In my relatively short life so far I have somehow lived in several cities, travelled the world, survived or destroyed numerous relationships and earned a degree. I say somehow, because Football Manager has been a pretty constant companion during these years, sabotaging life outside its cloistered little world with its addictive and uncompromising gameplay, requiring hours of tuning and a relentless blend of football knowledge and basic statistics. 'You spend more time with that game than with me', said one former incumbent of my heart-shaped box. And do you know what? I did, but at least the game was still satisfying three months into the season.
And so, it is with trepidation that the latest addition to the series, Football Manager 2013, claws its way into the life of its victims. However, the new edition comes with changes (over 900, allegedly) and some new modes showcasing enough self-awareness to have a hipster twiddling his Bismarck moustache. The main difference is the inclusion of a Classic Mode, which gives Football Manager 13 somewhat of a split personality. This mode removes much of the detail from the main game, reducing team talks, removing many of the training modes, player interactions and media commitments, and other bitty details which many people love (and hate) about Football Manager.
For those with limited time, or players who have ever felt dwarfed by the sheer variety of options available in the main game, this Classic Mode a god send, streamlining the Football Manager experience into a fluid and quick moving gem, akin to the series circa 2008. Unlike the main game, it is possible to finish a season of Classic Mode in the space of a day, allowing managers to progress their clubs far quicker than normal. In Classic Mode, the focus is less on training regimes and micro-management, instead emphasising match preparation, tactics and managing your squad. In a way, this is a purer form of gameplay, relying on your ability to judge situations, tinker formations and scout quality players than fine-tuning every individual attribute for hours on end.
That is not to say, however, that Classic Mode is anything like a reduced Football Manager; it is still compelling, deep and bitterly hard, and your star £10,000 striker (I was lower-league powerhouse Crawley) will still break his leg five minutes into his debut. The best way to look at the Football Manager 2013 package and its two main modes is as two different games; fundamentally the same, but different experiences warranting different commitments. It is a good idea to go into Football Manager 13 knowing what you want from the game, whether you want it to take over your life or to serve as a light relief. The reason for this is because switching from one game mode to another is a real shock to the system. After playing the Classic Mode, the main game feels almost overwhelmingly detailed, whilst Classic Mode can feel simple and restricted compared to its all-encompassing brother. It's not a debilitating problem, rather a welcome choice, but it's a consideration worth investing some thought into when you first load up the game.
If micro-management and sleepless nights are definitely still your thing then the more detailed main game is still hideously addictive. The lay-out has had a desperately needed clean-up, with all the features now laid out in easily reachable pockets without the need for scrambling. Although this is probably a result of the clarity necessary for the Classic Mode, it makes the main Football Manager 13 game a more streamlined and understandable experience, despite the depth. Menus are clear and logical, making the game easier to grasp for the beginner and better to manage for the experienced player, whilst the assistance from the other coaches means that you can keep track of a player's progress, and that of your team, with greater detail than previously.
The role of the assistant manager has been greatly improved, aiding you in making genuine decisions and the running of the club, rather than merely to be used as tools to arrange friendlies and ignore their tactical advice. Clubs now feature more individual career aims, in line with the ethos of the club; for example, Blackburn Rovers demand a focus on youth development and exciting talent, whereas Wigan Athletic will allow you to do whatever you wish, as long as it involves staying in the Premier League. However, some of the old problems still remain: the team talks are still ineffective unless giving the team a bollocking, whilst the media sessions are as invigorating as a night in with Coldplay and a glass of water. Besides this, most of the improvements are minor and not wholly noticeable, and are generally concerned with cleaning up the interface and fine-tuning the experience without breaking the model; exactly what you want from a sequel. The result is impressive. This is easily the best playing Football Manager since 08, and a lot of time has clearly been spent by Sports Interactive in considering which direction to take the series.
If the two separate games is not enough, greater depth is afforded Football Manager 13 in the form of a Challenge Mode, which has the player picking up a club in various circumstances, from producing a winning team of young players, avoiding relegation from a mid-season start and kick-starting a club with enough injuries to consider signing up your Gran. Although simple in theory, these challenges are brutally tough and will test your skills to the limit (17 points away from safety in January?!). The focus that these challenges give and the difference a purpose makes to the Football Manager experience makes these an excellent way to spend an evening; they won't take any longer than that, but are a lovely distraction from the pressures of taking Accrington Stanley to their fourth successive Champions League victory. It goes without saying that this game could keep you going for years. There really is little in gaming to match Football Manager's value for money if you're willing and able to put the time in.
Match-day experiences have been fine-tuned to provide a decent blend of interactive management and visual entertainment. The ability to make substitutions on the fly is an excellent addition, as is the possibility to switch tactics immediately depending on the situation (losing a goal, player sent-off, etc.). However, it would be nice for the game to stop when re-organising tactics; although play continuing is more realistic, this is a video game, not a simulation, and realistically bares no resemblance to management life apart from the fast cars and loose women (sorry, I meant resemblance to my life). The in-game 3D engine is still hilariously bad, but in a good way; although basic and pretty clunky, it now gives you a sense of tactical perspective on the match that it previously lacked, making it a viable alternative to the classic 2D angle. Sound is thankfully non-existent as always. Anybody who plays Football Manager with the sound on is a) daft and b) a narcissist.
Football Manager 13 is an impressive progression of the series and lends a whole new lease of life into proceedings. Sports Interactive have refined and updated a series, which was starting to show signs of stagnating, with a well considered set of updates and new features. Classic mode is a revelation for those with little time; the challenges are fun, bite-sized ways to spend an afternoon; and the main game is still as huge, involving and ponderous as you wish it to be. The cosmetic changes and added clarity are a welcome addition, as are the more involved assistant manager and ability focus on match preparation and tactics. There is still plenty of room for improvement, with team talks and press-conferences still continuing to disappointment. Overall though, Football Manager 13 is a welcome addition to the stable, and a lesson in how to invigorate long-standing series - pleasing old hands and welcoming new managers - without tipping the cart.
This review is based on a review copy of Football Manager 2013 for the PC, provided by the publisher.