Any respectable gamer should have heard about Football Manager by now. It’s one of those games that gets its hooks into you and never lets go, consuming your free time and your very mind whenever you’re away from your PC. It even has its own urban myth, claiming that (after World of Warcraft, one must presume) Football Manager is one of the most cited computer games in divorce cases ever. No evidence for that, of course, but everyone nods sagely when they hear that kind of thing. It’s the kind of game that you measure in hundreds of hours played rather than tens, and now it’s available for your gaming pleasure on that plucky little Vita.
Well, the Classic mode is at any rate. As we described in our Football Manager 2013 review Football Manager Classic is a stripped down version of Football Manager that concentrates really on the football matches themselves, as well as the more immediately ‘fun’ parts of football management simulation – think player hunting, transfer sagas and tactics tinkering instead of financial spreadsheets and draconian training schedules. It’s more accessible than the main game and much easier to play through a ‘quick’ (just over ten hours usually) season – in other words, far more suited to a portable environment than the main game ever could be.
The thing is, this isn’t the first time that a Football Manager has been available on a handheld device – since 2006 the PSP has been home to regular releases of Football Manager Handheld, and they even made it to iOS in more recent years. I have very fond memories of spending over a hundred hours guiding York to Champions League victory in FMH 2009 in fact, so to reach the hype level there really should be something more to this release than it just being the first time the franchise has graced the Vita. If you’ve kept up with the PC releases over the years then you’ll know what to expect, and quite frankly if you’re intending to move over from the PSP versions then you’ll be blown away. Football Manager Classic will offer you a 3D match engine, the ability to hire your background staff, offer you a range of player-level tactical instructions and even gives you trophies. It doesn’t quite spoon you all night and then cook you a fry-up in the morning like the full version over in PC land does, but at least here you can tinker with custom formations on the bus.
Talking about formations and tactics, the stuff on offer here is deep. There’s a reason why Football Manager is so well regarded, and the level of detail that supports the simulation is present here on the Vita too. You may, for instance, choose to play a 4-1-2-1-2. A few games in, and you figure out that you don’t seem to be getting the service you should have – converting the left and right backs from full backs into wingbacks will do wonders, and supported by a decent defensive midfielder suddenly the flanks are your greatest weapon. Throw the team on counterattack and watch the fun. Those two chaps up front not really delivering? Figure out the differences between a trequartista and a false nine while coming up with a strike partnership role combination that works and you’ll be half way there, finish it up with some individual tactics and the odd switcharoo to confuse any man-marking and you’ll be back on the score sheet in no time.
If there’s one thing that Sports Interactive should have taken from those earlier handheld versions, however, they could have done no better than look back at the control system. Really, looking back it’s amazing to think that such complex simulations were adequately handled with the PSP controls, and it was with wistful melancholy I recalled such controls as my finger stabbed endlessly at the touch screen. The analogue sticks can control scrolling on various screens or menus, and contextualised button usage neatly hides stacks of options behind one control, but some additional form of old fashioned buttoning would have gone a long way in cementing this version of Football Manager as one to return to as the years roll on. Far too often did I have to lay the smack down on the continue button in the top right to get things moving, and don’t even mention the amount of times that a quick unpaused in-match tactic change turned into a comedy waste of fifteen minutes of match time as instead my fat finger bounced the top menu up and down. In the main though the accuracy input was surprisingly good, considering the small size of much of the text, but watch out for those media questions and the comically small boxes you’re given.
There’s an amazing amount of content squeezed onto the Vita here, and it does show. Kicking off a game will see you only able to choose a grand total of three playable leagues (don’t freak out at the back there – England from the Premier down to the Skrills counts as one) and it’s all too easy to devastate the loading time star indicator before you’ve even started. Saving the game, either auto or manually, sees it crunch for a fair while, compiling as it does over a 100 MB of data, but when you get going the waiting never seems too bad, and the ability to restrict match highlights quite severely allows you to run through matches fairly fast should you so wish. The cross save ability that allows you to move your game over to the PC and back again means that the game works wonderfully as a companion piece, especially if you can get all of your fiddly preseason horse trading out of the way with a mouse and keyboard at your beck and call, but Football Manager Classic stands quite happily alone on the Vita too, albeit a little slower than you’d hope.
Away from the career mode you also have access to some of the standalone challenges seen before in the PC release, but, of course, the only way to play a Football Manager game properly is to start a career and Clough it. You know what I’m talking about – ignore United, ignore City, even park poor Liverpool to one side and get yourself as immersed in either the Conference North or South as you can. If you’ve never manned up enough to find yourself here before then you’ll find it’s a whole new game – no more Reserves league to keep your second string fit, no more money to make things like training facilities with warm water magically appear. It’s a special kind of masochism that sees a player pick up such a team and drag them as high as they can, defying the odds and yet praying for a good cup run or even a sniff of some TV money.
As a first speculative punt into new handheld territory, Sports Interactive has taken the Classic mode of their beloved gaming jewel and crammed it into the Vita, almost mercilessly at times. One can especially imagine the 3D match engine crying out in pain, and yet now it hardly even whelps or misses many frames. The cross-save PC functionality is a wonder, but in future years you have to hope that the magic wand can be recharged and provide something a little more Vita-oriented, some additional button functionality or hotlinks to assist playing on the go. To sum up, Football Manager Classic 2014 is a bit like a European aggregate victory, but not on away goals – it’s nice enough in of itself, but let’s look forward to the next round.