The Football Manager carnival is back in town, bringing with it hundreds of new rides and thousands of new employees. Sports Interactive has even gone to the trouble of making it look all different when you first enter. Those who've been here before will be in their element in no time, while first-timers will be eased into all the new attractions with handy guides and a bit of selective 'streamlining' to get them right to the heart of the fair.
Like with last year's Football Manager, large numbers of changes are being championed in the 2013 update, ranging from minutiae tweaks only the most hardened obsessive would notice to the addition of whole new modes of play for the first time ever in the series. Yes, I'm ignoring the handheld versions when I say that.
For the veteran, things are actually visibly different - and not just in the usual interface-shuffling way. For a start, that button which said 'New Game' or words to that effect? Gone, consigned to the dustbin of history. Starting a new game is so last year.
Now you get to start a Career (full-fat FM), play Classic (streamlined FM with lots of the more advanced features stripped out or simplified) or go online for some Versus, multiplayer-exclusive modes where you and multiple humans go tracksuit-to-tracksuit in custom cups and leagues. At the time of writing, though, you can't pick international teams for some reason.
New players would be advised to head straight for the Classic mode, which eases you into the FM experience without completely blitzing you with information. For example, press conferences have been removed, replaced with the occasional question posed in your inbox. Team talks are gone, as are pre-match opposition instructions - though these are technically available during matches using the Target Opposition option.
One of the only things remaining untouched in Classic mode is your tactics screen, allowing just as much tweaking, prodding and poking as you'd get in the Career mode. Alongside new players, Classic mode is also perfect for returning fans disillusioned with the increased complexity of recent efforts, or even those who've grown up a bit and find it difficult to spend so long grinding through a full-blown Career game.
These Classic rules are also a huge boon for multiplayer, speeding up the process of getting from game to game. But losing games can prove even more frustrating than usual. Here's the rub: morale plays a big part in your success or failure. Win a few games and you can immediately see the difference in the way your players spray it about the park. Lose a few and suddenly your champs look like chumps.
In a Career game, you'd be able to arrest this slump with motivational team talks, chats with individual players, team meetings and so on. In Classic, however, you can't. It can feel like a Catch 22 situation: the only way to get the team back on track is to win games, but you can't get the morale to where it needs to be without winning games. In one Feyenoord game I played, a bad start to a season ended up in ten matches with only two draws gained, four European defeats in a row and a 6-1 clubbing at Steve McLaren's FC Twente. Painful.
Only a win against part timers in the cup made any difference, and before you say the tactics must have been rubbish, the same ones had been used in a reasonably successful Bayern Munich career game. There are all sorts of reasons why they might not have worked with Feyenoord, but to fail so spectacularly is strange, to say the least. And the only thing I could do was to start again afresh with new tactics, stripped of motivational abilities.
Anyway, for the veterans the Career mode is as overwhelming detailed and saturated with all the features you could have possibly hoped for. I struggle to think of one area that hasn't been given a generous touching up (metaphorically speaking). It would be insanity to go through all of the new features here, so I'll just focus on a few of the ones that stuck out as being useful.
First up was adding players to different kinds of shortlists. Youth players could be added to the 'development' list, where a director of football (if allowed in the new 'staff responsibilities' page) or some such person would attempt to loan them out or help their, well, development without you having to personally attend to every single one of your promising youths. Although you could, if you wanted.
Other lists include 'transfer targets', which is obvious and a 'not wanted' one, where you can instruct your betters to sell, loan or just plain release players from the club.
Secondly, training has been revamped (again) and everything's now easier to get your head around. Once you've got your head round the new layout. Ahem. Your news feed is now more customisable, with individual topics filterable. So, for example, if you only want to know results from the Peruvian First Division but not transfer rumours, make sure only that option is ticked.
You get the picture, anyway. Loads of new features, the vast majority good and useful once you get used to the new layout. There are, naturally, some issues. Reviewing a game like Football Manager and assessing its match engine before full release is problematic, especially in the days of day one patches and constant updates. But here goes anyway.
I get the impression too many goals are conceded by defenders doing inexplicable things. There's more physicality this year, with more deflections and such, but also there seems to be more of the... well, defenders running away from the ball and letting strikers tap it in from a couple of yards. There seems to be a new fashion, for AI teams especially, to score from one winger crossing it to the back post for another winger to put it in easily. Even when full backs are specifically instructed to man mark said wingers to cut down on this, defenders will sometimes just run away from the ball.
It's probably just an animation issue; the engine's visual representation of the action not matching up accurately with the machinations behind the scenes, like how in XCOM your soldiers will sometimes shoot through the walls. It can be adapted to and planned for, even exploited, but it doesn't prevent rage from building up when Ashley Cole decides he's allergic to the ball and scarpers, just as van Persie's moving in to attack a cross.
That's just one example of the match engine perhaps being a bit less 'solid' this year, but in lots of other areas it's now better and more believable.
In the end, all the words above will be meaningless to a lot of people, which is why more time was spent on a few small points than on a broader appraisal of the work. It's Football Manager, and chances are if you liked other ones you'll have snapped this up already or are planning to. It's still great and it'll still pass the 1,000 hours played mark on my Steam account. It does have some potential issues, and even with the wonderful news about the multiplayer code being made much less laggy than before, there are probably grounds for checking out the demo if you're undecided about whether to continue with that game in FM 2012 where you got Barnet into the Champions League.
Version Tested: PC