Crunch the Numbers, Kick the Ball

The soccer management simulation is perhaps the most uncompromising example of function over form you’re ever likely to find in the video game business. Even now, visuals are confined to pages of stats and, if you’re lucky, an overhead view of the match action. The substance of the experience is the thing—the enormous and accurate player databases, the masses of teams, the reams of facts and figures, and the authentic match physics. This sheer number-crunching intensity is hard enough to transfer from PC to PS2, so how can a mobile management game possibly contend? Well, to be blunt, LMA manager on mobile doesn’t even try. Instead, its aim is to transfer the basic functionality of a soccer management sim to your handset. And its aim is true.

As usual, you begin by selecting a team from the available leagues. There are six topflight European divisions on offer: the English Premiership, the Scottish Premiership, the French Championship, the Italian Seria A, the German Bundesliga, and Spain’s La Liga. So immediately your choice—and some of the richness of the genre—is compromised. Most Champ Man and LMA fans like to cut their teeth on a succession of lower-league outfits, because it just feels more authentic—like you’ve earned the right to manage at higher levels. But here you have to dive straight in with the big guns. Nevertheless, more than 100 teams and 3,000 players isn’t a bad haul for a Java download, and every league here has its low-profile stragglers to get you started.

You interact with your squad through a series of menus that emanate from a straightforward main options screen. The essential three Ts of the genre—tactics, transfers, and training—are all here, but they’re hewn to an anorexic shadow of the usual functionality. For tactics, you merely select a formation from a predefined list (no individual customization here), shuffle your players to fit within it, and then choose an overall play style from attacking, normal, or defensive. Your direct control over on-pitch activity is incredibly limited, with no option to provide specific instructions to individual players and no control over basic strategy (long ball, passing, closing down, and so on).

Similarly with transfers, there’s no database search function, so you can’t input a selection of criteria (such as position, wage, transfer status, and nationality) and then view a list of players fitting your needs. Instead, you have to have a target in mind and then scroll through the league and team menus to find him before putting in an offer based on your budget (which you can boost by selling one player a week). This is hardly user-friendly stuff, and you obviously need a decent knowledge of the European game to get you started. Perversely, if your idea of fun is trying to recall the name of that Spanish left-sided midfielder you saw on cable a few weeks ago who would make an excellent attacking option for your side, LMA’s lack of scouting assistance could present more of an intriguing challenge than a deal-breaking disappointment.

As is often the case with soccer management sims, training is the real weak point of the game. There are 13 training activities available, each improving different areas of your players’ stats. It’s possible to reassign up to three players a week to new regimes, but the interface makes little sense, and it takes ages before you figure out exactly how to select a player and then move him across to a new activity. Frankly, we’re still not sure if we’re doing this right, and that’s after hours of play.

The match section, by contrast, is well presented and works perfectly. As with most pre-Championship Manager 4 management sims, there’s no graphical depiction of each game: When the whistle blows, the screen displays a stream of phrases, describing the flow of the action like a radio commentary. Although this version lacks the variety of a console or PC equivalent (with stock phrases appearing again and again and again), you get the same buildup of tension and the same strangely compelling interplay of imagination and frustration as the action plays out unseen in front of you. Here’s where you notice the game’s poor sound—just a collection of beeps and short tunes on the Nokia 6600. Some sampled crowd noise to accompany goals would seem to be an obvious atmosphere builder, but it’s missing.

Naturally, it’s possible to make midgame substitutions in order to reshape the flow of play or take off players when they get injured, which happens a heck of a lot—it’s like a war zone out there. However, you can’t make changes to your formation or playing style, so when you’re 1-0 down with five minutes to go in a vital European encounter (in addition to the league games, you contend in one of two Euro competitions every season, mimicking the Champions League and UEFA cup formats), you can’t switch to attacking and put three men up front. This would have added greatly to the feeling of interaction with each match.

LMA Manager on mobile is just about as basic as this genre can get without becoming totally unrecognizable. But then, even if a simulation offers incredible depth, with millions of players and hundreds of stats governing performance, most of the atmosphere and drama take place in the player’s mind. If you love soccer and have a team you’re passionate about, you will find the “just one more match” compulsion very strong—even if you know the engine is little more refined than a random number generator. Sports fans are suckers for this kind of thing, craving control over the game we love, even if our grip on team performance is utterly superficial. This game takes full advantage of that weakness, so if you’re a soccer sim fan, it’s probably worth the download.

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