Football Manager 2014 Review

Forget all the local derbies, ‘clasicos’ and rivalries for a second. In its last few installments, Words vs Numbers has been Football Manager’s most fascinating match. It’s a dichotomy born of the game’s near-impossible need to provide an objective, statistical framework to recreate a world of chance, psychology and human error. The degree to which the series lays these numerical components bare has been gradually diminishing, and Football Manager 2014 brings a further change in this direction.

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Sliders are dead. Not the late 90s sci fi show, or the concept of a small American burger, but the little incremental bars that players could tweak to alter different areas of their on-pitch tactics. In truth, they’ve been on life support for a while. Football Manager 2012 (the last one I played) hid them behind a toggle and almost gave an audible sigh if you decided you still wanted to use them. Now, that option is gone.

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My master plan is to blend into the pitch with our green shirts and launch covert strikes.

A lot of people will probably be unhappy about this, but I’m fairly delighted. For a long time I’ve been an advocate of Football Manager hiding as many numbers as possible and giving players the tools to make tactical choices and decisions in the language of football. Or, failing that, at least in the player’s native tongue.

The concept of ‘sliders’ is probably still there of course, lurking somewhere under the surface where videogame calculations belong. If you’re selecting an option to make your defensive line play much deeper (say, to deny space to some pacy forwards,) then that’s effectively the same as dragging a slider. Now though, it feels a little more intuitive.

Paranoia has always been a big problem when watching the 3D match engine attempt to replicate your carefully selected tactics. Were the sliders you just altered really communicating what you wanted? Did any of your changes have an appreciable effect on the outcome of the game? Those kinds of questions still arise, but when you select “look for the overlap” on a fullback you can now be pretty sure that you’ve done your best to communicate that idea to the team. There wasn’t some other mysterious box you needed to tick for the match calculations to take overlapping into account.

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Handily, it also shows you which instructions would conflict. You can’t hoof it long and retain possession at the same time.

I found that most of what was being portrayed in the Football Manager 2014 match engine coincided with the instructions I’d given. But not everything.

Goalkeepers are still (at the time of writing) borderline incapable of just passing the ball short to your defenders, even with specific instructions to team and player to do so. The fullback role also appears highly fallible in this version, despite being directed to mark close and tight and not stray from position. In part this seems to be because all defenders lack a physical presence and are unable to do much to jostle strikers off the ball. Similarly, watching a defender stand stock-still for a couple of seconds as a forward dashes onto a pass that could easily have been cleared has been a source of Football Manager aggravation since the introduction of the 3D match engine, and 2014 shows no signs of ending it. Near post corners are still a goal buffet for player and AI alike.

Conversely, instructions like “play shorter passes” or “retain possession” seem to work fine, and when I had Clint Dempsey as my advanced playmaker in a swashbuckling Seattle Sounders side my players were (as instructed) funnelling practically every play through him. Sadly there didn’t seem to be an instruction labelled “Clint, seriously, stop trying to shoot from 60 yards out” bound to that particular role. Indeed, shots per game seem to trend rather on the high side overall.

So while it doesn’t all quite work correctly, Football Manager 2014 has at least made strides to be transparent in the way your tactics are constructed, and the ways in which they’re communicated to the match engine. These are welcome changes. Unless you were madly in love with sliders.

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Additional player roles like “Enganche” (pretty sure that’s what you say before having a sword fight with someone) and “Shadow Striker” (is he an assassin?) have been added to this edition, and they work quite well in tandem with the new phrase-driven tactics. However, it can sometimes be tricky to pick out specific differences in play between some of the more esoteric roles. Tooltip pop-ups help give you an idea, and in fact the user interface feels more friendly all round, but the game remains at a stage where the underlying concepts are best explained by forum threads like this one.

Seemingly minor alterations can make a tremendous difference to results. Playing a different save as the mighty (well …) Oldham Athletic, I was on the end of regular home batterings by Port Vale. In the interests of science and definitely not of cheating I would reload the save and tinker with the tactics to see what made a difference. By swapping one player’s role from advanced playmaker to deep lying playmaker, paying more attention to the individual instructions of a couple of others, and switching from “standard” to “defensive” style, the 3-0 and 5-1 drubbings were replaced by a slender 1-0 win.

That was no thanks to the assistant manager, who remains as flighty and reactionary with his advice as ever. “Mark that guy, he’s going to score!” he cries, only to follow up with “Oh god why did you mark him now that defender is being pulled out of position!” “Play a direct game … no, short passing … no, direct!” he gibbers. Hopeless.

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Looks like the dream of winning the Johnson’s Paint Trophy is dead for another year.

