I've been a massive fan of the series since I received the first game as an unexpected Christmas stocking filler in 2005. That said, I've been on a break from Football Manager since the 2008 release; the game was too easy and really didn't feel any different to the three releases that had come before it.
As a result, I didn't play FM 2009 and I think that's why I've been so blown away by 2010. I didn't have to suffer the glitchy, under-developed 3D match engine or go through the nightmare that is registering the game through Steam. All of which meant that by the time I'd installed FM 2010, I was looking at a game that HAD to be great; anything less, and SI's reputation would have taken a massive beating.
The first thing you notice is the game's layout. Some people have said that the new system of tabs is nothing more than a gimmick; in fact, it is the single most fantastic thing SI have done with the game since its launch. Getting around the game is so easy and intuitive now, and the endless (and frustrating) clicking and right-clicking through options is pretty much a thing of the past. The game feels so much less cluttered, information is clearly laid out and the game's immense depth is nowhere near as daunting as it was before.
The essence of the game has hardly changed since 2005, so there's little point going into minute detail about it. The two things that really have changed for the better, though, are the tactical system and the game's match engine. For me, creating tactics has always been the game's biggest weakness; sliding bars and ticking boxes is all well and good, but it's just not realistic. Managers don't slide bars or tick boxes, they assign roles and bark out instructions. Finally, 2010 allows you to do both of those things.
Instead of changing endless settings in the hope that your technically-gifted central midfielder might start dictating games and spraying passes all over the field, all you have to do now is right-click on him and give him that role. Every player can be assigned a specific role: ball-winning midfielder, anchor man, target man, poacher, deep-lying playmaker, even sweeper keeper - they've really covered it all. People with slide-bar obsessions can still go into the advanced options and tinker with the settings, but personally I find the new system much more realistic (not to mention time-saving).
The whole matchday experience is more absorbing than it's ever been. There's a real sense of build up and involvement that's never been there in previous releases - which is great, because it's the build up to a match that football fans often enjoy the most. I was a bit worried about the 3D match engine, having read some rather damning reviews of FM 2009. However, I absolutely love it; for the first time ever, I really you can really feel (and see) the fruit of your tactics and 'behind the scenes' work. In previous games, you would change around the formation and slide a few bars around, but you never really got the impression that it made any difference - frankly, you it felt like you had little influence over your team's destiny.
Now, though, you are able to bark out orders while the match it in progress (for example: pump ball into box, push higher up, exploit the flanks, shoot on sight, etc.) and switch between playing playing styles at will. There's a small pause between choosing your order and the game continuing, but it's much more fluid than it used to be. You can really see when your tactical gambles work or backfire; throwing on a 6ft8 target man when you're 1-0 down in the last 5 minutes and seeing him wreak havoc in the box is a really rewarding experience. Equally, putting a 35 year old centre back in your team for the benefit of his 'experience' - and then watching him get torn to pieces by a lightning-fast striker - can be a bitter pill to swallow. But that's what makes the game so great; it feels like real football.
I won't lie, the game is incredibly hard - but personally I see that as a good thing. I managed Portsmouth, and the game is so detailed that if you choose a team like Pompey, you get everything that goes with it. So, in my case: a squad of average players, rock-bottom morale, £0.00 transfer budget, a takeover saga and a transfer embargo to go with it. Just as in real life, I had to scour the FM world for free transfers and loan deals, then grit my teeth and try to get the team playing well. I lost nearly every game before Christmas, and again as in real life, the media and fans start to turn against you and call for your head. I finished 16th in the league in my first season, which was a hugely satisfying feat, especially when it gets to the close-season, the money starts to come in and you can start rebuilding your squad.
I wouldn't necessarily say that the game is fun; there are moments of joy, but this is definitely outweighed by crushing disappointment (throwing away a 2-0 lead against Burnley to lose 2-3, or seeing your star striker break his leg and miss the whole season, for example) But then again, that's testament to the game's realism; the life of a football fan - especially one who supports a struggling team - is rarely a non-stop thrill ride, and if I was winning every game in FM 10-0 then frankly, I would be bored after 5 minutes. So if you're a casual (dare I say fair-weather) football fan, I'd say this game is almost certainly not for you. If, however, you're a genuine fanatic and want a game to match your obsession - Football Manager 2010 is the most detailed and rewarding game you will ever play.