The sporting world may have had to make some noticeable adjustments over the last year, but in the world of Football Manager 2021 (FM21), its business as usual. The latest instalment in the beloved franchise from Sports Interactive, FM21 promises to build upon the series’ success with a host of new features, revamped match engine, and the all-important inclusion of Brexit’s impact on the beautiful game. Much like previous entries, players can make their choice between three versions of the game – FM21, FM21 Touch, and FM21 Mobile – with many of the new (and old) features being watered-down for the latter two options. In addition, this year Football Manager makes its long-awaited return to Xbox with ‘FM21 Xbox’, sharing many similarities to the ‘Touch’ Version. Nevertheless, for the purpose of this review, I will solely focus on the full game, as it provides what I consider to be the full FM21 experience. Of course, players may wish to opt for the more streamlined versions, however you may find some of the subsequently-mentioned additions absent from your game. For those seeking the full managerial experience though, tracksuit-and-all, let’s dive right into what you can expect from this year’s release.
Before getting into the new, let’s first take a look at old. For the most part, anyone familiar with the series will likely feel right at home in FM21. Your social feed, tactics menu, and more are all still present in FM21, with some minor adjustments to the UI here-and-there. For example, players’ role familiarity is now hidden away in their profile menu, rather than directly on the tactics board. The changes are relatively unnoticeable though, and seasoned veterans will likely already know multiple ways of assessing the various aspects of their chosen club. Indeed, the series continues to do a fantastic job of providing depth and complexity to its gameplay loop, helping give a real sense of agency and accomplishment to players. Overall, on the surface, there are no noticeable absentees from FM20, and so you can expect just as rich of an experience this time around.
Well then, what’s new? The addition that will probably stand-out most to players in FM21 is the changes to the interactions system. Quick chats with players, agents and staff are all useful in making informed decisions, and improved conversation UI and dialogue options certainly add to the experience of haggling down wage demands (and more). However, it is the new gestures mechanic that offers the most noticeable change to interactions in FM21. The implementation of gestures to conversations with your players, staff, etc, can feel a bit gimmicky at times, however for the most part helps create a greater sense of immersion. Deciding to throw a water bottle before demanding improvement during your half-time team talk, for example, can make the difference needed to ensure your players clinch back their two goal deficit. Conversely, you might have just pissed off the entire team. Although these gestures largely don’t make a massive difference to your interactions, I can certainly say they are a welcome addition. I had endless fun demonstrating my stance in contract negotiations with stubborn players by kicking a chair halfway across the room. It is the combination of these gestures with the existing dialogue system that goes a long way in creating a greater sense of realism in FM21, even if the effects of such can seem minimal. Ultimately though, Sports Interactive have done well to add greater depth here, without having to change the fundamentals.
However, what really drives the experience of playing FM21, as opposed to its predecessors, can be found under the hood. Sports Interactive has decided to make some significant changes to the match engine in FM21, promising much more varied gameplay, as well as greater success with different tactical systems. Previous instalments have often been overshadowed by overpowered tactics, which can almost guarantee success, and an easy ride to the top of the footballing world. Subsequently, players can feel limited in their options, and for the game that offers so much, only having a small fraction of it worth exploring is a significant issue. However, with FM21, there is a much greater balance between different tactics, and how your choices impact what happens on the pitch. Player AI has a significantly greater element of randomness (within reason) in all areas of the pitch, meaning that copying-and-pasting tactics you’ve found online isn’t as cut-and-dry as it once was. This is something I welcome with open arms, as one of my gripes with the series has been the sense that if I set things up a certain way, I can let the game manage itself. FM21 encourages you to pay closer attention to your individual players, and ultimately gives a much more satisfactory pay-off for the decisions you make. Although this doesn’t come without its flaws (bizarre player animations can make deciphering play somewhat difficult), FM21 does offer players a much improved experience on matchday.
Speaking of matchday, there are changes more visible to players whilst managing their team from the side-line. Changes to the matchday UI are welcome, and offer a smooth, sleek experience. Similarly, pop-up advice from your staff is far less intrusive, and significantly more helpful. One of the reasons for this is the inclusion of Expected Goals (xG) in your match analysis, which goes a long way in helping breaking down what is going wrong (or right) with your team. Anyone familiar with the Football Manager series knows how overwhelming the plethora of text boxes, stats and graphs can be for those unaccustomed to them (more on this later), and so small additions like this help bridge that gap between being a complete novice, and an expert data analyst. Again, much like the new features previously mentioned, what makes FM21 shine is the attempt by the developers to create a more digestible, engaging experience.
This is evident in other areas of the game too, such as the inclusion of recruitment meetings, aiming to help streamline the scouting and transfer experience. As someone who often gets lost in the immeasurable number of responsibilities held by a football manager, having opportunities to break down one of the most essential elements of this experience with your staff helps enormously. Similarly, when scouting a player, you now have the option to quickly contact their agent, which can provide a host of useful information, such as their expected transfer fee and more. Again, having greater access to this information is invaluable, not only to new players, but those who have been with the series for several years. Nevertheless, as I mentioned earlier, I do want to discuss the overwhelming nature of FM21, as despite the successes in improving accessibility, I think offering a more comprehensive tutorial would be incredibly useful for new players. Something akin to being taught how to catch your first Pokémon, having a step-by-step guide BEFORE entering a new save would allow players to experiment with the game’s many features without potentially making a slew of season-ending decisions in their first month in charge. Of course, there are many tutorial just like this online, but having them in-game is something I feel Sports Interactive should consider implementing. Nevertheless, I certainly applaud their attempts to improve the experience for new players in FM21.
Before I finish, I just wanted to mention a couple of things in regards to visual and audio design. Much like its predecessors, sound is almost completely absent from FM21. Unless I missed a memo, the ONLY option I saw was for switching on/off matchday SFX, which is basic at best. Similarly, although the visual design for a majority of the game is perfectly acceptable, matchday animations and visuals are in serious need of improvement. I understand that these two elements will always take a backseat in the series, as developers prioritise gameplay enhancements. This is great actually, as I, and I’m sure many others, would much prefer excellent gameplay with lacklustre visuals/audio, than vice versa. However, I feel like this is an area that should Sports Interactive focus on, would lift the experience of Football Manager to new heights.
So to conclude, FM21 offers a bit of something to players both new and old. Largely a familiar experience to previous entries, fans of the series will find all the fundamentals they already know, with a few bells and whistles thrown on for good measure. The improved matchday engine provides the most significant of the changes noted in FM21, and this goes a long way in creating the sense of immersion and agency the series is known for. New players are given more of a helping hand with features such as recruitment meetings and matchday xG, but Sports Interactive still has someway to go in making the game more accessible for these players. I have noted some minor gripes with the visual and audio design, however I can appreciate that these will remain secondary to the core gameplay loop. Overall, FM21 offers a familiar, rich and enjoyable experience, and one that keeps the series on an upward trajectory towards greatness.