Like many 20-something males, I've donated a fair bit of my existence to football management simulations. I'm old enough to remember playing purely text-based games in the 90s, though I count my virginity as more or less intact until Championship Manager 4. Tying in with my first year of living in the UK, it helped bring me fully up to speed with some of the intricacies of the beautiful game I was understandably sketchy on having grown up Stateside. When Sports Interactive split from Eidos and got cosy with Sega in 2005, the Football Manager (FM) brand arrived.
Other landmarks soon followed. Football Manager 2008 coincided with my first year at university and probably represents the height of my addiction to the series, the misery of Newcastle United's shock 2009 relegation quickly became a one-man quest for redemption-by-PC. Last year, I snapped up FM 2012 in a patriotic fervour, as it was the first edition of the game to feature my adopted London club, AFC Wimbledon. It has been an exhaustive journey and one that's wildly amusing to look back on: go back to my CM4 campaign, and by 2012 Glen Johnson had developed into a world class full-back, a feisty striker called Mido couldn't stop banging in the goals, and Michael Chopra had made the journey from Tyneside wonderkid to Real Madrid target. Discrepancies with reality aside, I couldn't imagine a more gloriously feckless way to have misspend my youth.
Given that I have a history with Football Manager - along with Sierra adventure games in the 1990s, and the Madden NFL and Grand Theft Auto PlayStation franchises in more recent times, it's one of the few games to continually arouse my interest and demand my loyalty - surely it follows that I'm thrilled to bits on a yearly basis when the latest Football Manager is released? Well, not quite - like the intricacies of developing a training regime to get the best out of Hatem Ben Arfa, it's a little bit more complex.
Like many fans weened on the 'golden era' mid-Noughties games, I saw the increasingly expansive nature of Football Manager as a mixed blessing: the 3D match engine still makes me grin uncontrollably from time-to-time, but the novelty of giving a press conference before, after, and between matches quickly wore off, as did the brief rush of being able to storm the board room to demand more dosh for a transfer binge. I hadn't exactly given up on the Football Manager series, but I was certainly at risk of becoming a bit ambivalent towards it. So it was a pleasant surprise to find that Football Manager 2013 wasn't just a typically impressive effort, but that it actively drew me back to the game.
Classic mode is an obvious attempt on Sports Interactive's part to address concerns that the game was getting too over-the-top for its own good. Providing streamlined access to the core of the game - "tactics and transfers" in the words of SI director Miles Jacobson - it strips away a number of FM's more superfluous touches. Features like opposition reports, team talks, and individual training regimes are jettisoned in favour of getting you and your players onto the pitch faster, and the tactical interface is simplified accordingly. Based on a game I started as the Super Wombles, it's a very effective undertaking indeed.
Get through the drab set-up routine and you're in a position to work through a good few matches on the evening commute, with games played out in highlight-only mode as default, and an instant result option available for those really wanting to fast-forward to the crunch showdowns that really matter. It might seems like it's spoiling the fun a bit, but in all honesty, who among us hasn't gone on holiday for that less-than-inspiring third-round cup tie against Accrington Stanley? The player database is as deep as ever and the match engine is the same beautifully evolved system enjoyed on the full game, so it still feels like a very rich experience indeed - a great compromise between the near-faultless minimalist experience of earlier games and the social life-destroying depth of the newer iterations. It's a bit like being a kid again: you're playing for the thrill of the rollercoaster ride itself, rather than taking a tour of the theme park's engineering facilities to gain a more nuanced appreciation of its gravity-defying mechanics.
For those who want the experience streamlined further, there's a new scenario mode working out of Classic. Challenge does exactly what you'd expect it to, setting you up to attempt various tests, like rescuing teams from relegation or achieving European qualification. As anyone who has ever played Civilization will tell you, custom scenarios can work very well in simulations - it's a good quick-fix for rainy afternoons, and something that will no doubt give the game added legs once you get to 2050 and start wishing you could attach an actual face to your star playmaker instead of just an avatar.
If you're anything like me, you'll inevitably be spending far more time locked into the full game-set up than its zippy counterpart, because we all know that true Football Manager glory lies in guiding your chosen lower league team to a Champion's League triumph. Fortunately, there's more than enough new features, nifty improvements, and subtle tweaks to satisfy diehard types and their marathon "just one...more...game" sessions. Not least, the match engine is the most realistic to date. Guiding Newcastle United to a 6-3-2 record over the course of the last few nights was every bit the fist-pumping, head-in hands oscillatory experience that supporting football's gentle giant is in real life, full of glorious last-gasp winners, heartbreakingly unjust opposition deflections, and classic poaching efforts. It wasn't totally realistic, mind: I experienced the wholly unrealistic ecstasy of witnessing a 30-yard James Perch screamer as well, but more on the game's relative shortcomings in a bit.
Sideline instructions are more responsive than ever too, which is great if you tend to wait a few games before getting really stuck into the tactical side of things. Indeed, new in-match widgets make light work of some of the additional functionality that has been introduced in recent years. There's not as much of a frustrating time-lag between the issuing of an off-the-cuff instruction and its implementation, while player fitness and mood reports are now foregrounded between highlights, giving you a better idea of how your team is faring. You also get real-time-style score updates, which didn't affect me playing the game in the early stages of league play, but should add to the excitement of the game as you really get stuck into competitions and start inching closer to silverware. The drama is made even more breathtaking by way of some stunning new camera angles, with corner kicks in particular benefiting from the swivel to an elevated behind-goal view, which succeeds in turning the commonplace set piece into the kind of cuss-inducing affair it is of a Saturday down at the Plug and Socket drinking den.
