You couldn’t categorise me as an avid gamer, or a gamer at all these days – truth be told. In fact, throughout this decade I’ve barely played any. That’s due to a number of other interests asserting their predominance, this blog being one. I’m a keep fit fanatic, or lunatic, according to some, and that takes up at least an hour a day. I have an unhealthy obsession with trying to listen to as much music as possible, and I’m starting to worry that won’t pass any time soon, and yes, working for a living doesn’t help either.
So gaming got squeezed out. But, as with just about anyone from my era, I have fond gaming memories from my youth to tide me over in these barren and impoverished times of adulthood. There’s a romanticised nostalgia when I remember the whiff of exhilarated desperation that pervaded many an arcade, largely created by those who willingly partook in its form of extortion. Nearly every arcade eschewed the populist desire to be perjink and homogenised, instead they, perhaps cynically, retained that unmistakeably Blackpool phenotype of ramshackle eccentricity. This slovenly otherness somehow helped to alleviate (or mask?) the sense of dread at simultaneously losing too much money and being humiliated when you got your arsed kicked in a one-on-one duel on Streetfighter. There were my forgettable dalliances with the Amstrad, which even at the time managed to feel archaic, due to my utter failure to master basic keyboard hotkeys.
By the late eighties and early nineties having the latest machine and the most games carried an immense amount of cred in the milieu, and here I did okay. The Sega Megadrive was my first. I had a Sega MK 1655, that’s a humungous Joystick by the way (pictured below). It was flat with a heavy solid metal base, like a brick – you could malky somebody with it – all of my mates coveted it, and best of all it levelled the playing field, as it were, for me. Its huge buttons and robust girth increased the margin of error for my wayward high frequency finger blitz of desperation that was difficult to execute on the Megadrive’s shitty gamepads. The Sega MK 1655 made me a more formidable advisory in head to head duels. I wish I still had it so I could serenade it by building a glass show cabinet for it as a thank you. Then there were the games, some real belters; Sensible Soccer, Streets of Rage (1 & 2), the Streetfighter & Mortal Combat titles. American Football is an awful sport to watch, even worse than Rugby Union, but the early Madden series games on the Sega Megadrive were superb, and I was particularly adept at cracking the cheat codes on one of them (can’t remember which year exactly) that unlocked bonus teams. Then came The Daddy – Die Hard Trilogy on the Sony Playstation (whose games are now available on an Emulator – oh yes!). What a game that was, and still is.
It’s hard to pinpoint when my love for gaming, at least console gaming, started to wane. I strongly suspect it started when I bought a Nintendo 64. It turned out to be one of the worst purchases I ever made. The games for it were, generally speaking, terrible and it cost me, or rather it cost my Mum & Dad, £150. I felt so guilty about it that when I sold it on E-Bay for £25 about five years ago I gave them the money. This would’ve been scant consolation for them, no question, but consolation nonetheless.
By then I had migrated to PC gaming, and that’s when, well, my taste started to mature. Sure I still dabbled in the FPS stuff: Doom, Gears Of War, Halflife, Skyrim, Crysis, CoD, etc, and of course the excellent GTA series (GTA Vice City is the best game ever, let there be no arguments about it – driving down Washington Beach in a stolen white Lambo, as the sun sets listening to ‘More Than This’ by Roxy Music, while gunning down some pedestrians with an Uzi, is an emotional moment). The best dedicated PC release was Company of Heroes, a WW2 game that combined strategy and action. Somewhere among that lot I caught the Football Manager bug.
Or as it was called back then – Championship Manager. My favourite, or its most memorable vintage, was circa 2001/02. In my Liverpool save Milan Baros scored 77 goals (and had the “vision” – no joke – to notch up 25 assists to go with it) and Michael Owen scored 96 goals. Steven Gerrard scored 35 goals and had as many assists. Clearly this game’s attraction wasn’t realism, in truth it was PES 6 on steroids. But I had a blast, as I won the League, Europa League, or Uefa Cup as it was then, and finished runner up in the FA cup in my first season. I also had a go as Patrick Thistle (my local club), and failed miserably under financial constraints (I always wondered what it was like to be John Lambie, sans the pigeon stuff), getting sacked before Christmas (obviously). Okay, so perhaps it was realistic once you removed yourself from the elite level teams and players.
