Version tested: Mac
It's tempting to imagine Sports Interactive's Miles Jacobson experiencing some kind of Damascene moment while visiting Watford's London Colney training ground this summer (for an epiphany to occur at Vicarage Road would perhaps be too neat). An inter-squad kickaround, perhaps, interrupted by a bellow of "get it in the mixer" in Gianfranco Zola's distinctive, Sardinian tenor. Or a blank look from Troy Deeney when asked whether he ever felt like he'd have more stamina towards the end of games if he closed people down 10 per cent less.
The truth, I'm sure, is a little more prosaic. Either way, after 20 years of worship at the altar of increasing complexity, something has triggered what feels like a pretty dramatic turning point for this series - for the first time, this year Football Manager has simplified itself.
Now, a game like Football Manager can be a curious one to review. 95 per cent of it stays the same each year, and many are happy to purchase a new version simply for the updated rosters, the small improvements and the odd shiny new feature. Part of the game's appeal is the continuity that exists between iterations - unlike FIFA or PES, there's no re-learning needed for each release.
FM14, then, represents a small break in that continuity, and one which occurs in possibly the most important area of the game - tactics.
I spoke to Miles earlier in the year and he mentioned a long-overdue tactical overhaul as one of the game's most noticeable new features. The existing interface of slide bars and toggles didn't accurately represent the way modern football was coached, he claimed - a sentiment that, in all fairness, can be used to justify pretty much any new feature in a football game. "This year we've focused mainly on the animations for substitutions." "Why?" "Because the existing animations don't..."
What I didn't expect was something quite so drastic. Gone are the myriad sliders and toggles that have fascinated and infuriated in equal measure over the last 10 years, replaced with a much simpler, binary set of team instructions aping the touchline shouts introduced over the last few years. No longer do you have control, in 10 per cent increments, of every way in which your team functions. Instead you can pick from "Defend Deeper" or "Defend Much Deeper". "Play Wider" or "Play More Narrow". And then cross your fingers.
This dumbing down (as it were) of team tactics is balanced out with new options added to individual player instructions, allowing greater control of the way individual positions work. The idea, I guess, is to humanise the roles of players - to present the way you interact with them more like a conversation ("Hey, JonJo, why don't you play as a false nine today") than as if you were controlling a robot. You can even tell your attacking midfielder to play as an 'Enganche', a term I'm 99 per cent sure was made up by Jonathan Wilson on a dare.
For the first time, this year Football Manager has simplified itself
The problem, I fear, is that many hardcore players will feel that this relinquishing of control delivers a diluted simulation experience - and there's no real answer to that. For all the talk of the new engine better representing real-life football, the relationship between FM14 and reality is still very much on its own terms. To say it's unrealistic to tell your left-back to close players down with a certain percentage of intensity, but then force us to click through the same, shallow press conference mechanics doesn't really add up.
For the rest of us though, the lazy masses, this release from the tyranny of the slide-bars is a breath of fresh air. No more agonising over whether a goal conceded was down to poor manipulation of one of thousands of variables rather than plain bad luck. No more trawling through forums to find out whether one or two clicks down from half-way was the best way to set your defensive line if your defenders' pace was less than 13. Fewer variables does mean less control - but when the relationship between the control we have in the game and the control a manager has in real life is so abstract, narrowing your margin for error just feels like a blessing.
The impact of these changes is also felt on the match engine which, in my review code, seemed to require a little more fine-tuning, perhaps, than in previous years. It's difficult to pass judgement on something which will undoubtedly be patched in time for release, but I think it's fair to say that, with such drastic changes, Sports Interactive is likely to encounter a few teething problems.
Of course, there's more to this year's FM than this one (hugely important) change. This year's batch of tweaks and improvements are too numerous too mention, but are felt most keenly in the game's menus, where once again small design improvements go a long way. The loading bar now pops up with upcoming fixtures and news tickers - silly as it might sound, I've never been more aware of what my team needs to plan for, and having this information so unobtrusively available encourages you to invest more time in match preparation. When you're on a losing run, every extra click only antagonises, so greater integration and fluidity is hugely welcome.
Particularly intriguing is the inclusion of Financial Fair Play for the first time - puncturing, perhaps, some players' plans to just be Man City and spend hundreds of millions every year. SI has decided to believe that UEFA's proposed spending guidelines will actually work, which seems a little optimistic. But if we can't create an idealised football world in Football Manager, then where can we?
Online play still seems a little unwieldy, though perseverance pays off in terms of setting up and getting through matches. The significant changes here come in deeper integration with Steam, meaning that player-created content (including FM Classic challenges) can be shared much more easily then before, encouraging a social, community side to the game which has always been lacking.
While FM14 feels in many ways like a standard release, the subtle changes to philosophy beneath the hood feel like a corner being turned
Meanwhile, FM Classic continues its own growth cycle apart from its big brother, most noticeably allowing for a game to be played across Steam and PlayStation Vita via a cloud save feature - something that I'm sure is going to change a fair few people's lives. It must be difficult to improve upon a slimmed-down version of the full game without once again making it too bloated for the casual player, but it's a line SI seem to have trodden fairly carefully.
A 'Match Plan' wizard allows for certain tactical set-ups to be pre-programmed for different match scenarios - e.g. throwing extra men forward when 1-0 down - so whizzing through a season is even easier than last year. What's also interesting is that Classic has much more, aesthetically, in common with full FM this year - the two seem to have borrowed from each other in terms of their interfaces, even if in other ways they still remain diametrically opposed.
How much longer will they will remain opposed, though, if FM is suddenly happy to simplify and Classic feels the need to borrow more and more of its sibling's features? While FM14 feels in many ways like a standard release, the subtle changes to philosophy beneath the hood feel like a corner being turned - an acceptance, perhaps, that sometimes for a complex simulation to remain captivating, parts of it must be made simpler. I wonder what Troy Deeney would make of that.
8 / 10