The more things change, the more they stay the same. So it is again as Sports Interactive and Sega bring us the latest iteration in the long-running and classic football management simulation series, Football Manager, nee Championship Manager. Alongside the obvious data update to reflect accurately this season’s realities, plus the many hundreds of subtle changes, there are a significant number of headline innovations which make this year’s version stand out compared to its predecessors. The game looks a little different, can be played in more ways than one and in some ways may surprise you. Although once you’ve spent some hours with the game and have acclimatised to the changes and you understand the new features after really getting into a save game or ten, it hits you. What Sports Interactive have managed to do better than they have for quite some time is evolve the game significantly so it feels new and better yet it is fundamentally still the same game built on numbers, choices and fantasy. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
On booting up for the first time you’ll be presented with multiple game type options, covering Football Manager, Football Manager Classic and Challenge mode. The first is the full blown affair allowing you to delve as deeply as ever into the management of a football club, handing over the tasks you don’t want and spending energy on the many or few you want control of. Challenge mode is something introduced via the handheld version of the game whereby various scenarios have been set for you to try and succeed at - for example, can you finish a season unbeaten when parachuted in as manager part-way through, or perhaps win silverware with a batch of exceptional youth players? These challenges are a fabulous inclusion, allowing for a finite game length and taxing specific parts of your management skills which in turn will stand you in good stead come your next go at the full game. Challenge mode still allows you to pick the team you fancy managing though; in turn this will affect your score at the end (assuming you succeed and make it to the end), inviting repeated attempts at each challenge to get to the top of your friend’s leaderboard or even the global one (leaderboards are a first too thanks to the better and deeper integration with Steam’s network). Before embarking on the challenge you have an idea of its length and this can be helpful for planning around your real life. It’s such an obvious idea - something that many folks have probably requested down the years - it’s a wonder this has taken so long to make it into finished code, but thankfully it does given the extra dimension it provides to the already quality base.
Football Manager Classic is probably the new feature this year, the bit that will make many stand up and take notice. It’s basically Football Manager pre-match engine, with some extras added in. The idea is that it strips away some of the complexities of the modern simulation experience, bringing new recruits in more easily (further improving accessibility alongside last year’s tutorials - which make a reappearance) and bringing back those who’ve moved on because it didn’t seem as fun as it once did. Again, it’s an obvious idea but one that may suggest a change in mindset at Sports Interactive that bodes well for the future. By effectively bringing back an older version of the game they not only open the game up to a wider audience but yield a certain level of control. Normally each year the developers and publishers choose what we get to play. Some things are dropped and others retained, maintained or perhaps built upon. Here we now have two flavours. Maybe in time we’ll get a fully modular proposition, whereby the end-user can choose exactly which features they want in their game. For example in Classic mode we have no match engine and we do have some press questions, but not full on press conferences, or team talks. Regardless of how this can be improved in the future or what an ideal state might be its inclusion here this year is an excellent one. It looks slightly old school, is a bit behind the state or the art but provides another way to play, a quicker way to play and an easier way to play. Alongside Challenge mode this is enough novelty to warrant the annual update alone, yet it’s only the icing on the cake.
Although the above new game modes are the most apparent upgrades this year, and definitely the most intriguing upfront, time shows that the multitude of changes to the full game are really where it’s at, and despite some things returning in the same state as before there is a very different feel to the game for old hands. For instance, it’s been visually updated very subtly. There’s no brand new interface but there are more curves, everything’s neater, there’s a better layout and it is altogether more helpful and nicer to look at. When you continue a calendar drops down from the top of the screen and it’s nice and big to show what’s coming up. Options are hidden away in collapsible drop-down menus or via mouseover text on the upper right hand side. Once you get used to navigation and absorbing the various data you’ll find it a much enhanced experience. Any page provides more information more clearly and in a better way than before. The differences versus last year may seem marginal but the gains are significant.
The world of staff has been altered substantially to incorporate Directors of Football if so desired, Heads of Youth Development and more. You can leverage these key staff members if you choose to have them by identifying transfer targets and letting your football director take charge. It might not be to your benefit if they fail - or let someone leave on a free - but the flexibility is there and having certain aspects of the job be done by those who would do it in real life makes for a more truthful experience over and above the already very real gameplay from the past. Job requirements are more varied now than just challenge for the title or avoid relegation; you might be asked to focus on youth development or some other requirement, too. Organising training is much easier as you can change each coach’s assignments on the fly rather than clicking on an individual, changing his training and then moving on - very helpful if you’re trying to find the most effective ball control coach from those you’ve hired. General training and match preparation are integrated allowing for easy manipulation of training workloads and focus also. Transfer deadline day is another lovely extra this year. Come the 31st August, if you want to you can get involved - the game continues at much shorter time intervals than normal, allowing for more negotiations throughout the day but also inviting you to comment on the chaos and other team’s transfers. Simple but well executed and the game’s all the better for it. There are so many alterations which comprehensively improve what was an already excellent title.
The match engine has been revamped and really does run smoothly and is an improved tool for working out what’s not working, what is working and what impact your changes have made on the actual in-game match play. Although this has often been a bugbear for some, it’s becoming more and more useful and is something everyone should look to use to fully understand their team’s performance. It’s impressive that this area of the game has been improved on top of what was already there given its level of maturity, but it truly is even more useful again this time. Dealings with the media now have tone of voice context just like your team talks, meaning you can be labelled a cautious, passionate or aggressive manager. The whole game mirrors changes in regulations in reality. There are a myriad of things which we could talk about but suffice it to say you’re unlikely to find anything missing in Football Manager 2013 and what’s here is accurate and works excellently - some of it like it always has done and some in a new and improved way.
Football Manager is the exemplar of an annual franchise which fans will religiously buy regardless. For many a proper data update is all they need to enjoy the game anew, leading their favoured club to glory, finding the raw talents which one day will be superstars and achieving legendary success. However Sports Interactive never rest on their laurels. They always move things forward, looking to define the genre once more and make the new edition of their beloved series the best one ever. This year Sports Interactive have done that with aplomb. They’ve brought real significant pieces of gameplay to the table, refined many more and made the whole undoubtedly the sum of all its parts - or more.