Back before the days of Fancy Dan 3D match engines, tiki taka 4-3-3’s formations and having to fork out a plutocrat’s ransom for a forward with a five hundred quid haircut who spends most of his time rolling around on the floor like someone’s slipped nerve agent into his Powerade, virtual football managers enjoyed a simpler life.
It was an age in which advanced tactical thinking began and ended with the Christmas Tree formation. Denis Irwin was considered a foreign import and matches were played out, in buttock-clenching tension, by the deadly dance of a troop of battling bar graphs.
A return to such times seemed about as likely as John Terry and Nick Griffin releasing a duet of White Christmas. They were victims of the authenticity arms race Football Manager’s makers, Sports Interactive, continued to wage, partly with potential rivals, but mainly just with itself. Now, however, FM 2013 has brought them back, in spirit at least.
Every year, Football Manager (née Championship Manager) leaves SI with the same dilemma: Short of sending you your own dugout and a can of paint so you can mark out your own technical area around your PC, what more can be done to improve on a game that’s so comprehensive and compelling it already has many more fans than most actual football teams could ever dream of?
To date, the company has always come back with the same answer: Add more. More detail, more depth, more player control. But this time, for the first time, it’s done the exact opposite, firing up its footballing flux capacitor to take you back to basics.
Commanding almost equal billing on the options screen with the full Football Manager experience (don’t panic member of the managerial illuminati, SI hasn’t gone completely Balotelli and done away with that), is FM 2013’s new Classic mode. A stripped down, sawn-off and streamlined version of the main game that dispenses with much of the managerial minutia in areas such as training, team talks and press relations. Even the match highlights have been uncompromisingly edited down. Snapping from one decisive moment to the next they’re more reminiscent of movie trailers than Match of the Day.
Classic is like one of those track day supercars. The standard highly engineered road model with every last gram of excess weight ruthlessly consigned to the rubbish bin in the pursuit of one thing: speed. The detrimental effect of FM’s current complexity is that these days it eats time like old rabbit-toothed Ronaldo eats burgers, and Classic is SI’s olive branch to those unwilling to man up and announce to their partners and parents that they’re quitting their jobs/education to pretend to be Neil Warnock.
It’s a difficult balance to find, shedding enough of the load without surrendering the core FM experience, but Sports Interactive has simplified Classic with the same kind of pragmatism that’s made the PSP versions of the series such a success. While seasons can be shot through in a day or two, a serious challenge remains. This certainly isn’t some sort of WAGs mode.
Sure, it’s more superficial, and its rapidity means that individual victories don’t feel quite as satisfying, but neither are defeats so soul crushing. The main criticism that can be levelled at Classic is that it gives you more feedback than you have control. But almost all the solutions to that involve adding extra features, which, of course, would defeat the point. As it stands, Classic mode is an astutely pitched compromise. It’s managerial methadone. A quick fix for newcomers and those who’ve reluctantly gone cold turkey.
If Classic still sounds like too much of a commitment, FM 2013’s other new mode, Challenge, offers you a quartet of purpose-built scenarios that are even quicker to play through. It’s yet another idea transferred over from the PSP version after a successful debut there, and while each of the set-ups is familiar to the point of cliché – save a rock bottom side from relegation, salvage an injury decimated season – all are accurately crafted, painfully addictive and playable with any team of your choosing.
Forget all those high-minded FIFA coaching badges, if you’re learning to be a manager these are the kind of fundamental, blood and thunder rites of passage that should make up the final exam. That said, it’s somewhat strange that you can only play them within the new Classic mode framework, where your gaffering tools are significantly inhibited. And there’s also no ‘title run-in’ scenario, which would seem the ultimate embodiment of this type of thing.
It’s a pleasant novelty, and an acknowledgement of Sports Interactive’s appreciation of its audience, to have made it so far into a Football Manager review without the obligatory talk of re-skinned stats screens and enhanced player animations (both of which are present, by the way).
The main FM career mode is once again home to subtle advancements and improvements to almost every major facet of the game. The interface is slicker and quicker than should be physically possible considering that SI employees apparently spend their lives entombed inside their offices under mountainous piles of sabermetric data. Menus and fact-packed loading screens now glide elegantly and informatively in and out like the doors on the Starship Enterprise, while searches, shortlists and new feeds are more customisable for better sorting and storage of pertinent information.
Matches in the 3D engine play out more realistically thanks to improved AI, camera angles and player movement. And some of SI’s best presentation work comes during these with real-time player ratings and fitness levels always shown on screen in between moments of action. Your assistant manager is also now the constant voice in your ear he should be thanks to a text stream of his performance appraisals. Although observations like “Cattermole booked”; “Balotelli storms off down tunnel” and “Poor shot/cross/pass by Downing” could really just be pencilled in prior to kick off.
Like team talks, press conferences can now be hammed up to resemble improvised am-dram performances, with the chance to deliver your retorts in a range of emotive tones from reluctant and aggressive to a sultry Andre Villas Boas-style come-to-bed beardiness (I may have misinterpreted the ‘Passionate’ option there).
Behind the scenes, your boot room brain trust plays a more pivotal role. Increased productivity can be gained from your coaching staff by having them specialize their skills, while training has been optimised enabling greater emphasis on specific areas and opponents. And if all that wasn’t enough to deal with, the potential presence of a Director of Football throws a new double-edged sword into the works.
While, for the majority, Football Manager remains first and foremost a solitary pastime, Sports Interactive is making a concerted effort to encourage online play with global leaderboards and an expanded suit of single match and tournament options. For a series often accused of stagnation, these along with the Classic and Challenge modes, stand as compelling evidence to the contrary and make a strong case for FM 2013 being the most diverse, approachable and absorbing FM to date.
A retro renaissance that initially appears a backwards step might actually be the most forward looking Football Manager Sports Interactive has ever produced.