I went back to the drawing board and came up with a review of Football Manager 2009. I'm aware there's an inherent danger in pitching a 'soccer' game to an American publisher but I'm willing to take that shot.

Hopefully, my draft is less self-indulgent than my previous efforts and I've learned from my mistakes because that is a crucial part of any job, let alone journalism where anybody and everybody can write but few can do it well.

Anyhow here's the draft, and I'll let you all know about what sort of feedback I get from Arendt when I pitch it after the holidays.


Football Manager 2009

James McGrath

Another year, another itineration of the Football (the type in which the ‘foot’ part is emphasised) Manager series and another ulcer for my trouble. You see, Football Manager is one of those games which not only requires an intellectual investment on the part of the player but also requires an emotional one. Not bad stuff for a game which has been dubbed a glorified spreadsheet.

It creates that ‘just one more turn’ factor well as you’ll often find yourself trying to finalise a transfer fee for that gun striker at 2AM with bleary eyes. So Football Manager 2009 has had a successful formula to work off, and by all rights should be able to just update the stats each year and sell to their niche market, but instead the team at Sega decided on a not so quiet revolution. Whether this be a bold choice or a stupid design decision depends on your understanding of the phrase ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.

Those of you who have played any of the Football Manager games know what I’m talking about when I say those little circles representing the players on your team become much more than graphical representations of number-crunching; they become your team. You’ll howl every time they concede, and crack open a bottle of bubbly every time they score an injury-time winner. So why in Maradonna would you muck with a formula like that? It’s evident the team at Sega decided it was time to muck with the formula in an effort to take the immersion level created by those stats and screens up to 11.

The big thing they did in this version is introduce a whole new graphical element to the experience; a 3D engine. Now that may not seem to be a big deal, but when your experience of a game is entirely informed by a 2D interface, adding a new dimension is like…adding a new dimension to the experience. The question is, does it work or is it just a pretty diversion?

Well, I’ve got good news and bad news for you all. The good news is that the engine while nowhere near FIFA eye-melting levels does a solid job of representing the game we love. The movement of the players is just what you’d expect from watching a game of football, and the players move in a realistic way. That may not seem like much, but it’s really well done and is a welcome addition to the core match day experience.

Now for the bad news.

It seems that Sega really wants this new 3D match engine to succeed, so much so that the revised 2D screens look like the dog’s breakfast. Just a few short years ago the 2D match engine looked clean and was the basis for the game’s popularity, but now its circles have seen better days and are in dire need of a good anti-aliasing. Theoretically you can still choose to play with a 2D match engine, but what’s the point when the 3D version looks halfway decent and the 2D engine makes you eyes bleed? It’s like saying goodbye to a part of my gaming heritage, it’s just sad is all. If that wasn’t bad enough, the graphical needs of the 3D match engine may just push this title out of the ‘runs on the smell of an oily processor’ category.

In previous versions of the Football Manager series, the graphical requirements of running the game was the ability to render Skifree. Okay, so that may be a slight exaggeration but it really didn’t need much at all, with Football Manager 09 though you’ll need to be packing a Radeon 9800 at a minimum. That may not seem like you’ll be breaking the bank for a new graphics card, but this game is supposed to be a glorified spreadsheet.

But despite the downside to introducing a new match engine, Football Manager 09 doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and remains the authoritative football management sim on the market.

The introduction of a couple of nice touches help smooth out the criticisms. The addition of a press conference that you as manager can attend is a great way to involve you in the game world. Given the whole selling point of the series is “You can be the manager!”, it’s a surprise this option wasn’t included in previous versions of the game.

The press conferences are structured well, and if handled correctly can give your team a morale boost and put the fear of God into your opposition. Responses to questions are limited however, so you can’t exactly go on a Jose Mourinho-esque rant in the middle of a journalist’s question, but it’s still an addition that adds to the core appeal of the game.

It’s called Football Manager, and this game lets you be exactly that as you ride the highs of championships, the nerve-wracking lows of a relegation scrap and feel the pride of finding a gem of a player in the youth ranks and nurturing him to superstardom. The stats you love are there, the gameplay which entrances you is there and despite Sega almost dropping the ball with the match engine, Football Manager 09 remains the benchmark by which all other football management sims are measured.

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