Football, to paraphrase the great Bill Shankly, may be more important than life and death, but sadly such inconveniences tend to get in the way of the digital version. In recent years I've found myself drifting away from Sports Interactive's series as it grows steadily more complex – and with it, more time-consuming.
This season's headline feature, the stripped-back Classic mode, feels made for me: I can whizz through a season in half the time, ignoring peripheral concerns and concentrating on buying players, picking my team and sending them out to do me proud. Crucially, it still feels like FM: convenient, rather than compromised.
I start the preview version by taking the reins at Man City. It feels strange: the point of FM is the realisation of the eternal fan complaint, “I could do a better job”. In the past, picking City gave you the chance to exceed low expectations, but no longer being the underdog brings pressures of a different kind. Still, a £100m transfer budget? Not the worst problem to have.
I follow my scout's instructions and sign Fulham's Bryan Ruiz. Ruiz arrives on a temporary visa – at which point a little shopping trolley appears at the bottom-right, allowing me to pay real-world cash to abolish work permits. That might sit uneasily with FM veterans – although it'll never show up in Sim mode, paying to remove inconvenient design decisions, even those based on reality, never feels satisfying. The option to top up my transfer budget appears next, and more options turn up later in the campaign.
The pace is palpably quicker. You can even hit an Instant Result button, which puts match day responsibilities in the hands of your management team. I regret it the one time I try this – a match I'd comfortably won on a different save ends up a 2-1 bum-squeaker. Players and tactical selections are erratic, and one of my team is sent off, failing to understand the concept of a friendly by scissoring his opponent in a vicious touchline lunge.
That incident does, however, highlight the superior animation and match engine. It's still awkward at times – player positioning is immaculate, but the ball takes some bizarre bounces, while players will shuffle sideways like crabs. Yet it's more satisfying to see your striker slam one into the top corner than in the overhead view, and even with some kinks to iron out it's a marked improvement on last year.
Sim mode, meanwhile, now allows you to get moody in press conferences. You can be timid, deadpan or aggressive as you praise or berate rivals or players. And it's as authentic as ever: here, Balotelli turned up for the first day of training with whiplash, claiming he'd got it from a fall at home. Perhaps the bookies should consider revising those 7-2 title odds.
Developer: Sports Interactive
Release: winter 2012