Sports Interactive has been banging out Football Manager - nee Championship Manager - games with remarkable regularity in the last 21 years. More remarkable still is the consistency in quality. It’s hard to think of any other franchise in gaming that has delivered time and time again.
However, in recent years, while the games have been great, and did more than enough to sate eager fans’ appetites, it could be argued that they were treading water in some respects. New features and beefier databases? Yes. Genuine jaw-dropping innovation? Not so much.
Can Football Manager 2014, affectionately known as FM2014, be the first title for a while to get us excited as when we popped the very first Champ Man into our Atari ST disk drives all those years ago? Read on.
Football Manager 2014 is a familiar experience - but it does add some knockout features that make you feel like you will have to employ brand new skill sets too.
Part of this is down to what we consider to be the most important new gameplay mechanic SI Games has introduced. The tactic system in the developer’s perennial management simulation has always had an air of predictability about it. Indeed, in the last couple of years, as mentioned in reviews of the game’s previous years of releases on Pocket-lint, we’ve found cheat tactics - tactics that, once created from scratch, seemed to do no wrong. We won everything and quickly, no matter what team or league we started in, and while we remained driven to play the game thanks to many other compelling factors, it never felt as realistic as it should.
In FM2014 everything changes. The entire tactic system has been revamped, overhauled, prodded and poked. And it is quite simply brilliant.
Like with previous iterations, you can opt to use a wizard-based tactics generator, which makes the fiddly bits far less fiddly but still gives you the freedom to come up with your own playing styles or attempt to emulate those used by teams in real life.
Team instructions are more in-depth and there are more options to choose from. It gives the air that you can really craft a tactic and playing style combination that will be unique to you and your team. And you won’t stop there. Set-piece instructions have been improved and we get the feeling that this year, more than any other, you really will want to set up several different tactics to counter different opponents.
Individual player positions and instructions have been vastly expanded upon too. Each position on the pitch can be set to a wide variety of different playing styles. Want to employ a "False 9", such as a Lionel Messi type of player, or an even more attack-minded wing back? You can in this year’s addition.
And most importantly these, and the more general team instructions, seem to make a far greater impact on the pitch itself. Change the tactic and you see the results play out in front of you, for good or bad. It could take a few dry runs before you find something you’re happy with, and we found that we were still tweaking halfway through our first season.
The on-the-pitch action itself has also been improved greatly, and specifically the 3D match graphics. The players have more animations, are slightly more detailed and move much more realistically. SI Games has improved the artificial intelligence too and added tiny details and flourishes around stadiums. It’s no next-gen FIFA standard, granted, but Football Manager 2014’s graphical presentation is the best there’s ever been for a simulation game of this type.
The same rings true around the general user interface. It looks cleaner than ever before and very much in-keeping with the current design vogue in tech-land. Google apps, iOS 7 and several other UIs have adopted similar looks of late. It means your connection to the data is more immediate and intuitive than in the last couple of Football Manager games.
No longer are you confronted by swathes of numbers, stats and boxes. There is still some of that going on, and you can alter sections to suit your own statistic needs, but it’s more accessible from the off.
The transfer market is another area greatly improved in FM2014, most notably in negotiations between clubs. This time around you can choose to negotiate a transfer in real-time "over-the-phone". It’s a more conversational system for when talking to another team, so instead of making a bid, waiting for them to come back a day or so later, changing your offer and so on, you can see instantly what they think of your offer and whether they suggest a counter offer.
We know that, like with many of the features new and old, Sports Interactive consulted with real football chairmen at professional clubs to get the feel of this addition right, and it works very well in that sense.
Interactions generally have been improved - whether between players, the board, agents and the like. And while there are still some of the same old press conference questions and answers, a lot have been rewritten or altered to attempt to introduce a bit more variety. We also like the fact that occasionally a journalist might ask you for a one-off quote outside of a press event. It seems a little more natural that way.
These are just a few of the major changes, but there’s a sack load of other tweaks and enhancements throughout all aspects of Football Manager 2014. Half the fun is finding them out for yourself, like when we saw that we could loan a player back to the club we just bought him from, something big clubs in real-life do often these days. And that’s just one tiny example.
Classic Mode has returned for those who prefer to race through a season or two more quickly, giving the same basic statistical experience but removing some of the depth. There’s even a quicker option too, as you can now set a Match Plan in a dedicated menu and gain an instant result without having to see any of it played out. Our preference is to have the more in-depth experience, but we can appreciate that there are many who might just want to get a few casual games in on their travels, using a laptop perhaps.
And should you be the sort of player who would like to pick up on a different computer than the one you last played on, there’s now integration with Steam Cloud synchronisation. Switch the mode on in Steam under your settings and you will be able to save and load your progress to the cloud. Then you can carry on playing on a different device - as long as it’s connected to the internet, of course. Herein lies the part where FM2014 begins to take over your life…
Perhaps the main reason for Sports Interactive’s success with the Football Manager franchise over the years is that, more than any other developer we know, it listens to its fans. And we have a distinct feeling that all the new features stem from that two-way relationship.
Football Manager 2014 is very much a love letter to SI Games’ fanbase. It has everything we and the community at large have been asking for, and many things we didn’t even know we wanted until we got to see them in action.
That, in short, makes FM2014 the most accomplished management game of all time, not just in regard to football. And yes, at times it is still like ploughing through countless spreadsheets and staring at numbers, which really won’t appeal to all. But by all that is holy and mighty we love it. Now more than ever.
Football Manager 2014 is out now for PC, Mac and Linux.