Keeping an annual sports title fresh is a tricky challenge. Over the last few years though, no developer has done a better job at keeping their audience happy than Sports Interactive and the Football Manager series.
A beloved title for armchair managers around the world, SI has been at this long enough to know what works and what doesn't.
So what have they done to Football Manager 2022 that makes it stand out from its predecessor? And most importantly, should you buy it?
A familiar feel on the surface
On first glance, not much has changed on FM22 beyond a lick of paint.
The loading screens look the same, as do the menus and toolbar layout. The differences are there once you get into your save though, and they range from subtle to revolutionary.
Perhaps the best thing about the majority of the changes is that you don't have to interact with them if you don't want to.
SI focused the pre-launch marketing on the Data Hub and a refined Transfer Deadline Day experience, but you don't have to use either of these things. Your save is better if you do though.
The familiarity continues in the tactics and team selection sheets. The addition of the wide centre back should make 3 & 5 defender systems more viable, but you'll need to do some tweaking. With our Barcelona save we experimented with both Frenkie de Jong (offensively explosive, defensively shaky) and Ronald Araujo there.
The offensive runs the WCB makes on attack can be devastating, and if you are bold enough to slot an attacker in there it can be huge fun watching them give the opposition fits. You'll just have to worry every time you don't have the ball!
But again you don't have to use it. The 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 are still completely viable formations.
Instead, it is the less-heralded changes in FM22 that make this title a huge step forward from last year's game.
Transfers & scouting
Players no longer have a singular value number for you to get caught up on, but a range in which you can feel better negotiating. This alleviates that stress about getting a good deal or being fleeced by the AI when it comes to selling.
Scouting reports are also clearer and simpler to understand, with fresh cards produced for each player and a letter grade system it is just easier to see who suits your needs and who doesn't.
Speaking of scouting, the regions have been tweaked to finally include a Western Europe as well as flipping South America to North & South. This should again streamline your hunt for the best players around.
The transfer deadline day, should you choose to take part in it, delivers that "big day" vibe that SI were aiming for. The colour change of the menus immediately puts you in a different mindset, while rumours link you with players that actually get you thinking. Loan offers come in, and desperate teams throw offers and their own players at you.
It's a manic day that makes the game feel more alive than ever before. Which only adds to the drama of your save and the matches within it.
Matchday is another area that feels familiar but comes with some substantial tweaks and improvements. All of which makes FM22 is a different beast entirely.
The new animation system has bought silky smooth dribbling and a better viewing experience, while that wide centre back will be great for tactical wizards and just opens up options and choices when it comes to making game-specific tweaks and bringing out your inner Gareth Southgate.
Team talks have been improved, with managers able to praise their team's possession or demand more shots on target depending on where the team is falling down in the first half. Likewise, press conferences have been improved, even if you are still better off handing most of them to your assistant.
Perhaps the biggest matchday change comes with VAR, which is no longer a guaranteed disallowed goal. Offside decisions are tense moments now as they can go either way, making for a much more realistic match day experience.
These are subtle changes rather than groundbreaking, but they all combine to make your games more engaging, and your management decisions more meaningful.
Ok let's tackle the Data Hub. Like we said previously, you don't have to interact with it at all if you aren't of an analytical and statistical persuasion, but when you do it's a pretty easy process and you can discover some interesting things.
There are grand overviews like team performance vs the league, attacking and defending stats vs the league, but also more granular details.
You can see shot maps from the last 5 games to see if you need to flick that "work the ball into the box" option on or off for your tactic. There are even options to see which of your midfielders is losing you possession and might be better playing a simple passing game.
It's a great tool if you want to really be laser-focused on making changes for individual matches, tweaking roles and instructions, and even seeing how young players are bedding in.
However, if you don't use it then you can just manage the same way you always did. The addition of this big shiny new feature doesn't take away from the previous experience or create a barrier to entry for those players who aren't well-versed in xG or the relationship between key passes and assists.
Football Manager 2022 is a brilliant step forward for the franchise.
From its subtle tweaks to grand additions everything has been integrated smoothly and with care.
The optional position with most of these changes, including the staff meetings which while useful can become repetitive, mean that those who loved FM21 can just enjoy the new match engine and formations without worrying about anything else.
SI has created a game that doesn't insist on shoving the new features down your throat. But at the same time, those features make for a better overall experience.
The Football Manager franchise has always been about trying to replicate the footballing world as accurately as possible while also being a fun and engaging game. FM22 nails that brief.
RealSport Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
We reviewed Football Manager 22 on PC.
Pre-Order: Football Manager 2022 at Amazon