A rare sight: one of my set pieces working perfectly as Hannigan is set to bury the header.
The toughest part with reviewing any Football Manager game is figuring out where to start. In hindsight, I did a decent (albeit limited) overview of the game back in late 2010, eschewing super-detailed analysis for a general overview. If you’d like a brief introduction as to why Football Manager 2013, at the time of writing this, is being played by upwards of 48,000 people1, go check out my first review. If you’re not a newcomer to the franchise, you’re probably wondering why you should upgrade from FM12 to FM13. This brings us back to our original problem: where to start? With so many things tweaked from year to year and enough different leagues and competitions from the lower rungs of English football to the World Cup and all points in between, it would be foolish to try and cover everything in one review2. Thus, we’ll be looking at a few key areas: interface; England; MLS; and multi-player.
For starters, the user interface has received its biggest overhaul since the jump from FM093 to FM10. Gone are the menu tabs lining the top of each page, redesigned instead as a selection of buttons with sub-menu buttons nested in the top-right corner. The previously ever-present calendar has been hidden away behind a single drop-down button beside “Continue”. League pages now have their own homepage showing the league standings, stat leaders, injury table and the league’s standing in relevance compared to other competitions. Scouting now has a homepage which shows you everything you need to know at a glance, plus more detailed looks at each scout’s abilities, knowledge and assignments. A “Director of Football” can now be hired to manage as much or as little of player recruitment as you like – a godsend for larger clubs trying to get development players some experience out on loan. Transfer deadline day now has its own pomp and circumstance, complete with a modified game timer and increased press attention.
The game’s skin changes when you take on a challenge. Here, I try to save Inverness CT from an injury crisis.
There are more minor tweaks here and there as well, but the entire package is a major jump forward compared to FM12. It’s not quite the paradigm shift of FM09 to FM10 (goodbye vertical grey bar, hello bright white tabs), but it is a major step forward nonetheless. Is it the right step? Maybe it’s the 330+ hours4 I spent on FM12 talking, but I’m inclined to say “mostly yes” (with hesitation) instead of a resounding “yes”.
While the minor tweaks and upgrades make a lot of welcome sense (including being able to compare team depth charts on multiple levels), there are two major changes that I take issue with. First: moving all of the menu buttons to the top-right corner still feels disorienting and clumsy after 50 hours of game time when compared to the convenience and placing of FM12′s tabs. This is highlighted rather starkly when the old-style UI returns in the new “Challenge” feature, where you play a set scenario with specific victory and/or defeat conditions instead of a perpetual season. I had an easier and arguably more intuitive time guiding Inverness CT through an injury crisis5 in the Scottish Premier League than I did dragging this year’s iteration of Vauxhall well out of its predicted finishing point at the bottom of the English Football Conference South to an astonishing 8th-place finish6, simply because I spent less time fighting the interface and more time managing my resources.
The other major change I take issue with is a bit of a surprise, considering all of the ballyhoo that preceded it during the run-up to FM13′s launch: training. Much like contract negotiations and boardroom interactions before it, squad training is the lucky winner of the overhaul sweepstakes in this year’s game. The training regime slider bars of yesteryear have been tossed in favour of a four-week training calendar, in which team’s overall training focus and individual match preparation strategies can be set either as a blanket policy or individually from week to week (or match to match), all at varying intensity levels. Coaches and players now get their own pages, each detailing their workload effectiveness (for coaches) and individual training focuses (for players). Players also get their own handily-linked development page showing you exactly how well training has or hasn’t been going, plus a summary with recommendations from your coaches. For players like me who have progressed to the point of obsessing over the tiny details, this training overhaul is great. The reason I’m taking issue with it in this review is that it does what previous overhauls didn’t – provide a barrier to new users. Before this change, training was something that you could leave to your assistant coaches, removing it from your thoughts and allowing you to continue the game with decent success; now, training is in the limelight as a major portion of the game. Even in its new slider-bar-free form, it’s not something that a new coach will be able to get away with ignoring, which may turn off an easily-frustrated new entrant to the series. Once again, if you’re a stat-head who can comb the free transfer market in their sleep7, I’m confident that you’ll be fine.
Boom! Victory! Take that, Colwyn Bay!