The game’s simplicity, augmented by my enforced leave from gaming, is why I switched away from recent FM releases. Beyond its ability for you to live vicariously and hedonistically (everyone loves being in control) its enjoyable aspects became a bit samey and the preponderance of that process lingered whenever I considered delving back into any of the yearly releases in the interim. You picked a team, fiddled with the tactics, but not much, more often than not you won, and won well, particularly if you managed a top team, and if you got a spanking or the ref shafted you with an egregious decision in a particular match, you restarted the game and had another go. Sure, each new yearly release brought the real life updates to the game database; transfers, player improvements or otherwise, managerial changes, even changes to the financial fortunes of clubs, but at some point this alone isn’t enough to entice you back.
Which poses a central question about this game, how realistic should it should be?
If you’re playing Football Manager, you have, at the very least, a passing interest in the watching the sport, therefore you have a knowledge of it, and that includes players currently playing. Take the Premier League, even a dribbling idiot could tell you who the best players are, even better, who the worst are, and as Football Manager is based on realistic evaluations, that gives the player an advantage, at the start anyway.
The true challenge or purpose of this game isn’t in its conceits, such as its ability to simulate authentic outcomes within real contexts, or your ability to mimic the attitudes and choices a proper football manager would make in certain scenarios. When enough time elapses in your saved game and the entire player database is made up of generated players, the game’s fiction is fully complemented. Therefore its random events feel more realistic as frivolous comparisons can no longer be made. This is when the challenge begins and the game’s new added features (to someone like me returning to the series after a gap) become necessities for you to succeed, rather than amusing anecdotes you can piss about with or lightly dabble in.
Scouting has had the biggest overhaul since I last played. Sure, again, at the start, you may know who’s worth looking at, as the players are real you have subjective opinion of what their true value is and should be. Even so, the need for scouting, and targeted scouting, is paramount. If a player hasn’t been watched by your scouts his attributes are vague (at best), and their contract details and release fee clauses are obscured. So are their morale and career goals, and crucially their character and character flaws. Who wants to sign a flaky twat for £25m? Or as I’ve found out, much to my chagrin, if you’re managing in a certain country, it’s no use bidding for a player only to find out said player has no intention of playing in that country. Plus, just to make things even more nebulous, can you trust the opinion of your scouts? In real life a manager can form his own opinion by watching a player himself, in Football Manager you cannot. Perhaps in future games they’ll add this feature, but I’m not sure they should, as it may destroy someone’s life. Would anyone have the time or inclination to put the games on full, just to scout players? How bleak would your existence need to be to do this?
It’s just as well that Football Manager can be played casually. You can delegate many of your responsibilities, or ‘decisions’, to your staff as you choose. In real life these are euphemisms for ‘right, can’t be arsed today, you sort out the training, I’m fucking off to the golf course’. While this removes some of the more laborious features – the generic media questions can get a bit repetitive (though, again, that’s realistic), that’s until you get bored and start to get nasty and pompous (if you’re successful enough) – you do miss out on the game’s tactical challenges and funnier features.
Contract negotiations are a blast. The agents are all, to a man, twatcunts, and nearly all of them are wannabe Gordon Gekko types. To those of us who have become jaded by the ‘greed is good’ Premier League, headed by that grasping cunt Richard ‘clubs have no obligation to pay the living wage’ Scudamore, this is no surprise. By and large we ignore the staggering amount of money that leaves the sport through agent fees or commissions because it suits our purview. To always consider it would sully our enjoyment of the product, and as such we find ways and means to ensure we have little exposure to it. But the contract negotiations with agents in Football Manager drive the reality home, smacking you across the face with a wet twenty pound Salmon. So, you’re demanding £6m (pictured above) just to negotiate a contract renewal? Aye, that’ll be fucking right mate. In one particular negotiation the agent kept raising his fee, then I locked his agent fee as non-negotiable (I love this option), only for the little bastard to end negotiations in a huff with a pious jibe about disrespect, and no I don’t care that I enforced a draconian reduction on him. Even better, when a contract negotiation fails and the player invariably complains about not getting a new deal, when you talk to player you’re presented with an option where you can ask him to sack his agent. I’ve only been able to achieve this feat once, and it made my day, and no I’m not ashamed to admit it.
