It's amazing how a game can make you care about a group of people who I had no knowledge of and whose existence is mostly numbers and arrows. I started my career in Football Manager 2016 at Spurs (I always do this), but things went south so quickly Daniel Levy hadn't even started drawing up a list of possible replacements when he fired me just five games into the Premier League season. A few weeks later I found myself at Nottingham Forest, adrift at the bottom of the Championship, in a league full of names I didn't recognise, and with a squad of players I didn't know. Fast forward 30-odd hours and said bunch of loanee wannabe greats and workman-like pros mean more to me than I ever imagined possible. Even if they are mostly whiny, lazy, careless, shits.
Sports Interactive's latest iteration of its hugely successful (and rightfully so) football management sim does little, if anything, to surprise. There's probably a massive list of new additions and changes that have been made over the 2015 edition, but in reality what you're getting here is more of the same but with a few small differences.
The expanded press interaction is the most immediate change to last year's game. I feel like I'm spending an awful lot of my play time responding to questions about players, managers, my team and anything else the media wants to drag me into. It certainly feels more authentic, but I do occasionally send my assistant along instead as there's only so much I can be bothered with. How very Newcastle United of me.
Another new feature is the custom manager you can create and then see on the touchline (should you choose to view matches in full 3D and not classic numbered blobs). A nice idea (who doesn't love creating characters?), but the tools aren't really up to the job, with my abominations struggling to look human let alone anything like me. There's not even a way to add facial hair, which is madness.
Other tweaks are greatly appreciated, though, such as the vastly more realistic injuries and the grounded-in-reality transfer market. In terms of how much I enjoy the game, these far outweigh the new Fantasy Draft mode (players are given the same amount of cash and then pick their own teams before competing) and Prozone analysis. Fantasy Draft feels too slight as a mode for anyone to properly care about, and unless it ever becomes a rebranded Football Manager Online I doubt I ever will. Prozone, in theory, gives you valuable info on how your team is performing, but it's such a vast amount of data that I expect I'd need to take a course to get anything valuable from it.
I'd rather the training menus had been given a massive overhaul, as even hours into my career I still can't really get my head around exactly what I can and can't do with regard to team and individual player schedules. While this subsection of the game has seen a rejig, it's still a mess, even for someone who has played the series on and off for years.
Learning the game is also, still, a rather steep curve that could easily be mistaken for a near vertical line. The included Football Manager Touch (rebranded from Classic) is a simpler way to play, and a much quicker one too, and even lets you carry your save back and forth between the mobile/tablet game, but Touch doesn't help when you're thrown, practically helpless, into the game proper. Sports Interactive has included loads of on-screen tips in an attempt to ease players in, but there's so much depth here that it's like showing someone what all the controls are in the flight deck of an Airbus A380 and then expecting them to take off. Then being told to exit the plane mid-flight because you were heading to Scotland instead of the Cancun coast. Freefalling to your death, your only chance of survival is a passing small pilot-less biplane that you can somehow commandeer and attempt to right before crashing into the Conference league.
But the sheer brilliance of the match engine and the emotions that go alongside it are some of the best in gaming. Lots of games bring about reactions - swearing, shouting, and the like - but in FM this bleeds over into actual life. At times I've been confused between reality and the game, and when Forest's players don't perform I actually get angry. Not at the game, or the way I'm playing, but at the virtual people inside my game world. The core design is so good it's hardly surprising that the experience remains similar year after year.
Despite a lack of many massively important changes or additions, there's no doubt that FM 2016 is as addictive as ever, thanks to the series being honed through years of refinement. Once you get your head around everything the game offers it'll have you in its grasp, and probably won't let go for tens, if not hundreds, of hours. That doesn't mean Football Manager 2016 is perfect, far from it, but it's still a damn good game that lets armchair football fans live out their dreams better than the rest. Even if most of those dreams end up in complete misery, heartache, and bouts of pure anger - directed at a bunch of numbers. Numbers that may well refuse to sign a new contract, seemingly just to ruin your day.
For more Football Manager, check out our brilliant Football Manager 2016 Let's Play series.