When a game as all-consuming as Football Manager enters your life, there's only one problem: knowing when to stop. That one-more-fixture, one-more-transfer feeling creeps into the lives of all but the most disciplined players, and this uncontrollable, bona-fide addiction is responsible for more than the odd divorce and relationship headache along the way.
After ten, 12 years of dabbling with Sports Interactive's various releases, we know this; we know responsible playing is the answer, so we only get to dip in and out these days. As a result this cruel denial of our FM fix nags away, forever reminding us that a manager's work is never done. If only we could use all those dead hours during the week and could play it on the way to work or during lunch breaks, Ragbag Rovers would be kings of Europe by now.
But unless you're lucky enough to have one of those ultra portable, extra-expensive laptops, the chances are that on-the-move play is pretty impractical for all but the most devoted FM-phile. So, imagine our delight (and slightly guilty fear) when we got to feast our eyes on Sports Interactive's forthcoming Football Manager Handheld, due for release on the PSP on April 13th.
Reasons to be cheerful part 2006
Far from worrying about commutes and lunch breaks, SI boss Miles Jacobson jovially suggests another reason to celebrate the brand's transition to the Sony handheld: "It's the best game to play while having a crap," he says, giving us a disturbing mental image we didn't want to dwell on for long. Vivid imaginations are a double-edged sword, evidently.
The mental image of thousands of FM fans dropping their kids off at the pool while wheeling and dealing in the transfer market is a bizarre and extreme thought to pontificate on, but Jacobson's absolutely right, filthy animal that he is. We only trust he washes his hands.
He's right, for the simple reason that FM fans will doubtlessly go to these lengths to make sure their gameplay sessions remain uninterrupted by even the crudest calls of nature, and will probably even whip out the PSP during half time intervals of real games to pick up from where they left off.
But anyway, enough hideous visions, let us tell you what else we found out about "the ultimate handheld game and various other cheesy expressions" during our latest visit to SI HQ.
Up to speed?
The first thing to address is the speed of the game, and how the PSP can possibly cope with the vast quantities of statistical data that bring manly PCs screaming to their knees. Well, evidently FM Handheld was never going to be a direct port, and so the game has been streamlined to make sure the whole experience is as slick as possible. "The only slow thing in the game is the set up," promises Jacobson, and having run through a few league games, it's easy to see that this is definitely the case. "There's no waiting around - matches play out quickly," he asserts, as results similarly trickle through at an impressive pace, leaving players able to swiftly get on with their own affairs.
Obviously the vast layers of depth has been stripped down and refined for the purposes of intuitive, on the move play, leaving what has been compared to a CM3-style experience - a decision many long-term fans that hunger for the old-style simplicity will appreciate. As such, there's room for 36 players in your squad, a return to the halcyon days of the old-style training regime, eight leagues to choose from and no longer a 2D match engine, so we're now back to focusing on the excellent commentary and imagining what our players are up to (no bad thing, given our love for the way things were).
Plenty of FM-era features make it into the mix, though, with full media involvement, including transfer rumours, accurate player histories, five speed-settings during matches, full tactical control, agent approaches and player unrest, injury diagnosis and feedback, staff feedback, data accurate to the January transfer window (barring loans, we're told) not to mention the same excellent transfer/contract negotiation system that we're all used to.
Perhaps the most pertinent issue is how you translate a mouse-based control system to the PSP, and the answer is surprisingly simple. A control legend at the bottom of the screen gives players four context-sensitive shortcut options at any one time, making it straightforward to select specific actions quickly and easily. The shoulder buttons, meanwhile, act as 'back' and 'next', and within minutes the general navigation becomes almost as easy as the full game. It'll take a bit of getting used to, for sure, but SI has opted for a pleasingly intuitive solution that's the next best thing. "The beauty [of FM Handheld] is how well the control system works. It's real pick up and play... you do not need the instruction manual."
Even so, we did have initial concerns that the vast amount of text that you need to cram on the screen would also prove to be a limiting factor, but not so. A small reduction in the number of stats, the removal of superfluous graphics like club badges, and the super-sharp quality of the widescreen PSP display makes it possible to still cram in tons of detailed information with very little in the way of compromise. Fans old and new can't fail to be impressed at how well it has translated to the small screen.
Out of necessity and hardware limitations, SI has been forced to have a rethink on what core features really matter to players, and as such has ended up with a product that has far greater mass appeal than it would have had otherwise - a point Jacobson repeatedly qualifies. "We want more casual players playing our game. Software developers are entertainers and we want to entertain as many people as possible," he admits.
"FM Handheld will definitely attract new players," he states confidently. "Some are too scared; they've heard about the divorce cases, this way they can sneak it into the loo, play it at half-time, whatever. This is a big deal for us. It's the first time we've made a handheld game, [but] we're using every single byte of memory to get the AI spot on."
As for multiplayer, that's off the menu, despite the obvious potential of the PSP's wireless capabilities. "We will look at it in the future," he promises.
Despite that minor disappointment, Football Manager Handheld is looking every bit as essential as anyone could hope, giving Sports Interactive's legion of fans even more excuses to feed their addiction. Check out our full review closer to the game's April 13 release date to find out whether our last line of FM defence will finally be breached.
Football Mananger Handheld with be released on April 13th on PSP, published by SEGA.