The transfer deadline day simulation is a fantastic addition. And yes, I just couldn’t resist playing the part and going all ‘Arry Redknapp for it. I even left several deals to the last possible minute just to attract the most attention possible. I was bombarded with questions, and yes, I was overly candid. And yes, I was compelled to put a bid in for Peter Odemwingie on deadline day, I even agreed terms with him, only to pull out of the deal at the last minute. I’m a sad twat, I know.
While these features are fun, what makes this game engrossing (for me, anyway) is the myriad of tactical permutations and training options. Tailoring a player’s abilities through individual training, where you can focus on improving a specific attribute and hone his ability to play a certain role/position to suit your team’s needs, is a great feature, especially when it comes to developing your academy players. As one of Thatcher’s children I derive a paternal sense of pride in seeing my charges develop from reverential teenager earning £70 a week to a £150k a week prima-donna at to my guiding hand. Yes, that sounds creepy, and it is. Sadly just as they become corrupted by the system, so do you, as you quickly view them with spite. Resisting the urge to treat them with open disdain, as most of ‘em tend to moan about the intensity of the training, is hard going.
On this point, an area that certainly needs improvement is the face rendering on the players the game generates (regens). On the plus side they are hilarious, if they don’t look like your generic teenage tragedy – acne ridden and working at McDonalds – they look like the result of a predatory nonce doing mock-ups of his dream jailbait boy. They’re even better than the photofits shown on Crimewatch. It makes me wonder, is my excitement at the impending hilarity of my club’s annual intake of youth players the only thing I have in common with a number of Tory peers, you know, the ones who populated Thatcher’s cabinet and who liked to sojourn up to boys homes in North Wales at weekends throughout the late seventies and early eighties?
More importantly and tastefully, the pre and in game tactics are far more sophisticated now. The instructions you place on the opposition are linked to the efficiency of your scouting team, as it should be. You can’t employ conflicting tactics, so, for instance, you can no longer set your team’s tactics to include pick ‘route one passing’ and ‘retain possession’. This forces you to think about the practical dichotomy of the style of football you want to play, and what you should play given your resources, rather than blithely doing the Graham Taylor thing of telling them to ‘get out there and get amongst ‘em’. Well, you can do that, but that kinda defeats the purpose of the game.
The enhancement to in game adjustments are largely down to the graphics of the simulator. Back in the Championship Manager days, it was a 2D screen, with circles representing the players movements, and so you relied too heavily on the commentary. Now the graphics are better than sensible soccer, and it gives you a better grasp of how well your tactical instructions function. If your winger is adept at running down the right wing, it’ll show you, or suggest to you, why it might be an idea to use him there. Likewise if your opponent is heavily populating the middle of the pitch in an attempt to stifle attacks, and you’re aiming to play through the middle, the highlights will show how difficult they’re making it.
This simulator isn’t without fault – the number of looped crosses that are parried by the keeper, followed by the commentary enthusiastically telling you that ‘he certainly didn’t mean that’, is laughable. And the advice from your assistant is, shall we say, inconsistent, even annoying. When you’re four nil up having had 60% possession, and your assistant informs, or even better, advises you, that ‘we’re being overrun in midfield’, it’s difficult not to roll your eyes. Aye, sure thing, I’ll get right on top of that and change it, and before you ask, changing assistants doesn’t stop this, as I’ve tried it, numerous times.
These foibles and eccentricities can be fixed with a patch or an update, but in a way they’re endearing. I see Football Manager as an attempt to mirror the absurdities of life, and of the modern state of football, so it’s appropriate that it should be flawed too.
I still don’t think of myself as a gamer, and playing this game won’t change that, but a little FM now and again is a nice wee release from my routines, and it’s reminded me that gaming used to be a laugh, and still is.