It’s been a while since we’ve looked forward to a Football Manager (nee Championship Manager) release as much as this one. Not so much because the new feature set got us all a-tingling - although it did, to an extent - but because last year’s, as good as it was, was spoilt by our discovery of what was clearly a glitch “cheat” tactic.
We stumbled across it quite by accident using the tactic creation wizard and setting up our team in the way we’d most like it to play. And it resulted in us ending up unbeaten in our first season as West Ham in the Championship, winning the League and FA Cups along the way for good measure.
The next season we won the Premier League, the year after the Champions League. Job done.
As good as the game was last year, breezing our way through it no matter what team we took over was always going to diminish enthusiasm. So, we’ve been waiting on Sports Interactive’s 2013-adorned refresh with bated breath and, thankfully, it fulfils all of our high expectations and more.
For starters, our own created tactics – and we’ve tried out a few already – work as they should. We win games, we lose games, and the balance of personal skill and tactical nous over difficulty has been restored.
Then there are the new extended game modes, Football Manager Classic and Challenge, which both add entirely new ways to play, new that is, to computers - iOS and Android device owners will already know what to expect.
The first of these, Football Manager Classic, is actually a wasted opportunity - for Sports Interactive, that is. It is such an ideal introduction for new converts that it should have been released separately. If SI Games had slapped on a £5 price tag and punted it out through Steam as a digital download, it would’ve sold like hot cakes - giving those wishing to get a taste of Football Manager, without the complexities of the full game, a cheaper route into the franchise.
Not that we’re complaining, mind: Football Manager Classic is an excellent freebie. Although we, as veterans, may never play it on our desktop PCs in preference to the full experience, we’ll happily install it on a laptop to keep us amused on our travels. And strange as it may sound, we also think the layout and graphical UI flourishes of Classic are better than those in the main game.
Classic cuts out the chaff. It eliminates team talks, player interaction - in any considerable depth - restricts the number of nations in play to three per game, reduces the database to allow the number crunching to be a speedier process and more.
The 3D match engine is still there, and tactically it works the same as the main game – you can even use your well-crafted tactics across both – but is pared down enough to zip along like Raheem Sterling with his boots on fire.
The Challenge mode uses the Classic engine too, but starts you off with set criteria to fulfil and scenarios to circumnavigate. For example, “Saviour Cometh” places your starting team at the bottom of the division you choose to play, with less than half the season left to play. It is up to you to rescue the team.
These set goals will come as a godsend to dyed-in-the-wool Football Manager fans, who have been there, seen that, done it. It gives them something new to test their management skills on and because of the varying levels of difficulty per trial, it should prove tricky enough even for the most experienced. And, because it apes the speed of FM Classic, you shouldn’t have to spend every waking hour for a week to complete them.
You will, though, have to spend every waking hour to wade your way through the new and improved Football Manager main game. And so you should, as it is quite honestly the most in-depth sports management game we’ve ever had the pleasure of playing.
There have been plenty of tweaks added to last year’s refreshed game engine, both on field and off. The 3D graphics have been reworked with more animations for the players and a better flow to the action. There’s a new camera mode for the highlights, that looks more like real TV footage. The crowd and stadiums are much more realistic. And the user interface itself has been rejigged to offer the information important to managers (as suggested by thousands of players) rather than just look nice.
There have also been a number of more overt improvements. Now, for example, when you first take over a club, the chairman will take you into a meeting and give you a number of options in the form of a conversation. Your responses will determine how much interaction with the game you will undertake yourself, and how much will be delegated. Last year, this had to be done manually through a pull-down menu.
Directors of football have also been introduced. If your club has a director of football it could mean that you don’t have to worry about transfers at all, leaving him to suggest players who could come and go. You can change the level of control the director has, but if you want it to ape real life, we’d suggest you leave him with the maximum amount, shout at the screen occasionally and then quit, slamming the door on your way out.
The last major tweak that has really changed our approach to the game comes when taking team talks. While they are presented in exactly the same way as last year, and technically have the same effect - to send your team out on to the field before kick-off and half-time with a renewed sense of worth - they are far trickier to get right. It was only four or five matches into the season when our players started moaning about our team talks to the press.
It gives the impression that these are modern footballers you are dealing with - one’s with massive egos (if at a big club) or confidence issues. You certainly can’t just send them out week after week with the same hackneyed “do it for the fans”. Your interaction counts so much more than that this time around. And we love it.
In fact, there’s so very much to love about FM 2013 that we could be here all day listing why. There are even tiny little things that we’ve fallen for, such as it being immediately compatible with player face packs, logo packs and the like. Indeed, we imported our FM 2012 faces, kits and team badges – downloaded from www.sortitoutsi.net – simply by moving a folder in Windows, therefore making the user interface more complete.
And we love the new pop-ups that appear when viewing a 3D match. Not only do you get an update bar on the side of the screen, with useful comments from your assistant manager interspersed with score updates of other matches in your league, but between highlights in the action, there’s also a window showing the physical well-being and attitude of your players. It helps you make the decision of when to bring on substitutes much easier.
That is Football Manager in a nutshell, a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. All the tiny steps in micromanagement make each generation of the game more rounded and much more like taking on the daily task of actually managing a football team. At times it can even feel like work, as you plough your way through under-18 players in the African nations, for example, looking between the lines at who might fit your desired formation and become a star.
It seems with Football Manager 2013 that every single aspect of leading a successful footy team has been addressed and included. Training is vastly improved, looking more like Google Calendar and work schedules than mere spreadsheets this year, and so too is interactivity with your colleagues. You no longer feel like a mass body of AI assistants are churning out the same advice. There’s a hierarchy that you will learn to trust. It all grounds the game further in reality and the nitty-gritty.
Of course, that makes it not for everyone. You also need a love of football, obviously, and the will to dedicate countless hours of your life to becoming good at recognising the running patterns of tiny sprites. Oh, and you’ll need a good, comfy chair to sit on, as that’s something you’ll be doing a lot of once you become hooked.
Football Manager 2013 is the most complete experience yet and, with Football Manager Classic and Challenge modes tacked on for free, it’s also best value too.
It has no equal.