Football Manager is the ultimate femme fatale of video gaming. She's a sleek, intelligent thing that tempts you in with fantasies of grandeur and the dream of achieving things few mortal men ever achieve. It's only once you're under her spell she changes into a two-faced harpy, providing you with just enough moments of satisfaction to make you stick around for more, even after she comes home smelling of vodka and rakes you in the face with her nails.
Don't treat that description as exaggerated theatrics. There aren't many games more comparable to an abusive relationship than Sports Interactive's flagship football management simulator. It's a game of immense depth that will have you consistently wondering how to master it for the entire year, but it can be a game of immense frustration, especially when things aren't going your way and the game isn't giving you any clues as to why.
Those outside of Europe will probably be unfamiliar with the series, which has been so commercially important to SEGA Europe over the years that it has been ranked as one of the "four pillars" of the company alongside Sonic, Total War and Aliens. The concept is as simple; you take on the management of a real team from almost any professional league in the world. With your own knowledge of football tactics and a disturbingly accurate database of players, so well researched that actual managers at the highest level have admitted to using it as a scouting aid, you guide your team to glory or defeat.
Football Manager 2014 makes small, meaningful changes to the way you set up team tactics that rejuvenate what had grown to become something of an abstract system over the years. The biggest change is the removal of sliders from the tactics menu. Taking it back to simple drop down menu options makes it easier to quantify whether changes are having any effect, and three options on a list are easier to choose between than a dozen tiny clicks on a sliding bar. It's simplification, but for the better, and it makes a world of difference when you lose a match and have to sit down and figure out which changes to your tactics would be most effective.
To make up for the simplification of setting up tactics, SI have added a whole new bunch of player roles that you can assign to individual players in the team, to get them to focus on specific jobs within the team unit. The old traditional favourites - box to box midfielder, target man, et al - are all still there, and all still work effectively in the right hands. For the true anoraks out there, the sort of manager that knows what catenaccio is and can name every team in the Brazilian league, the new player roles will allow you to create exotic formations and team setups better than ever before. Registas, enganches, complete wing backs and the in-vogue false 9 are just a couple of examples, and the incredibly succinct and helpful tool tips promote experimentation amongst players that will feel intimidated.
Classic mode, the streamlined mode introduced last year, returns with some tweaks. You can now add more than three leagues to each Classic career you start, although this disables the cross play function with the upcoming Vita version (release date not yet announced). The ability to simulate matches in one click in Classic Mode's also been bolstered with a new menu for setting complex tactical plans to give to your team. I'm not a great fan of Classic, though. Its chunkier menus are ugly, and the lack of data it provides you with regard to training progress and post-match statistics means that this is a mode for entry-level fans only.
Every year, SI introduces more ways in which you can interact with your virtual players and colleagues, but the process is still frustrating, unpredictable and totally unrealistic. You can click to initiate a conversation with players on an array of topics, but the responses you'll get are usually robotic overreactions that don't reflect how actual human beings talk to each other. Innocently congratulate your striker for scoring a goal for his national team? Rather than say "you're welcome", he's likely to accuse you of putting too much pressure on him and storm out of the virtual office. This then affects his in-game morale, an important factor in getting your players to work to the letter of your instruction on the pitch. Most of these interactions can be mercifully skipped without consequence, but it has the potential to be a cool facet to the game if it wasn't so infuriating.
Like Paul Scholes, Football Manager continues to trundle on, earning respect throughout the business by doing a tough, workmanlike job. The hundreds of changes this year are mostly small ones that only dedicated series veterans will notice, but they add up to make a difference. FM2014 is a refined, tactically-rich game which gives you countless tools to play with in an infinite sporting sandbox. There's still some things that have to be done until it can be described as "polished" -most notably breaking EA's stranglehold over exclusive club logo and player likeness licensing - but the revamped layouts and excellent help system make this the easiest Football Manager to digest for some time.