With all of that said, how does the game actually play out? Visually, the Match-Day engine has been given another shot in the arm and looks even prettier than it did last year – no real surprise there, since compelling visual upgrades are a staple from year to year in Football Manager. On a nuts-and-bolts level, there is definitely a greater sense of challenge when trying to claw yourself up from the lower leagues. Case in point: my now-yearly tradition of trying to best my friend Greg’s accomplishment of guiding Tamworth through four promotions to England’s fabled pinnacle of football, the Premiership. Getting Vauxhall even close enough to manage one promotion, let alone the five needed to beat Greg, proved to be an admirable task in my first season at the helm. For starters, unemployed staff no longer work for peanuts when you low-ball an offer; they’ll demand a fair wage, which forces you to either commit to your choice and hope the youth prospects get trained up, or settle for a lesser staff member so you can bring on higher-priced players for the present. Once that’s all settled and you have your team together, the flow of the game is just as addictive as ever. Playing “one more match” seems like a simple goal until you append that with “well, I’ll just search for some players to scout” and “well, I’ll just tweak my training assignments” and “well, I’ll just skip forward a day and make sure that everything went according to plan” and “well, I’ll just fix everything that went wrong”. It’s way too easy to find little jobs to take on and accomplish if you’re into the minutiae of the game like I am; even easier is the ability to send your digital self on vacation for a few days and let the other staff handle things so you can skip ahead to all the fun matches coming up. Not for nothing does the status page for Football Manager include a half-tongue-in-cheek “Addictiveness Rating”8.
When a substitute striker goes one-on-three and buries a 3-0 goal on a fairly easy shot, you know you’re facing a bad team.
Obviously, things aren’t perfect. I’m still trying to figure out whether my inability to offer a salary above $100/week is a bug or an edict from the boardroom, and there seems to be an issue with my parent club not accepting a mandatory match request during the pre-season. Going through Sports Interactive’s forums, it’s clear I’m not the only one with issues to report, either. Thankfully, the SI team appears to be fairly diligent in responding to concerns in a timely manner and offering the ability to FTP save files from concerned users for further investigation.
Another area of less-than-perfection is the treatment of Major League Soccer. While it’s certainly not nearly as bad as years past (in fact, this year’s version of MLS is easily the best adaptation we’ve received yet), it’s still somewhat irksome to see that a game that prides itself on being able to simulate details (all the way down to the starting right-back for Peruvian side Unión Comercio), can’t handle telling the American and Canadian sides apart in a multi-national league. It’s nit-picky, to be sure; but I’m still amazed that after all these years, Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal are still considered American teams. In fact, any Canadian team playing in a North American league (e.g. FC Edmonton in NASL, Victoria Highlanders in USL) is treated as American, much to my patriotic consternation. Still, as I said, I’m getting very picky here since the implementation of the vast majority of MLS’ unique rules (Generation adidas contracts, the SuperDraft, allocation money, etc.) are handled very well.
About the only thing that can truly be looked at in a poor light is the way the AI handles roster and management changes. Compared to its European counterparts, the real-life MLS is a fairly low-movement league when it comes to hiring/firing head coaches and shipping top-tier talent overseas. Inside the digital confines of FM, however, the spending frenzy is in a near-constant state. Sometimes it’s humorous – “Vancouver traded Brad Knighton for Tally Hall?!” – other times it’s outright bizarre – “Seattle sold Fredy Montero and Steve Zakuani overseas?!” I can imagine a game engine such as this can be a delicate thing to adjust but I’d like to see some sort of restraint added to throttle the game version of MLS closer to more believable levels.
Transfer deadline day! Nothing like rampant speculation to fill round-the-clock coverage.
Finally, we come to the part of Football Manager 2013 that unmistakably leaped forward this year: multi-player. No longer do I have to run a virtual network in order to
humiliate play with Greg or observe his latest triumph with Tamworth; now, by taking advantage of Steam for more than just the achievements, players can set up online network games hassle-free or –in a brilliant stroke– export their current team to play in one of three “Versus Mode” competitions against other exported teams.
Considering how often I wondered what would happen if my squads of years past took on the relatively mighty Tamworth under Greg’s watchful eye, this is a feature that I was very excited to try out. One night of goofing around with Greg later, I can safely say I was not disappointed. Joining a game through Steam was quick and painless and getting into the match itself only took as long as Greg and I setting up ourselves as managers. Actually, that’s really the only drawback to the new modes when compared to the standard full-length league mode: nothing stays with you. Every time you start a game, you have to re-add yourself as a manager and reset all your tactics and formations for your chosen team(s). You would think exporting a team would include all the tactical information tweaked and honed over multiple games, but no – it’s right back to basics once a Versus game starts. It’s not that big a deal when two people are playing, but I can see things getting a bit onerous if you were to max out a 32-person “Knockout Cup” competition.
With that many white shirts so close to goal, you had to know it was only a matter of time until one of them scored.
Again, this is just scratching the surface of this or any Football Manager game. With so many leagues and competitions to choose from, the depth is staggering enough to allow any level of would-be manager to find the place that’s right for them. Is it better than last year’s edition? Mostly yes, helped along by a full embracing of Steam for multi-player. The new interface certainly doesn’t help, especially after three excellent years with more-or-less the same setup. Still, I somehow survived the jump from FM09 to FM10; I’m confident I’ll manage to do the same this time around.
Interested in a Versus mode challenge? Tweet me @ThatRituroGuy and see how you fare against me! If you don’t have a copy of Football Manager 2013, we can help one lucky person out. All you have to do is e-mail us and we’ll send you our last Steam Code for this addictive game.