Just in time for a little last-minute holiday shopping, a review of my current video-game obsession: Football Manager 2014. The PC/Mac game was released on Oct. 31. You can purchase it at Amazon and Steam. This is a review of the Windows/OSX version there's also a handheld version for PlayStation Vita, iOS and Android. Because of the MLS Cup playoffs, this is about a month later than I wanted to publish this. (Also, I'm way too ashamed to admit how many hours I've logged with this version.)
The Kansas City Star
Football Manager is a difficult video game to explain to the un-initiated. For starters, calling it a game isn't very accurate. A more accurate description would be to call it a time vortex.
The signs of a typical FM binge:
You start drinking coffee later and later into the night. You notice the Doritos-dust thumbprint smudged semi-permanently into the spacebar. Your wife asks one morning, "Why did you keep repeating 'Zakaria Bakkali' in your sleep?" You notice you've unconsciously aligned your produce on the grocery store's conveyor belt in the loose geometric shape of a 4-4-2 diamond formation with the avocados in the attacking midfielder spot at the top of the diamond.
In other words, it kind of takes over your brain (and any and all free time in your schedule). Making it the absolute perfect gift for any obsessive soccer fan/wanna-be tactician who doesn't need to do such meaningless tasks as sleep or spend time with his or her family.
Sports Interactive and Sega brought the current franchise to the world in 2005. Its predecessor, Championship Manager, dates back to when we barely had computers or soccer in this country 1992. I've been playing since 2006 or 2007 and, after many hours of playing this year's version, this is the most engrossing game yet.
That's because, at it's core, FM14 is really a deep, expansive and humanity-based problem-solving game masquerading as a soccer game.
The concept of the game is quite easy: You take over as the boss of just about any club you want. During my time with this version of the game, I've played as Dortmund (my hipster club), Sporting KC (because: homer), PSV (I'm a soccer nerd sometimes) and Manchester United (I wanted a reclamation challenge). Each league is quite unique and presents its own challenges.
Once in charge, it gets quite a bit more complicated. It's up to you to select the game-day roster, design the tactics, hire your coaching staff, dictate training, scout new players, negotiate contracts, deal with unhappy players, criticize referees, beg the board for more money, disappoint your talented youngster who demands to wear the No. 10 jersey over Wayne Rooney and reprimand Wayne Rooney for a reckless challenge in a meaningless Capital One Cup game against Crystal Palace.*
*There are, literally, dozens of other tasks. I won't list them all for you. I really meant "involved."
There are two main styles of gameplay: Regular (which is what I reviewed) and Classic (a fast-play mode that strips down some of the deeper functions).
With over 50 countries and more than 100 leagues represented including the top leagues in Europe and South America, and Major League Soccer and a massive database* of players, it's the epitome of an open-world gaming experience. If you've always dreamed of being manager of a team in the Danish second division, you can now make that very peculiar dream come true, virtually.
*The vast database is actually used unofficially by many clubs. A few years ago, Everton even established a partnership with the game in part to utilize it.
But the game isn't just played between the matches: After you've set your lineup, tailored your tactic, prepared your player instructions, given the team talk and set opposition instructions, you get to hang on for the ride as the match is simulated before your eyes with a 3-D match engine that renders a pretty decent and easy-to-follow match.
Unlike it's gaming cousin, FIFA 14, this is a simulation-based game. Meaning, you don't have a controller in your hand guiding Cristiano Ronaldo through his 17th consecutive step-over. If that's a requirement to your video-game enjoyment, this isn't really the game for you.
Instead, you build the framework that gives Ronaldo the room to execute 17-straight step-overs.
While it compares most easily to EA Sports' FIFA franchise, this game borrows from and builds upon many other gaming genres: The world/empire building simulation of Sim City. The stat-based nerdiness of Strat-o-Matic. The character-based humanity of an open-world role-playing game like Skyrim.*
*The only thing close to slaying a dragon in FM14, however, is getting one over on Jose Mourinho.
If you're big on visuals, it's hard to compare this game its console counterparts. Those games are graphical monsters designed to be as photo-realistic and smooth as possible. While The FM 14 on-field experience is vastly improved from flat geometric shapes moving around a green field that used to mark the franchise, it's still a bit flat around the edges*.
*The big trade off is that, while the graphics are a bit lacking, the match-engine itself is fantastic. The players make realistic football moves and the opponent AI adjusts to how you're playing the game. I'll take both of those features over getting the right amount of feathering on Neymar's faux-hawk any day of the week.
The graphics, however, aren't really the star of the game. While FIFA might "look" more realistic, FM14 focuses on something that actually makes it "feel" more realistic: Humanity.
As in any RP-based game, how you choose to play the game and the personality you impart on your "character" determines a lot of the outcome. Past iterations of the game have utilized the humanity a player brings to a game; FM14 demands it.
Nearly every interaction in this game (and there are a lot of them) provides some sort of clue to the personality your manager is developing. You interact with everyone: Your players, your staff, the club boardroom, the fans, players you want to sign, the agents of the players you want to sign, rival coaches, the media and your character's spouse. (I made the last one up, but, man, that's kind of a good idea for FM15.)
Are you calm or assertive when interacting? Do you answer questions or deal with players in a straight-forward manner? Are you thoughtful in your responses? Do you apply logical choices to your game plan? Are you consistent with your praise/criticism? Do you tinker with player styles and relationships? Are you cautious or reckless? Do you pick fights with the media? Do you consider what the fans might think of your latest signing? Do you use the blow-dryer treatment during half-time talks? Did you pick the right mentor for a young starlet?
How you deal answer these questions dynamically alters the game as you build your reputation. If you're an assertive and fiery players-coach (like, say, Jurgen Klopp) you will start to attract a certain brand of player. If you're a standoffish tinkerer (like, say, Andre Villas-Boas), you might find your collection of highly-prized talent underperforming (and, like AVB) potentially out of the job.
Also, how you respond to these interactions has a direct and dynamic link to team chemistry. A harmonious squad is an effective squad.*
*A minor nit: There are tricky, finicky players that just never want to help you out no matter what approach you take with them. Cough Wayne Rooney cough. Though, I guess that's really another point in the "realistic" column isn't it?
There are, seriously, about a hundred more features worth discussing. I won't slam you with details thoughts on each, as you can read bullet-points here. But, if you've made it this far, you've either played this game or are interested enough to give it a try.
I recommend it, as it's easily the most challenging/rewarding video game I've played in 2013.
Two pieces of "I've been there" advice for would-be FM'ers: Make sure you have actual real conversations with actual real people occasionally and get up from your computer and stretch every so often your back will thank you.