Saturday, November 10, 2007

Dining in Hell

I have been playing Football Manager.

Now, you're probably wondering why that statement warrants it's own paragraphing. Well, as people who know me can testify, I have all my life harboured a deep and vehement dislike of soccer (conversely, I enjoy American football immensely, despite the obvious lack of live matches in the Watford area) - the game, the players, the media, the fans and everything associated with it. Even those stupid shinpads. The whole thing offends me utterly with its brainlessness, particularly as even the police seem to recognise football as a legitimate excuse for acts of horrific violence against total strangers - I remember one match a few years ago (Luton visiting) where the local constabulary decided that, rather than attempt to protect people or property from rampaging fans, it was more efficient to leaflet all of the shops in the area warning them to close early and get out of town. That a man who can kick a ball around a field can be hailed as a 'genius' by such people only illustrates the point: that reams of words can deluge back pages across the land discussing the supposed strategy of said ball-kicking seems indicative of a consensual hallucination so insidious and pervasive as to make The Matrix look like Tetris.

So, I don't like football. But I once hated boxing for the same reasons, and changed my mind because of a videogame - Fight Night on the 360, since you ask - which gave me an insight into a strategic depth rarely hinted at in heavyweight TV slugfests. I can watch a fight and appreciate the dynamics now: I still think the higher weight bouts are little more than flailing about but the lower weights show off boxing as a true martial art. Playing Madden (2003 - present) clarified the NFL game for me as well - I already enjoyed watching it but really had little idea of what was actually happening - and I've always felt that American football lends itself especially well to the medium, being a very structured and overtly tactical sport.

I have attempted to gain the same mind-changing insight from FIFA and PES in the past, with mixed results - a mixture of 'God' and 'no' to be precise - but have shied away from the more spreadsheety games precisely because of the all-pervading air of pretence about it: throwing around a ton of numbers doesn't change the fundamentally Pong-like nature of the sport. But at £9.99 for the 360 version it was cheap enough for an experiment (and the Big Daddies are giving me hell in Bioshock just now) so I took the plunge.

Given that the concept of football as a complex strategic exercise is an essentially fictional edifice as far as I'm concerned, the only way I was going to get any joy out of this was to approach it in the same way as I approached Oblivion - as a role-playing game. If I can think myself into the head of a six-foot blonde Nord called Kirina Indring then surely a grumpy bloke in a duffelcoat isn't too big a stretch, creatively. I chose a lowly team in the belief that, were I an actual manager, I'd probably have to start at the bottom: having spent my toddler years in Kettering it seemed appropriate to take on the mantle of Kettering Town.

I later discovered that this method of play is considered the hardest of the hardcore among FM regulars. It's certainly hard - Kettering have suffered mightily under my direction and will be lucky to avoid relegation - but having almost no money means I can put off learning more complex stuff, like how to manage transfers, until next season. For now I'm playing the game as I once did on the Spectrum as a teenager: simply, and badly. Football Manager is a tremendously poorly designed game from an actual gameplay standpoint, made worse on the 360 by the almost total lack of console optimisation - I'm no fan of dumbing-down PC games for consoles but the difference in control method really has to be recognised... the object-oriented underlay of FM is much too visible for a commercial product, giving it the feel of a retasked database management system rather than an actual game: it probably is at that, but it's offputting.

For all its flaws, though, FM is a compulsive game. I still don't like or get football but I think I like and get football management sims now, which is something. I feel like I've earned a few Man Points anyway.

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