“It’s not addictive, I just can’t stop playing,” said the game info screen of my season 2032 Football Manager 2010 save game. The game I was still playing until midnight on November 1 and the game I still planned to play after that. Could the 2013 instalment of the hugely successful management simulation franchise finally pip the crown where 11 and 12 simply couldn’t? In short, the answer is a resounding YES! But first the not-so-short bit…

Ever since the days of the old Championship Manager, Sports Interactive has strived to develop the most realistic football management simulation possible. Every year since, that meant adding layer upon layer of detail to an already complex game. New ways to train and develop your squad, new tactics, backroom staff, contract negotiations, player agents, reserve players getting angry with you because you never play them, pre and post-match press conferences and those damn journalists!

Whilst I can commend their ambition and dedication to this goal, the sad truth is, playing the game had become more like an actual job than an activity of leisure.  With the 2010 edition, I felt like I had finally found the version I was satisfied with. It had the layers of complexity; I could adjust the training regime and set my backroom staff to my liking, but I could also just sit back and play whilst watching TV, without worrying too much that I was using the same 4-5-1 formation in every match. The aesthetic value was also pleasing. For the first time I could use the default skin without burning my eyes and the 3D match engine was totally acceptable and at times, hilariously comical.

When I sampled 2011 and 2012, I discovered that there weren’t really any improvements to the way you play the game; you just had to do more. Instantly after starting a new game, I was bombarded with a thousand messages from evil player agents, letting me know that Jack Nobody from Bristol City was now out of contract, and would I be interested in opening negotiations with a faceless middleman? The layout design of 2011 was also a complete disaster, every screen was filled with clutter, a large majority of it useless or not of immediate interest, and the improvements to the 3D match engine were in a word: minimal.

2012 was slightly improved, less clutter on the screen, a more organised layout and a slightly less clunky match engine. The problem was, all the extra baggage was still there. They seemed to just be adding things rather than improving the way the existing mechanics worked. For the time being, 2010 was still the peak for me.

There seems to be a divide amongst football manager fans. One camp harkens back to the days of Championship Manager 00/01. They’ve steadily seen their beloved franchise become more and more ‘realistic’ and less and less ‘fun’.

The other camp wants the hardcore realism and the layered detail of the latest editions. I’ve been playing this game since 00/01, but I consider myself a fan of the more complex side to the game a friend of mine once dubbed “Spreadsheet Manager”. I enjoy the complexity to a point, but I also still want to enjoy playing the game. The onus was on the developers to bring us a version which had a little of both.

With the release of 2013, Sports Interactive have finally delivered a comprehensive package that delicately balances the complexities of a realistic simulation with the enjoyment and drama of managing your own football team. There’s really one, genius way in which they’ve done this; Football Manager 2013 actually comes with two different games. There’s the fully-fledged, no-holds-bared simulator, complete with training schedules, complex tactic setups, and player/press interactions. Then there’s also a mode called ‘Football Manager Classic’, which is a streamlined version of the main game that trims off all the excess detail and allows you to move quickly from game to game. It even has its own skin that evokes the tone and design of the Championship Manager series. Basically if you’re a player who just wants to ‘play’ the game, then you can. If you’re a fan of the hardcore management side, you can do that as well. Rather than compromise between the two, SI have given us the choice of both, and kudos to them for putting it all in the one bundle for the same price.

So what’s new?

Full Mode:

The training system has been completely overhauled, with a much stronger focus on the week-to-week schedule of your squad, as well as individual player assignments. Your chief scout will generally recommend a focus for your next match, for example, if your opponents are significant favourites, he will suggest focusing the match prep on defensive positioning. The same goes vice versa if you are the favourites; you can tailor the whole week prior as well as match prep to attacking training. You can also employ fitness, set pieces, teamwork and tactical schedules.

Team talks and press conferences are slightly different as well. You can now add tone to your generic responses! Is your team down 1 nil at half time? Literally choose the ‘passionate’ option on your team talk! That didn’t work? Let them know with the ‘aggressive’ style!

For the first time ever you can employ a director of football to your backroom staff. Provided you have the reputation at your club, and the cash. He will handle the boring things for you like end of season contract negotiations. Gotta keep that wage budget down.

The match-day experience is altogether more enjoyable. In terms of graphics, the biggest improvements come off the pitch, by that I mean the stadiums. The fans are much more animated, and they don’t all wear the same colour shirt… most of the time. There are a few added celebrations and player animations seem to be coming along nicely. They don’t sort of just float along with the ball, but actually move it about and direct passes.

