Football manager is without question one of the most engrossing and detailed simulation games ever created. Within its straightforward-looking presentation there's an abundance of depth and detail that few other games can match. This isn't by chance, it's the result of twenty-one years of crafting and honing a particular brand.
The first PC my family ever owned came with a bundle of games. Some were great, like Dune or Lemmings, but it was a simple DOS-based database game called Championship Manager that I kept coming back to. Since then, a lot has changed in this particular brand of management sim. The naming rights were lost and the product rebranded, the database grew bigger each year, matches went from text based to realistic modellings. But despite all the innovations, when I boot-up FM14 I still see the game I fell in love with twenty years ago.
Presentation has grown easier on the eye over the years, but the essentials haven't changed. Options are presented through a list of menus; your squad, potential transfers and the league table is like an excel spreadsheet you can scroll through and choose what data to look at. Tactics are still represented by circles denoting positions, and clickable option boxes let you set instructions. What has changed, massively, is the amount of options, the size of the database, the amount of information, and the amount of interactions.
So much has been woven into the series that some instalments have felt a bit bloated. Sometimes the game has been difficult to navigate, or hard to fully understand, especially if you're new to the series. What FM14 does brilliantly is a continuation to what Sports Interactive started doing in FM13. The depth is still there but there's less screens, there's more menus and they're easier to understand. What's more, for players who got fed up of the complexity, Classic Mode returns.
The streamlined Classic Mode is a simpler version of the game. It removes features such as team talks and press conferences, instead focusing on playing matches. It retains the essential player database and match engine from the full game, but allows the player to zip from match to match with just a few clicks. Similar to earlier games, the task is less about managing every aspect of a club, instead it adheres to a much simpler set-up; buy players, pick tactics, play matches. You can even skip the in-engine match generation and go straight to the result if you want.
Challenge Mode is a variation of Classic Mode. Using simpler gameplay than the main game, it offers seven scenarios to be conquered. Your team is just a handful of games from an unbeaten season, can you see them over the finish line? Critics and pundits have written your squad off, relegation seems inevitable, will you keep them up? Each challenge can be adjusted in difficulty and each has different lengths, some of the short ones can be blitzed through in less than an hour.
One thing shared by all game modes is the match day engine. What started life as simple text boxes, first evolved into a top-down view of circles, and is now a realistic depiction of the beautiful game with 22 human-shaped players competing over 90 minutes. Football Manager 14's match days are the best yet. When surveying the pitch, player movement is strikingly realistic. Given fluid movement and more expression, you'll witness your team pulling off some delightful flicks, back-heels and dribbling. Sit deeper, play more direct and you'll see your team constantly looking to break the offside trap, to burst forward from the middle and latch on to a long ball.
Throughout each match your assistant gives regular advice. You can choose to ignore him, but if you trust the guy you share the dugout with, it's worth considering his suggestions. For big changes, like formation, you have to go to the tactics menu. For player and team instructions you can simply click 'apply advice' and the new instructions will be issued for you.
Of course the real meatiness is to be found in the main game. There's so much to do, and so many mechanics, that to the uninitiated a new game can be a daunting prospect. Fortunately your staff can help by taking some of the pressure. While it's possible to take on everything yourself, it's likely you'll want some help. You can assign members of your back room to take charge of the youth and reserve squads, your assistant can decide training focuses, your chairman or director of football can conduct player sales.
Training is surprisingly complicated, but laid out as simply as possible. Gone are the days of painstakingly creating training regimes for players, instead you choose staff to cover a particular area, and decide on an overall team focus. By right-clicking a player you can access his individual training, choose a specific role for him to develop or an individual skill. Coaches will offer occasional advice about what a player should be working on, or which players think they're being overworked.
It's a difficult balance between being too lenient and overworking your squad. I tend to ignore the players that moan about training, I'm paying them fifty grand per week; they'll spend more time working on their movement if I tell them to. Of course, that probably isn't the best approach, they get tired, injury prone and their morale dips. On the other hand, they'll master that focus and become a more useful player as a result.
Some players don't cut it, even with all the training in the world. Fortunately there's a wealth of scouting options that help you find replacements. If your club is wealthy enough that the board will allow it, you can send scouts all over the world. They'll give a report on a specified player, or specified team. Your scouts reveal their stats, how open they are to transfer, the likely fee needed and the players probable development. A new feature is that you get regular updates on players sent on loan.
The biggest change to transfers is that they can be negotiated instantly. In previous FM games you would send an offer and wait a few in-game days for a response, now you can suggest terms and argue over details as soon as you've opened a dialogue with the opposing club. It certainly makes things quicker, and is extremely useful on deadline day. Be careful with your transfers though, financial fair play is now something to consider. You're the person responsible for making sure transfers and wages stay within restrictions.
Even the best teams need great tactics. All those new acquisitions and your existing players need tactics that suit them. You can set three 'rotation' tactics that your squad will train towards understanding. These are easy to rotate between both in and out of matches. Players don't instantly understand your 'inventive' new approaches to the beautiful game, instead it takes time for them to adapt. Each player's playing mentality can be decided, such as if they take attacking, support or defensive approaches. Further player instructions include switching positions, overlapping and roaming from their position. Team instructions also need to be considered; setting team instructions is easier than ever thanks to a simple drop-down and select menu.
As if three single-player variants isn't enough, there's also a number of multiplayer options. You can create online leagues in both Classic Mode and Main Mode. Versus mode lets you set up a customised cup and compete with imported teams from your single-player games; a great opportunity to show off your tactical genius and settle any arguments about who has the better team.
There's a few bugs at the moment, but Sports Interactive has assured us that many of these will be ironed out by the time of full release, such as bizarre goalkeeper errors, and issues dealing with unhappy players. Though they haven't mentioned an error I noticed where managers taking over underperforming teams are immediately under pressure to keep their jobs. I know this is football and owners are notoriously unsympathetic towards managers, but surely even the harshest chairman would give the new guy some time to turn things around. It's probably just something in the beta to be corrected, but it's worth being wary of if you're the type of manager who likes to take on the challenge of saving relegation-bound teams.
The real beauty of Football Manager is in the stories you will experience. A season is filled with ups and downs, moments of burying your head in your hands or punching the air with joy. There's games when you dominate possession, only for the opposition to score the winner with their only shot on goal. That seventeen-year-old you put on because of injury that bags the winning goal. The misery of seeing your goalkeeper make a blinding save only for the ball to ricochet off a defender and over the line.
Even if the formula is now 21 years old, Football Manager 2014 is top of the league when it comes to management simulators. You never feel entirely in control, there's always something that needs to be figured out, but every manager in world football has something that needs figuring out. Football Manager 14, like its predecessors, is deep and complicated. For some its detail and realism is a turn-off that makes it difficult to access, for others it's the reason we love it.