Off the pitch, matters are (depending on your point of view) as tremendous as ever or getting a little stagnant. This may seem like an unusual comparison, but Football Manager could do with taking a look at something like Crusader Kings II for tips on how to inject convincing levels of roleplaying into an essentially stat-based game. I’m not suggesting an option to send The Pope to excommunicate Jose Mourinho (okay, yes I am,) but the series is crying out for new random events, pseudo-political maneuvering and a human spark that the identikit press conference responses to journalists simply aren’t delivering.

The stories on the pitch write themselves. There are last minute, league-clinching goals, plucky cup wins and unexpected heartbreak in defeat. Off the field, it’s not quite so compelling. The game has plenty of multi-choice questions and answers, but they feel too cold and too detached from the circus of football. I dearly wish Football Manager’s RPG side had a tenth of the verve found in a classic Danny Baker and Danny Kelly phone-in show.

That’s perhaps asking a lot of a game that still leans heavily towards simulation, and it’s only fair to say that some roleplaying moments do still emerge in tussles with the board over new facilities or minor mind-game wars with other AI managers in the press. It’s just that the absurdist world of football offers the scope for so much more.

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“I hope your reign is long and successful” is already pretty close to Crusader Kings II dialogue.

Speaking of the absurd, transfers are suffering from a strange condition where rejected offers for players can sometimes followed up by an even more derisory one. This is a problem, because rejecting transfer offers from superior clubs can unsettle players. It’s also irritating to have one of your own decent transfer offers rejected, only to see the same player move to a rival club for a much lower price. Sports Interactive are aware of the problem, but be aware that for the time being there is much strangeness afoot in the transfer market.

I also experienced a couple of game-ending crashes during my time with the review code, but these seem to have eased since it updated itself to the release version.

Thanks to the integration with Steam Workshop, applying modifications like pre-designed tactics or shortlists of useful free agents is a simple process. It’s also great to see that the game editor now offers the ability to change league rules. In theory, that should mean modders could make the Premier League as Byzantine as Major League Soccer if they wished.

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Seriously, tax code is less confusing than the MLS contract rules.

Another rather splendid feature (which may not have been added this time around, but is new to me) is the option to play a career with randomly named players. This not only offers the chance to guide a team without the inherent advantage of familiarity, but also liberates Sports Interactive from the tricky area of how real life athletes are portrayed in their virtual game. In short, the ‘fake’ players will misbehave a lot more; but I won’t be satisfied with this side of the game until one of my team tries to defraud B&Q with inferior toilet seats.

Football Manager Classic returns as a separate mode too, giving you the chance to play the game with the very same tactical and match engine but shorn of the full range of responsibilities present in the ‘full’ title. I’ve been playing with a pair of saves on the go, one in each mode, and Classic is effectively decoupled from the roleplaying aspects mentioned above. You’re pretty much just responsible for tactics, buying/selling players and a reduced version of training (though even this can be left to an assistant, as in the full mode.) The streamlining works well and makes for a quicker, somewhat more casual game; though you may find yourself periodically missing a particular feature like a team meeting to get your squad out of a morale hole. It also has some despicable micro-transactions for things like “abolish work permits” and “magic sponge” (to cure an injury) which are always disappointing to see creeping in, but (for the time being) are easily ignored.

Someday, I hope the game takes the plunge and offers an (optional) word-based summary of player abilities to complement the statistical overview. I’d love to be able to search for players along the lines of “tall guy, good at heading for this division, quite fast, strong” rather than “15 jumping reach, 12 strength” and so on. ‘Classic’ could be a great way to test the waters with such a system, and the presentation of this year’s tactical model gives me renewed hope that it could be a future possibility.

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The game makes a sterling effort to teach you which stats are important for which positions.

Football Manager 2014 feels like something of an interim entry. The major change this year is the retirement of a tactical system which was already being phased out over the past couple of versions. This is pleasing to see, as it makes the creation of tactics feel more like giving actual directions and less like attempting to game the algorithms powering the system, but also feels like just the first step of a longer term plan for the game. Veterans of the series will not be surprised by the release week issues with the title, nor that the match engine is still failing to convince in several areas. The managerial roleplaying, while expanded, lacks a full awareness of the stories and quirks that make the sport so beloved.

As a series, Football Manager is making (very) slow progress towards an apparent goal of draping tactics in the actual language of football. It’s also a friendlier game than ever been, offering tooltips, quick player-comparison and role suitability guides galore. However, that increased accessibility has to be taken in the context of a series that is entrenched in annual iterations and still assumes a certain level of prior knowledge. Words may be creeping in at the sidelines, but those old familiar numbers still dominate the pitch.

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