Twenty short years ago, annual sports videogames were little more than recipes for maximum disappointment. During those dark days, many a publisher realised that the the pernickity appeal of an extensive roster refresh coupled with a few fresh menu screens was more than enough to get us suckers roped in for another piece of the very same action. 2010 has comprehensively seen this trend die completely on its backside, with FIFA 11, Pro Evo 2011 and Madden 11 all leading the way when it comes to the coupling of gameplay evolution with careful and steady-handed franchise revolution.

And it isn’t hard to call Football Manager 2011 the best game in the prestigious series thus far (because hey – that’s unquestionably what it is) but what makes it so special is that things are shaken up so much that it manages to feel feel like a completely different game somehow, whilst also maintaining all of those familiar elements that never fail to make hours feel like split seconds. The depth of change is quite alarming when you really begin to get your teeth into it, but the first thing you’ll notice is the completely superior performance of it. If you have ever been into running more than one league at a time, in the past you might have experienced some (occasionally quite serious) slowdown. Here, after some lengthy experimentation, we’re tempted to put money on the fact that you won’t be seeing that here.

Rather ingeniously, social networking tools have been implemented too, and you are now able to log into your Twitter or Youtube accounts from the off; and uploading those once-in-a-lifetime match highlights could not be quicker, or easier. You’re also now able to really take things seriously, and if you want to school your squad in two different formations before a big game – so that they are fully prepared for the moment at which you pull the old switcheroo – you can. Your staffers are now keen to offer context-sensitive advice when you might be needing it, and heeding that often wise-sounding advice – or ignoring it – really forces you to think through your decisions in depth, adding another rich facet of palpable drama to the game.

Similarly, player agents have now reared their greasy heads, and you’ll often end up having to barter with them – another pleasing new addition. All of the agents are definitely not all the same, and if you’re too belligerent with one of the more impatient ones, expect trouble. Similarly, if you lowball them and cause a cut to their fee, they won’t be off your back for more than ten seconds about organising another transfer to a higher-profile squad. The standard way of conducting a conversation in Football Manager games has now been revamped completely, using a much more realistic branching dialogue system instead of the efficient (but rather monotonous and robotic) previous single-answer method. You’ll also get news delivered to you via an Email inbox-style menu that is immeasurably easier to read quickly than the regular old menu system was.

The 3D match engine that was implemented a few years ago makes its return, and although the cognoscenti may still pine for the old 2D look, they might finally be swayed by the 3D perspective this time. Rather than leaving backgrounds bald and having the same paltry selection of player celebrations, here both of those aspects have been considerably expanded, so matches now feel genuinely distinct from one another. Make no mistake – this isn’t FIFA – but the players move with slightly more grace this time out, and a few new weather effects have been added too. It’s merely a series of visual touches that don’t mean a great deal on their own, but when they form part of this package, they only serve to draw you ever deeper in.

And so, yet another sports franchise enters this new decade with an absolute blinder of a performance, and if you’re a sports fan, it must be hard to know when you’ll get enough time to play all of 2010’s many superlative titles. But rest assured, Football Manager 2011 is just as deserving of hefty chunks of your leisure time as any other sports game released this year, and perhaps even more so. The series may have never lost its old-school appeal, but the last couple of years have seen its creators treading a bit more water than some of us would have liked. That spell is clearly over now, and Football Manager 2011 is a real keeper.

Watch the Football Manager 2011 trailer here:

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