 Full Mode layout design doesn’t burn the eyes.

The layout design is much improved from 12, and a huge leap from 11. Menus have been streamlined to have less clutter along the top, with only the essential categories and drop downs from those. As always you can completely customise what info boxes you get on your home screen, as well as your news feed subscriptions. Don’t know why the game keeps alerting you to the progress of Daniel Sturridge’s proposed loan move to Sunderland? Well it’s probably because you scouted him once at the beginning of the season and now you are subscribed to his news. It will tell you that on the right hand side of the screen, and you can unsubscribe there and then.

Classic Mode:

Classic Mode streamlines the entire simulation experience and strips it back to the very basics of the old Championship Manager series. It’s the game that started it all really, and now you can play it again. You don’t have to worry about training schedules or press conferences; even team talks are thrown out the window. Classic mode is all about the essential dynamics of football management, building a squad of players and getting into the match itself. Or you can skip that too and generate an instant result! Why play the game when you can watch a series of screens flash by! Ok I’m a purist…

Classic Mode’s unique skin evokes the tone of the original Championship Manager series.

 Classic mode also has its own layout redesign and unique skin. It’s much more colourful and contrasted and brings up memories of how the game used to look.

Classic Mode is perfect for new players to the series who will feel overwhelmed by the complexity of Full Mode. It’s also a breath of fresh air for veteran players who just want to get on and play the game. With Classic Mode, a five game losing streak won’t leave you pulling out your hair because you feel like you’ve been stuck in this rut for days with no food or sleep.

Challenges:

Brought over from the hand-held version, Football Manager 2013 now comes with mini challenge games set in the Classic Mode style. There are four different challenges, each with a different level of difficulty and estimated length.

  • Challenge #1: Your team is in the midst of a relegation dogfight; you’ve got half a season to save their skins, and your job!
  • Challenge #2: Your team is rife with injuries to most of your star players, can you get through the season with just the bare bones of your squad?
  • Challenge # 3: Your team is on an impressive undefeated run, can you finish the season and become invincible!
  • Challenge # 4: This season has seen a huge array of youth potential at your club, can you nurture them for greatness?

Although nothing has been officially announced, I think we can expect that more challenges will be released as DLC in the future.

Online:

Once again you can take your skills to other managers around the world and truly show them who is the ultimate football manager, including importing your single player team to customised online tournaments/leagues.

Impressive though the new features might be, and as comprehensive a package as FM13 truly is, it is of course not without its flaws. As ever, due to licensing restrictions, much of the game feels pretty faceless, especially if you are playing in the English Premier League where they can’t use any of the official logos or player/staff photos. Competitions also don’t have their real names and the German national team doesn’t even recruit real players! This is not so much the fault of the game developers because they’ve done their best to include as much official content as the licensing will allow, but a general frustration that if you want the truly immersive experience, you have to download third party ‘mega packs’, which take up substantial hard-drive space/general effort.

As far as the game itself goes, I’ve only encountered one truly frustrating glitch. Sometimes during a match, your player will sort of freeze and let a pass run straight through him. This inevitably leads to an attacking opportunity or ultimately a goal for your opponent. This happened to me about five or six times during the course of one season (46 games in English League 2) and each time it resulted in my team losing or drawing the match. In the cutthroat world of football management, losing games to these ‘lottery’ goals can often be the difference between avoiding the drop and relegation; or clinching that vital play-off spot. 

Match day do-or-die; the mighty Robins take on the League 2 play-off final at Wembley.

Considering the amount of my life I’ve dedicated to this franchise, especially the 2010 edition in which my career to date spans 22 years, having broken every record in the Premier League except number of goals scored by a player in a single match, (5, damn you Andy Cole in 1994!), you’d think there wasn’t much more that Sports Interactive could conjure up to really keep my interest going. I was amazed to find how wrong I was.

When 11 and 12 didn’t really do it for me, I had assumed I would go on playing 10 until the world ended, or my game simply broke from the sheer magnitude of how much I had played it. With FM13, the veil has finally lifted from my eyes; the curse has been broken.

People probably say this every year with every release, but 2013 truly is the best football management game to date. It caters to both the hardcore purists and the fans that just want to get down and play matches without the extra layers. The challenge modes offer a bit of spice and variety if your find yourself tiring of your game but don’t want to start over just yet. Online play will bring in those trophy hunters who want to boast their victories to the Steam community. By now I probably sound like a broken record, but this really is the all-encompassing football management experience.

So where to go from here? It’s time to take out your tracksuit, dust off your clipboard, and take on the greatest job in the world…