Football never stops. At this very moment, as you're reading these words, people are playing football all over the world and every kick of the ball massively matters to someone. Presumably. Perhaps the football is happening too far away for you to see though, or perhaps you'd like to have more control over the actions of the men playing with the football. If that is the case, be thankful that Football Manager 2014 is out this week because it is the best game about managing a football team. Here's wot I think.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of Football Manager release – those that add a headline-bothering new feature and those that fiddle with the formation of what is already in the mix. This year, there have been no marquee alterations and it’d be easy to dismiss the game as a mere roster update. It’d also be inaccurate. There are deep changes to squad and match-day management, some of which may take a great deal of time to appreciate, and for the first time in the modern era (post-3d engine), the game’s simulation of the wider world appears to have received as much attention as the immediate player experience of fumbled transfers and tactical tweaking.
There are parts of Football Manager that any tactician or strategist would recognise, whether the real-life adventures of Local FC and Disappointing National Team weigh heavy in their thoughts or not. Like a skirmish-based combat sim, the game presents scenarios of conflict, the precise design of which are at the mercy of elements that emerge from the complexity of the simulation. As the foot-to-ball commander, the player’s task is to control a squad, choosing the right people in the right positions to deal with an enormous variety of opponents.
Take on managerial duties at a high profile club, with European obligations, and the pressures are entirely different from those at a second tier Turkish outfit. Given that every conflict plays out on a field, with the same number of men and a single ball, the variety of challenges is astounding. Absorbing and countering the machine-like incisiveness of a Barcelona, all pieces connecting like finely-tuned clockwork, is an entirely different prospect to the difficulties presented by an overawed Alfreton Town, playing away from home. The latter encounter may be the easier but against Alfreton’s minnows, expectations could weigh heavy, complacency can corrupt natural ability and over-confidence can kill. Well, not quite – nobody dies in Football Manager, they simply retire, vanishing from the world stage and occasionally haunting those who remain through the medium of the media, issuing whispered words of warning and praise.
The presence of so many people, whether directly active or not, is vital to Sports Interactive’s achievement, which is to track the actions and accidents that occur across the globe. I took an absurd amount of pleasure watching a simulated World Cup draw and distracted myself from an unhappy summer transfer market by following England and Belgium in the competition (England made the quarter finals and lost to Brazil; Belgium lost to Spain in the final), watching their matches and pretending that I was observing the performances of my own club players but actually just enjoying the spectacle.
These football matches are a spectacle. The 3d match engine comes in for some heavy criticism and last year’s effort had serious problems at launch. The fidelity of the animations is effective if basic, but when the sequence of events is unconvincing, the simulation collapses. Without credibility, the game has nothing. Unexpected results are fine, as are deviations from reality. Football is an unpredictable sport, more so over 90 or 120 minute stretches, but even over entire tournaments and seasons on occasion. Remember Euro 2004? If the game crunched those numbers, I’d consider it as fantastical a sports simulation as Blood Bowl.
The matches are useful visual aids and entertaining replicas of the occasions that they recreate. For all of their individual qualities, foot-to-ball action games, from SWOS to Fifa, have never strived to resemble reality, even if they do go to extraordinary lengths to replicate the mannequin-like gormless expressions of Rooney and Bale. Whether it’s an over-exaggerated breakneck pace, a lack of team cohesion or an apparent reliance on repetitive manoeuvres and scripted movements, there’s a distinct lack of fidelity in the depiction of the many processes and techniques that comprise a football match.
This is partly due to the time taken to play. Condense the match into twelve minutes and retaining possession to frustrate an opponent becomes less important, attacking play yields more immediate rewards and the ratio of shots to goals or the number of shots per minute must increase dramatically. Playing for a full 90 minutes is often an option but to do so would be more painful than attempting to support Bury, my grandfather’s boyhood team, during their current travails. ‘Supporter’ is an odd word. Atlas couldn’t support The Shakers at the moment.
Football Manager has no such problems. It’s the most realistic simulation of football that has ever existed and that is why the matches are such a spectacle. In the hours I’ve spent with the current version and the uncountable weeks with previous releases, an embarrassing array of emotional responses have been observed by those in the vicinity of my desk. I’ve sworn in frustration and anger when an important player has limped off the pitch with an injury, clenched my fist in delight as a tactical change has paid dividends late in a match, and held my head in my hands as star players walk out of the door in search of greener pastures.
