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Review: Football Manager 2014 (PC, Mac, PlayStation Vita, iOS, Android)
Sports Interactive's unrivalled football management simulation is back for another year, putting in a mostly solid performance while also showing off some new skills it’s learned on the training ground.
If you want to get an idea of the stresses felt by David Moyes, Jose Mourinho or even Alan Knill (look up where Torquay are in the league), the long-running Football Manager series is for you.
Until a maverick club finally appoints a new boss on the basis of a CV boasting about someone being "a bit handy at Football Manager", it's the closest most fans will ever get to the genuine thing.
Of course no mere computer game could provide a fully 100 per cent accurate portrayal of day-to-day life as an actual boss, but Football Manager has always been noted for its authenticity and providing an extremely immersive RPG based on the world of modern football.
Deep, complex and carefully crafted to reflect the attributes of real-world players, managers and teams, FM has taken over lives down the years with its powerful ability to create emotional attachment between game and player.
Countless managers, fully engrossed in the experience, have been taken on journeys involving heady highs and crushing lows, causing them to shout, swear, cheer and celebrate based on the performance of their virtual players in the virtual world.
The latest yearly release is arguably even more dangerously addictive than recent predecessors thanks to some tweaks which make it more realistic in some ways while also making it slightly more accessible and appealing at the same time.
Of course with such an established series which has been so successful, there are no major changes to the format.
It's still about picking a club from a chosen league and then leading them through multiple seasons (unless you get the sack), trying to achieve as much success as possible, all the while dealing with team selections, training schedules, transfers, media and the many other tasks required of a manager.
Where the changes have occurred this time is in the detail.
Developer SI and publisher Sega say this is the most advanced release in the series’ history, with more than 1,000 improvements from last year. Clearly I'm not going to list all of them (I don't think I've actually seen most of them) but I will focus on some of the main ones.
One area of the game which is noticeably different is how the news screen now plays an even more pivotal role and acts as the central hub from where many of the managerial tasks are performed. Being able to deal with a large amount of club matters, such as responding to scouting reports, directly from the colour-coded inbox streamlines the time and number of clicks it takes to get things done. Many of the screens around the game now also look cleaner and are easier to use than before.
An overhaul of the tactics system is another big change for 2013/14.
The previously-used process of adjusting sliders to create tactical set-ups has been dropped in favour of options for providing teams with more life-like instructions, or ‘shouts’. New player roles and being able to tweak individual players' duties more than before are other facets of the tactics revamp. It adds up to the system being more wordy than slidey this year, which has caused some consternation elsewhere, but for me it's a more realistic way of doing things.
When a football manager wants something done on the pitch he doesn't wave a page of slightly ambiguous charts at his players, he gives them proper spoken orders - and the new tactics system in FM14 seems to reflect this.
The new method for setting teams up feeds into an improved match-day experience.
The 3D match engine looks better than before for one thing, with enhanced lighting and graphics.
The shrewdness of opposition AI managers has been ramped up, so they'll adapt their tactics mid-game more effectively.
To help counter the switches made by opponents, recommendations made by your own assistant manager can be implemented much quicker than before.
Other changes to look out for in FM14 include more detailed and sophisticated interactions with staff, board and press plus a number of new options in the transfer system.
Some of the new features for this year serve to make the game slightly easier to understand and navigate but don't be fooled into thinking they dumb down the experience in any way because that definitely isn't the case. Football Manager remains a massively complicated and demanding game.
The most successful bosses will be able to demonstrate two main abilities.
Firstly, they will have people skills, being able to observe the nuances of players' behaviour and deal carefully with all the different personalities found within the game. Being a virtual manager is a finely balanced occupation in which every choice has a consequence. For instance, there will be times when you may need to give your players the hairdryer treatment to try and enforce your policies but you will want to avoid going too Paolo Di Canio on them and risk 'losing the dressing room'. Delicate diplomacy is often needed.
Secondly they will have a head for figures, being able to analyse and act upon the vast amount of stats and information which are at the heart of the FM experience.
While some tasks can be delegated to staff, there is still a very heavy workload and a lot of micromanaging to do. So, really, the top requirement is time - lots and lots of time - if you want to get the most out of this game.
I've had FM14 for a few weeks now and have been playing a couple of hours here and there as time allows, but I don't feel like I've made huge progress with it. Frankly, with the time it takes to play the game properly, I don't understand how any normal grown-up person can do it.
Those who have a disregard for work, family, relationships or other obstacles should find FM14 to be the deepest, most advanced, most feature-rich and - when everything's put together - best instalment in the series to date.
For players like me who want to enjoy Football Manager but crave a more compact form of the game, there are again two other choices this year.
The first is the classic mode which returns for a second year in the PC game.
Though it's still unequivocally not for the casual crowd, it does provide a lighter and simpler experience by cutting out a lot of the tasks and reducing the volume of data.
The inclusion of transfer deadline day in 2014's evolved version is of course welcome but the addition which makes the biggest difference overall is the new match plan wizard. This allows managers to program in a set of tactics and desired reactions to different situations, before then clicking a button to get an instant result. It means seasons can be played through in much less time than in the main game.
New for this year is the ability to play classic mode on PlayStation Vita, including cross-save compatibility with PC and Mac.
The second option is the standalone handheld version available for iOS and Android which is even more streamlined than classic mode.
For this year's mobile edition most of the noticeable changes are cosmetic, although there have been some slight improvements to the transfer system and media interaction.
Considering the limitations being on mobile places on it, the handheld game performs very well. It's disappointing there haven't been bigger enhancements from last year, but it's still a decent stripped-back version of the full simulation which can be absorbing and addictive for managers who want their footy fix on the go.
The different versions of FM14 won't be to everybody's liking - despite it being slightly compacted, the main game will still be overwhelming for many players, whereas the classic mode and handheld edition will be too basic for some.
But everyone with an interest in testing their football management abilities should be able to settle on one of the levels of complexity they can enjoy - and when they do, each person will find an experience that's unmatched by any other games on the respective field.
Main game: 8 out of 10 – out now for PC and Mac
Handheld version: 7 out of 10 – out now for iOS and Android
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