Developers: Sports Interactive
It would be irresponsible of me to furnish the current build (Oh, wait, here comes another update) of Football Manager 2014 with a definitive score, if only because I'm not entirely sure of the differences that'll be evident when the game finally releases. Pitched somewhere in between the current beta and what will eventually be a comprehensive retail package, the review build is constantly updating itself, ironing out kinks and delivering improvements.
This is important to note for a number of reasons, chief among them being that Football Manager has always delivered its exam/career/relationship-ruining addiction predicated on a a relatively infallible database of statistics and complex algorithms. We trust in Sports Interactive, keeping faith that a run of poor results is the result of management decisions that we might have conducted differently, that all is fixable. Not that one of the underlying mechanisms has the hiccups.
Given that the animation systems in the match engine are hilariously clunky and seem to be mesmerisingly glitch-happy, that transfers for mid-range players appear to approach the realms of the ridiculous even in this age of inflated currency, egos, and price points (Liverpool and Andy Caroll, I blame you), and that FM14 has tried to lose my save file several times now, we're going to give FM14 the benefit of the doubt in holding off on the score for a little bit. At least until we know that for certain that what we've played will be what you're buying.
Otherwise, what's the point?
But we can tell you what we do know. Anyone who leafed through my narrative account of the first few hours spent wheeling and dealing in the weekend's Football Manager 2014 eleventh-hour preview may well have spotted one or two new features. Sports Interactive come out with a hefty list of such things every year in an attempt to justify another annual purchase besides roster updates, and out of the hundreds of tweaks and tune-ups, there are usually only a handful of really notable shifts.
On the pitch, those differences come in the form of the absence of sliders. From one perspective it could be argued that the development team has scaled back the depth of the tactical system by removing scalable spectrums of behaviour in favour of touchline instructions such as Push Higher Up, Play At A High Tempo, and Drill Crosses. Instructions for your team are now colour-coded, so that managers can easily recognise complimentary team tactics, and the distinctions between the various approaches to the game are somewhat more binary in nature.
This broad approach is, however, given greater degrees of shading via instructions for individual players, with the importance of setting up bespoke strategies for each player proving more important than ever. FM14 works hard at forging a greater degree of connection between player and manager, placing more importance on situating the right players in the right positions, and matching up those key attributes, than we've seen from this series previously. Constant tweaking on a match-to-match basis is an absolute must, and often tactics need to be switched up mid-game for single substitutions. I was pleased to see that I could turn Yeovil into a possession-minded, Championship mirror of Barcelona. Out on the pitch, my visions of lower-league tiki-taka football were being realised. But we still weren't scoring. Though I could see the results of patient training ground set moves out there on the pitch, I'd forgotten to place anyone with any creativity in a playmaker position. Though the pass percentages were looking good, we weren't actually going anywhere.
FM13 brought in Classic Mode as a low-fat version of the game -- pitched somewhere in between the immersive leviathan of the proper game, and the more casually-minded mobile edition -- and that legacy is continued here, but more so in the full-fat version of the game if anything. There's clear convergence between the two modes, with Classic expanded this year to deliver a little more depth, and the main mode making concessions towards accessibility, not by dumbing things down, but by providing managers with more feedback than ever. If you want to take the reins for absolutely everything in the game, then you pretty much can, but even at lower league clubs there's a network of assistants (who need to be picked and told what to do by you, mind) to help place the info you need in front of you.
The tweaked and revised UI places more focus on the news stream, and the vast majority of your business can actually be conducted directly from here, with only occasional need to dabble in the drop-down menus. Overlays and pop-up captions appear whenever you brush an object of even remote interest, delivering important contextual information. Nowhere is this more useful than on the tactical screen, with positions, visual statistical feedback and role suitability all available from a single screen, and formation affinity broken down into key areas to be scrutinised and pored over. The reports and the feedback from the scouting network -- which, at the time, consisted of one peripatetic 50-year old -- told me instantly what I needed to know if I wanted to get cracking, but also allowed for hours of deep study should I desire.
Adding to this spirit of revamped communication are your dealings with the board and the media. You can leak stories to the press if you so wish, in the hopes of creating a media storm that might pressurise the board into giving in. Alternatively, it might get you fired. Team talks count for much more than they used to, with morale playing a huge part in proceedings. Having played as Yeovil, who found themselves in the Championship this season, with little of the resources enjoyed by the clubs in the division who flirt with Premier League football on a semi-regular basis, losses are to be expected. So every team talk, every signing, every little bit of interaction with the press, these have a great effect on team morale, and therefore the execution of one's tactical plans.
Journalists are slippery little sh**s to be honest (we should know), and FM14 reflects that brilliantly. Reporters will come knocking with gossip games, having pulled a quote out of context from another manager's presser, hoping to start turf wars and create controversies out of nothing. It's really quite rewarding to engage with the manipulative machinations of the press engine and attempt to try and better play the game. Given the greater importance afforded to morale, the more frequent interventions by club boards, and the need to boost one's personal portfolio, media exchanges have a little more bite to them this time around. Nothing major, you understand, but an improvement nonetheless.
Transfers are smoother and slicker than ever before, with a Suggest Terms option allowing you to haggle in real-time with teams as one might over the phone without having to fast-forward in 15-minute intervals, incrementally increasing a bid time after time, and SI do a good job of opening up deadline day and creating a sense of the madness that engulfs the footballing industry twice a year. That being said, I've found that players, agents, and clubs can have an inflated opinion f value in this game, with difficulties over haggling and wage packets often proving hilariously overblown. David Bentley is one of the finest players you can pick up on a free transfer, but his ludicrous wage demands mean that the only destinations open to him are clubs who definitely don't need him.
So there's a little picture of some of the changes made to FM14 this year. It's really all about accessible depth, and that phrase shouldn't send you running. This is the grail: the ability to do more in less time thanks to clever UI redesign and improved feedback systems without sacrificing the need for deep micromanagement should you be wanting a challenge. Better yet, for the first time in years, the Premier League is genuinely wide-open. You can't jump into the hotseat at Manchester United and coast to victory, and that's terribly exciting, both in-game and out in the real world too.
Though frankly, I've forgotten what the Sun looks like.