"AND LO, it was written: verily from here on forth, every version of Football Manager shall be more time-consuming and complicated than the last, until managers can one day pick the colour of their players' underpants, and the people shall rejoice as it takes longer to play a season in the game than it would in real life. This was the word of the Brothers Collyer. And it was Good."
There's something almost sacrilegious about Football Manager 2013. Realism has for so long been the cornerstone of the series' yearly releases that the inclusion of a new, streamlined 'classic' mode somehow feels like a betrayal. But those fearing Sports Interactive's attentions have been divided in a similar way needn't have worried - the full-fat Football Manager has clearly had just as much time spent on it as any previous yearly update, if not more. Load up a new game and it doesn't take long to notice how much has changed since last year.
Most obvious is the radical overhaul of the interface - the navbar now features pop-up menus and looks altogether tidier, and though it takes a while to get used to, once you're over the hump it does save on a fair amount of between-game clicking. The redesign doesn't seem to work quite as well in windowed mode, but the overall impression is that's everything's a bit sleeker and more efficient - particularly taking into account the new array of information (fixtures, news items and so on) that make up the new loading screen.
The match day experience has also been significantly improved, making you feel more of a part of the action than in previous versions. Your assistant manager gives you constant guidance via a Twitter-like match feed, so you can find out if you've given the opposition's winger too much space without needing a PhD in the mechanics of the match engine.
The menus are also displayed much less obtrusively, while team information like your players' condition and match rating appear by default in between highlights. I must admit I'd rarely bothered to change tactics during the match in years gone by, mostly out of laziness, but now in-game commands feel much more integrated and easier to judge with your assistant's counsel on offer. For the first time it really feels like managing on the touchline is just as important as the weeks of preparation that precede it.
It's hard to complain about the added complexity of the game now Classic is available, but I do wonder how many players really want the layer upon layer of added variables we get given each year. For example, in the same fashion as team talks, press conference answers can now be delivered in a variety of tones. Managing your back room staff and scouting is more complicated. The training system has also been completely overhauled and, while I can appreciate that it's one of the aspects of the game that's changed least over the past five years, again I wonder how many played last year's version and wished it took them more time to train their team effectively.
"The extra depth added each year just means more potential for bad decisions - and ultimately, more stress and frustration for the average player. Thankfully though, this year the average player has an alternative."
As ever, you can appoint your assistant to look after all these fiddlier aspects of the game, but every time you relinquish one of these responsibilities it's hard not to worry that you'll be punished in some way. For fans of lower-league management in particular, if you've got a rubbish assistant manager, you can't really trust him to handle the press, training, tactics and so on.
It's things like this that really make Classic mode feel like such a breath of fresh air. The game's database is so complex that you can never really control the thousands of variables that affect every match - not forgetting luck - and so it's hard to learn from mistakes and understand what to do when things are going wrong. The extra depth added each year just means more potential for bad decisions - and ultimately, more stress and frustration for the average player.
Thankfully though, this year the average player has an alternative.
If Championship Manager 00/01 (often heralded by fans as the best ever 'Champman') has a true spiritual successor, then Football Manager Classic is it. It combines the best features of the franchise's development over the last 10 years but cuts out all the fat - and manages to recapture a sense of fun that's been missing so long.Put simply, it's a game, rather than a hobby, and for the first time in almost 10 years you can absent-mindedly click your way through most of a season on a rainy afternoon.
"For many, Classic is how Football Manager should always have been."
For many, this is how Football Manager should always have been. Start a new Spurs game on a Saturday morning, win the league in your second season by Sunday night. Much has been made of Classic being less time-consuming or addictive, and so fitting in better with adult responsibilities - but this isn't entirely accurate. Classic is just as addictive, and could be just as time-consuming if you're enjoying your game enough to play through season after season. What's changed most is the level of stress involved.
Take my Tonbridge Angels game in FM12, for example. I'd been promoted each season all the way to the Championship, at which point half my team asked for big fat contracts I couldn't afford. I replaced them, we took a terrible dip in form, and I was looking at relegation by Christmas time.
In Football Manager Classic, the bad run I'm describing could be an hour of your life, maybe two. If a new tactic or signing doesn't work out, never mind, four or five clicks and the next fixture's come around. In the old-style game, this bad run took up an entire week. Every time I lost I'd have to consider which of hundreds of possible ways I should try and change things around - it could be my defensive line being 10 per cent too high, it could be the wrong team talk given to the players. Who knows? But each set of losses was another dispiriting evening of play. A week of it, and I'd given up. My month's investment into Tonbridge Angels was over.
As if bundling in an entirely separate game wasn't enough, the new 'Challenge' mode offers you the chance to take the reins of a team during the season and try to manage your way out of a variety of scenarios. Available solely as a feature in Classic, what's again so refreshing about this mode is how little time commitment and stress is involved. I managed to fail to save VVV Venlo from Eredivisie relegation in just under 3 hours - this is how long it usually takes me just to get through pre-season in the full game.
"If Classic takes off (as I think it will), it can't be long before it will justify a release in its own right."
Much attention pre-launch has been given to the unlockable game settings on offer in Classic mode through an in-game store. But while it may horrify purists, being able to 'play' with the game in this way (putting your 'son' in your squad, signing Ronaldo for Wigan etc.) is something that's been missing from Football Manager for a long time. Half these features are available through managerial achievements anyway, and it's hard to begrudge developer Sports Interactive looking for additional revenue given what's on offer in FM13 and the problems they've had with piracy of their mobile games.
In fact, add in the fact that both Classic and full-featured modes offer hugely improved multiplayer options via Steam, and you're looking at a pretty incredible package. Online leaderboards are available for the first time, meaning you can compete with the best football managers around the world, and a new Versus mode allows you to create custom tournaments using teams from your single-player save game. All are much easier to set up and manage than any online mode in previous versions, and should encourage more people to play with friends (which can only be a good thing).
The question now is where the series goes from here. Football Manager offers the most detailed and in-depth management experience ever made, as it does every year. But is that what most of us really want? Each year the full game gets more complex, more will defect to Classic. And if Classic takes off (as I think it will), it can't be long before it will justify a release in its own right. Will SI continue to invest in the full game if its audience is overtaken by its little sister?
That's where we come in. The zealots and the philistines. I thought before receiving a copy of the game a few weeks ago that Classic would appeal to me no more than the mobile version would do - a pleasant distraction, certainly, but nothing that could match the sense of achievement when a team you've invested so much time in succeeds. But the truth is that I've enjoyed Football Manager slightly less every year since the mid-noughties, with diminishing returns for each career. FM Classic isn't as rewarding, but it hasn't had me tearing my hair out either. It's not an easy choice.
I'm looking at them right now on the menu screen. Football Manager. Football Manager Classic. I wonder which one you'll click?
9 / 10