There's improved off-pitch action as well, not least in the form of the new Director of Football role, which places you, the manager, in the unenviable if sadly realistic position of having an authority greater than your own operating within the club and influencing transfer policy. And, not that it's really of any consequence, but squad interactions, press conferences, and the like are more detailed than ever, if no less formulaic. More interestingly, player training has had a complete overhaul, introducing a new calender-based interface that encourages you to gear particular routines to upcoming matches, so you can prepare more acutely for specific challenges: fine-tuning your team's finishing ahead of a match against weaker opposition, or amping up tackling work ahead of a showdown with Barcelona, for instance.
Unlocking the problems
All in all, there's little not to like about Football Manager 2013, but that doesn't mean there aren't some issues. As with previous iterations, it's quite a clunky game to get started on: moving from the manager set-up into active play is a sluggish process to say the least. Then there's the exhaustive pre-season schedule, which you could fast-forward through, but at the expense of the transfer action. Across a variety of platforms, namely my Intel Core i5-powered Dell Vostro V131 laptop and an old-generation iMac as well, I found load times to be improved but still slightly wanting, which tells me that my hardware has improved since I last got stuck into FM on a generic Hunk-o-Junk 2000, but that the game itself could be a lot better in this respect. Switching between Classic and Career mode, too, also necessitates a slightly annoying wait time, which is strange given that both have similar default skins. Unfortunately, it has been ever thus with Football Manager due to the size and scope of the endeavour - it's a compromise you have to make to get your fix, I suppose.
There are also some slightly frustrating rigidities to the Classic mode, such as not being able to customise league choices within selected nations: pick England and you get the full Blue Squad semi-professional suite as well as the Premier League and Championship, whether you like it or not. Then there's the fact that, while the depth of Football Manager these days is a remarkable technical achievement, a lot of features go unused by many. Apologies for hating on press conferences again, but does anyone honestly get a kick out of crafting a "media-friendly" manager or, alternatively, creating a Sir Alex-esq press curmudgeon? In fairness, the ability to delegate more tiresome managerial duties to your assistant is now foregrounded during the pre-season. Do these new, simplification features and the advent of Classic mode hint at an awareness on SI's part that the ridiculous detail levels of the last few FM releases may not represent a sustainable model forever?
Gameplay isn't quite perfect, either. The aforementioned Demba Ba poacher efforts are a recurring theme, with drilled crosses having a tendency to find the outstretched foot of the nearest striker and quality goals few and far between regardless of the talent on display. Similarly, sometimes the match engine and AI seem almost too responsive: tell your defence to get stuck in as you try to close out a tight match, and you often find your midfield enforcer getting sent to the showers before the final whistle. But these are minor niggles - if you were being especially picky, you could add that the lack of alternative football management titles is also a problem, but it's hardly the fault of FM that it has man-handled this particular gaming niche so thoroughly.
Most genuinely worrying is the appearance of "in-game unlockables" as part of the Classic mode. In more common parlance, these amount to cheats purchased with real money, or in-app purchases. We all know that monetisation is creeping into pretty much every corner of the technology world, but it strikes me as a bit mean to include in a game you pay up to £35 for. Could it be that SI is in fact now using its popular PC game franchise as a means of testing strategies for the mobile market?
Gamers and pundits alike have been wetting themselves with excitement over the latest installation of football's most popular management simulation, and while we're typically keen to distance ourselves from the pack mentality, it's difficult to argue with a lot of the superlatives being attached to FM 2013. Like its predecessors, it is a highly accomplished game that somehow manages to recreate the excitement of the real thing within the usually lacklustre boundaries of a PC environment. It has, by all accounts including our own, put in a match-winning performance once again.
With the introduction of Classic mode, the series has a feature that could be a standalone title. Perfect for dipping into in short spurts, it offers a friendly introduction for potential new players as well as the stripped back, simplified experience older fans of FM have been clamouring for. That's not to say it is without its faults, far from it - its very existence and the ill-boding nature of in-app purchases could be seen as a worrying sign and a form of heathenism, respectively. Should a game lose marks not for any fault of its own but for how it bodes for future release? Probably not, but tech is a future-facing industry, so it's important to consider annual titles in context.
Indeed, you can typically set your watch by the release schedule of sports games. The regularity of refreshes means that when a fan core does move away from a series, it tends to indicate a seismic shift within the industry, rather than just a one-off fail - witness the mass Pro Evo to FIFA defection of the last few years. Football Manager is in no imminent danger of meeting a similar fate. There's just enough to improve on for us to be excited about the next release, but nothing that will stop us from becoming completely absorbed in the current version. Forgetting about the upstart Classic variant, Career mode is packed with enough improvements - especially in the graphics and player training department - to ensure the converted will want to maintain a front-row seat at the altar.
These kinds of titles may not singularly encapsulate an era in the way that a GTA: Vice City is capable of, but a game essentially regurgitated by the developer year-after-year that keeps us coming back is victory in and of itself. That it can still stop us in our footsteps, giving us serious pause for thought, and inspiring our enthusiasm in new and exciting ways is nothing short of a miracle. Or, in Football Manager terms, the equivalent of a Titus Bramble hat-trick in the FA Cup final.