It’s July and the rotund avatar representing me in Football Manager 2016 is unhappy.
Leeds United’s pre-season friendly against Dutch side Heracles is going badly. Considering the pounding we’ve taken, the 1-1 score line is flattering to say the least. At least it should raise the value of our goalkeeper, Marco Silvestri, considerably.
Changes are necessary then and, after a dash through the stats and tactics screen, a decision is made. Stuart Dallas, who seemingly can’t resist making ambitious punts from 30-yards out, is hauled off in favour of pacey forward Lee Erwin; Lewis Cook comes on to add a sense of calm to the midfield; we also push the defensive line up, depriving Heracles time on the ball.
The result is a 2-1 win which, though eminently satisfying due to Erwin sliding home the winner from a cute through ball by Cook, doesn’t matter one bit in what proves to be another mundane season at Elland Road. Quelle surprise.
However, this meaningless Anglo-Dutch encounter proves important in terms of understanding Football Manager 2016 as a game. The ease with which it was possible to view, interpret and adapt to conditions on the pitch in that match is a perfect example of why this is such a strong entry in the annual series.
True, Football Manager 2016 will feel familiar to veterans of the series. You create a manager, pick a club to take charge of and then manage team affairs in whatever way you see fit. Do you assert your own vision of the beautiful game on to your side, or do you seek to get the best out of what you’ve got – even if that means continually hoofing it up to the big guy at the front and hoping for the best?
Whatever philosophy you choose, you’ll create tactics by selecting players, assembling them into a formation and providing individualised roles and instructions – just as you did in Football Manager 2015. In fact, you’ll also manage the rest of your time in near enough the same way as you always have done, but at least transfer menus have become clearer, helping you to easily spot and amend clauses in player contracts.
The same interpersonal side of the game – where you manage conversations like some kind of footballing version of Mass Effect – is also recognisable. Though there are more interactions available to you when you’re speaking to the press, geeing up your players or talking tactics with your coaches, the new options exhaust themselves fast. Very quickly, the limited set of familiar well-worn comments and responses become an unintended satire on footballing discourse.
As a result, it can feel as though Football Manager hasn’t changed at all. While the addition of professional football analysis tool, Prozone, to the game strengthens the in-match analytics options, the vast majority of improvements to the core game seem cosmetic. Changes to the match engine, the option to create an in-game avatar and a rejig of menu screens sound nice, but they don’t feel like a selling point by themselves.
Bring these changes together, though, and the cosmetic improvements create an easier, much more fun, game to play than many of the title’s recent predecessors.
Football Manager 2015, for example was brutally difficult to get to grips with. Detailed as it was, it felt as if Sports Interactive had released an analytical beast that only the most skilled trainers would ever have any hope of taking on. By investing time in streamlining menus and resisting major updates to the workable core mechanics, FM 2016 hands everyone a workable set of reins to tackle the monster they have made.
Changes to in-game navigation, especially in the tactics screen, are a great example of this in action. Team and player instruction buttons now come with handy images showing you the effect of playing a higher line, or what “clear to the flanks” actually means. Those minor but critical changes in the match engine, make you feel much more capable of watching what is going on and naturally shifting your approach as if you were on the touchline yourself.
You’ll also feel better informed than you ever have before because statistics are spread liberally, yet subtly, throughout the game. Prozone information, though mostly hidden away in a separate area all to itself, flows all over the place: improving scouting reports, offering you nuggets of information during loading times (such as Jake Bidwell’s cross-completion rate) and building your sense of control.
The result is that you feel less like someone wrangling with a number generator and more like a football manager. The information you need to run your team is at your fingertips, even if you aren’t a data obsessive. That complexity is there, of course, but the streamlining of the playing experience hands the advantage ever so slightly back towards the casual Football Manager player.
That feeling of accessibility is furthered by the addition of a few interesting supplementary game options. The create-a-club mode is perfect for players who want to transplant New Star Soccer’s build-your-own-success narrative into Football Manager, while FM Classic’s revamp as FM Touch reformats the streamlined experience to suit touchscreen proclivities.
As for multiplayer options, the new fantasy draft mode is a delightfully chaotic 2-32 player competition. Kicking off with a tiny amount of time to research thousands of players before the draft starts, the ensuing mayhem during the bidding and within competitive games is ruddy good fun (even when you’ve realised you’ve accidentally only signed a 13-man squad for a two month tournament).
Football Manager 2016 still provides the experience this simulation series always has. You’ll still go through those periods where you can’t buy a win, even if you are managing in Italy. You’ll still have your heart broken by a mid-season transfer request from that youth player who you raised from nothing into a star. And the thrill of a jammy last minute win via a goalkeeping howler will still result in an embarrassing desk-bound air punch.
But what Football Manager has always been about is turning the raw numbers of this vast database into an approximation of the football experience. It is a role-playing game; a fantasy where the player does almost as much imaginative work as the designers. And for the first time in a number of years, it feels like a game in which a more casual fan will be able to live that fantasy.
Few game franchises have ever gripped like this one, and its symbiosis with the real sport remains rather staggering. For those who recall the heady days of Championship Manager, but who became alienated by the increasing complexity of its Football Manager replacement, FM 2016 represents an opportunity to come back. Your loved ones and work mates, however, may regret it.
Sega; PC; £30; Pegi rating: 3+
This article was written by George Osborn, for theguardian.com on Friday 13th November 2015 11.53 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010