Additions to possible responses during conversations with the media make the game more of a roleplaying experience than ever before. Relationships with players, managers and board have a more personal feel, and even though the necessarily repetitive remarks mean that conversations and conferences remain the least convincing part of the experience, they are more amusing than ever. How can I disregard a feature that allows me to engage in a year-long war of words with the humanoid bully beef hash that is Sam Allardyce?
The relationships, though improved, remain window-dressing. Tactics are Football Manager’s lifeblood and while there hasn’t been a full transfusion, changes have been made. The sliders are gone and player roles have been promoted in their place. Formations are set by dragging players into position or selecting from preconfigured lists – nothing new there – but there are more roles to choose from in most positions. Attacking midfielders can now act as enganches or shadow strikers, false nines have entered the fray, and there are more specific instructions for defenders, to prevent them from heading up the pitch or to encourage an attacking role.
Individual instructions are of more importance as well, with orders to players adding to the complexity of overall team commands. My current favoured formation includes an anchor man who is an accomplished ball-winner but can’t seem to pass a ball more than a metre. While the rest of the team are encouraged to lay risky passes to either flank, this pillar of a man has been told to make short passes, feeding the ball to more accomplished team mates. During a match, instructions shouted from the touchline are now colour-coded - green orders are active, red orders will override a current 'green' command. A simple but effective overall read on the team's intended mentality, which, along with instantly applicable assistant advice, encourages experimentation.
It’s much easier to see the impact of these orders. I’m not quite sure what to expect when I nudge a slider a couple of notches to the right but it’s immediately obvious when a player who has been instructed not to take long shots continues to do so, or to see how the implementation of a new role affects a player’s effectiveness. In the former situation, extra training may be necessary or the player’s mentality or respect for the manager may be an issue. This may well be the most responsive Football Manager to date.
The flow of the game, from transfer negotiations to match days, is much improved by more efficient use of screen real estate and clustering of information. It seems a small subject to praise but in a game that is mostly stats and screens cluttered with numbers, positive changes to the interface are hugely important. Simply put, Football Manager has never presented data so efficiently, clearly and attractively. Hopefully, that’s the geekiest thing I’ll write until this time next year.
For the less dedicated manager, the sort who doesn’t sit in front of the computer wearing a suit when playing in a cup final, this 2014th iteration of the franchise also offers plenty of assistance. The dreaded director of football can handle contract negotiations, and even the entire business of ingoing and outgoing transfers. Lower league clubs without directors can have an assistant manager or chairman fulfil most functions by changing staff responsibilities, allowing the player to concentrate on whatever parts of the game he/she does enjoy.
Alongside the changes to tactics and the smoother, tighter transitions between screens and sets of data, there are hints of improved AI for opposition managers and clubs. I can’t pretend that a week with the game has been enough to reveal the depth of those improvements but the opposition often seem more flexible in their approach, and the transfer markets are active and unpredictable. The implementation of international football stutters, with the quality of the individuals contributing to a whole that is often the sum of its parts rather than a confusion of ill-fitting cogs. Perhaps that’s an inherently English complaint though.
Last year was probably a good one to skip, unless the streamlined nature of FM Classic appealed. That mode, dynamic competition reputations and the ability to add/remove leagues have been the greatest additions since 2011, and 2014 feels like the pinnacle of this particular generation. Some people will mourn the loss of sliders but the sense of communicating ideas and instructions is improved, and it's that process that the game is attempting to simulate.
Gradually, Football Manager is becoming less a game of manipulating statistics and more a game of managing and observing people. Apparently inconsequential additions, such as newly generated referees to replace those who retire, seem comically irrelevant but they are a significant part of the movement toward a fully simulated world. That really is quite a fascinating process to follow. In the future, there will be nothing but a foot, making contact with a ball – forever.
Football Manager 2014 is out on October 31st and Graham will be taking a look at Classic mode sometime in the near future. I'd like to add that the simplified nature of Classic mode makes it suitable for infants.