Trying to explain the appeal of Football Manager to a non-fan – especially a non-football fan – seems impossible. It is a visually dry, time-consuming game not far removed from a full-time office job. Yet actually playing it reveals a game which perhaps more than any gives credence to the idea that a sandbox game can create its own narratives. The progress of favourite teams at the hands of the player is as much a story emerging from the interaction of random numbers and player control as any multi-car pileup in Grand Theft Auto, or exciting shootout in Far Cry 3.
Before settling down with Football Manager 2014, I had no idea who Yannick Sagbo was – I never really took an interest in watching football beyond cheering for England come the World Cup, perhaps because I never enjoyed playing it. I sat in a happy last place for much of my office fantasy football tournament. After a few sessions, though, Sagbo – or his representation in my file on FM2014 – was the hero of middling Hull, the guy who could be relied on to score a goal each match even when it seemed like Portsmouth or Ipswich were walking all over my team. When another team – I think it was Sunderland – wanted to buy him, it was as tricky a choice to make as any I had made in Mass Effect. Selling him would let me buy perhaps better players – beat Nantes to the acquisition of a French player who apparently had good prospects, for examples – but at the same time he’d been the player who’d stopped my early matches being 3-0 whitewashes.
This all sounds quite absurd; from an outside perspective fretting over the sale of invisible footballers seems nothing like deciding the fate of an alien species’ last member, and Football Manager can’t offer lasers or spaceships. What it made me realise, though, was that its grounded nature – its mundane world of transfer deals, press conferences and so on – was just as good escapism because it was familiar. Complaining about football is a staple of modern life – Football Manager lets you see if you can do better, and makes doing so easy and intuitive for the most part. At the start of the game, in your first meeting as manager, you can delegate as much or as little of the daily grind – contract management, scouting for players, and so on – to the AI as you like. As the game goes on you can change this. I realised I didn’t fully understand the contract renewal windows, and so automated them rather than risk accidentally firing everyone.
For the most part the UI is intuitive, visually inspired by Microsoft Outlook; decisions to make appear as unread emails in your inbox, with buttons and checklists to choose responses from. Press conferences and interviews take the form of RPG-esque dialogue trees allowing you (in a feature missing from quite a lot of more story-driven and dynamic games) to choose both a mood and a response. This even lets you create an imagined persona as a manager – the Raymond Webster who manages Hull is a passionate, slightly Alan Partridge-esque figure all about pumping the ball upfield, playing fluid football and breezily exhorting his players to play up and play the game like a sports-master from Jennings. For players truly serious about displaying their credentials, and letting their Football Manager careers cross over into reality, the game can be linked to real Facebook and Twitter accounts, and victories and defeats alike publicised to the world. Players are also provided with truly bewildering levels of data about every player, club and match, neatly divided and explained with tooltips that help clearly communicate what is being shown. For such a complex game, it is made as easy as possible to learn at every step for new players – compared to other in-depth simulations, this is a welcome selling-point.
However, for all the simplicity of the day-to-day management aspects, there are inefficiencies of design that sometimes come through, made more obvious by the general polish of the UI. The pre-match screens seem to contain a lot of redundant information to click through, much of which is simply restating data from the previous screen in a new way. Formation editing is not made entirely clear on the screen where it is possible, and I found saved custom formations sometimes seemed to vanish. Similarly during the matches, I found it difficult to find a happy medium in playback speed; either it seemed too slow for the number of matches to be watched in a play session, or too fast to easily make suggested substitutions or tactic changes. What is more, the default match playback option, in which key plays are shown in full and the remainder of the match skipped, makes changing tactics mid-game seem unresponsive and hit and miss. This may be my ignorance at football speaking but often I could not see significant changes in play-style or performance after making the recommended tactical adjustments, making it hard to tell if the changes had been applied. These are small complaints, though – minor annoyances of design highlighted by the generally high quality that are quickly adjusted to while playing.
Not having played prior Football Manager games I cannot comment on how FM2014 improves on the series – yet as a completely inexperienced player discovering it for the first time, with only a limited understanding of football itself, I found it compelling to play. In technical terms it seems well-optimised for computers of lower power – during the setup process for a career a performance benchmark was provided alongside a wide range of options to reduce the game’s database size and increase speed. Loading times are noticeable pauses in the progression of the game between screens, but rarely longer than a few seconds even on a slower machine. Outside of the core game, a number of other options are available – a Classic mode, offering streamlined gameplay similar to past entries, and a series of challenges putting the player in a predetermined situation rather than starting from scratch. Notably the Classic mode also permits cross-platform save compatibility with the Playstation Vita (not tested here). Overall, then, FM2014 is a quality product; an enjoyable entry point into the series for new players and customisable enough for series veterans to add or remove the features they want to make the best experience for them.