i’ve come to regard the annual instalment of Sports Interactive’s football management series with a mixture of excitement, concern and outright fear; will it add to the existing superb gameplay, will it continue to set the benchmark for leadership in the genre, will it require me to invest in a new PC simply to run it? This year there’s an added dimension – there will be a strong rival title on the shelf to offer competition, the result of a split between former publisher and continued developer.
Without getting into the minutiae of the saga, all would-be Wenger’s need to be clear on one point; the game that was ‘Championship Manager’ is now ‘Football Manager’ – SI games and the original genius behind the series, the Collyer brothers, retained the game engine in the separation, with Eidos earning the continued use of the CM brand. If ever there was a test case for style versus substance then this is the one. Will loyal fans appreciate the change and stick with the mechanics of the machine, or are we likely to be swayed by the marketing men who point up the familiar paint job on the outside? Well much as we’d like to put them alongside each other and offer a bench test only SI have got to the start line on time so an early lead for them.
First up some technical specifications. Minimum requirement to run the game is 600Mhz, 128Mb RAM, 650Mb HD – well straight away we recommended you double all those numbers (maybe even treble - Ed). It’s no secret that recent releases of CM have been power hungry when running more than one league, and the largest scale database option acted like a Titanic sized anchor dragging your machine to a depth from which it would never escape. Sadly this saw the franchise lose a few fans along the way, unlike the more dedicated among us they just didn’t feel they could justify the upgrade of hardware to play multiple leagues. Personally I would sell every console and game I own to continue with a series I’ve been with since CM2, this isn’t an entertainment option, it’s a lifestyle decision. The good news is that these concerns have been addressed with more options on the database size, background processing and level of detail. Never a particularly graphic game you won’t be needing to worry about buying new cards, and the sound is an option I’ve never personally used. However, if you have got the power it’s important to be able to load up a number of options and utilise the multiple leagues as the career progression element is so much more interesting, although I’ve never tried to keep a track of more than 6 active nations at any one time for reasons of proportion. That’s not to say it’s going to run like the proverbial off a shovel for anyone, inevitably there are delays during play whilst games are concluded but if you’ve got Match of the Day on in the background and a fridge in the vicinity you can manage more than comfortably whilst it happily ticks over.
Upon loading, the game has a curiously familiar, yet noticeably different skin to it. Imagine if Des Lynam turned up for work in Ally McCoist’s jacket – underneath the new polish there’s an old friend ready to welcome you. Day to day management of your chosen football team still occurs via the tabulated menu system, drop down lists lead to multiple fields and you’re never more than a couple of clicks away from where you need to be, especially with the shortcut right button. I’m not a huge fan of the new sliding buttons, but maybe that’s because I’m getting old and even five pences are becoming fiddly. If you played CM03-04 (the previous version) give yourself an hour or so to find everything, if you didn’t then it’s possibly going to be a little daunting - the advice for any newbie is to pick a small club with low expectations (from the 2351 possible over 158 leagues in 51 nations!) and use them as a sandbox to get acquainted without your job being on the line (once sacked from a top job it can be a long way back.) Pretty soon it will be simple to follow the horizontal and vertical orientation of all the facts and figures required to control the club. FM2005 ships with a choice of two front ends, a personal choice of font and display, however there is full support for the huge community that have developed club specific looks, logos and styles around the game and no doubt generous public spirits are already working on their downloadable efforts to share with you.
What you care to view within the menus has always been a matter of personal choice – there are statistics available for almost every conceivable aspect of play. Ultimately, there are two schools of thought within football, and this being such a faithful recreation it’s no different – do you pick a tactical system and buy or train the players to fit that, or do you let the players have their head and tweak the system around your superstars. Iron discipline and a manger’s way, or gentle coaxing of supreme talent? Personally I crack the whip, and enforce my attacking 4-4-2, but there’s the biggest range of formations, variables and styles ever seen, including unique player instructions – Bolton Wanderers playing like Ajax? it’ll never happen… I always feel that this element of the game is a little trial and error. Sure the players biographies display a wealth of ratings (out of 20) but sometimes you can be hugely successful playing one way then when offered a job at a bigger club, with better players it all falls down. On paper it might have looked right but somehow it just doesn’t gel, but that’s the absolute essence of football management, it’s why we all believe we’d be better than Sven. Make the most of the friendly match options (now with an added financial weighting) they give you a bit of breathing space for experimentation. The same doesn’t work for training however, and with limited alteration from the previous game it can be a bit hit and miss. Having had players displaying continuous improvements and then waning fortunes I’ve never been able to pin down the best regimes – perhaps my achilles heel as a boss. You’re never quite sure if you’ve got the wrong staff in charge, or the wrong balance of activities, the settings do try to help you and you can leave a lot of these decisions to the CPU but ultimately you may want to keep your eyes out for a forum posting on a winning formula.
One of the hot topics on fan forums has always been the unearthing of hitherto unheralded talent – witness Fabio Paim, Daniel Braathen and Orri Freyr Oskarsson in CM03-04. Who they exactly? Well they set the football gaming world alight last year. The danger with having overly influential unknowns is that no matter who you take control of you end up with an identikit team. It’s too early to tell yet whether this will be the case but I’d argue that a lot of the interest lies in discovering the rough diamond languishing in someone’s reserves and subsequently informing the world of your genius, and it’s positively essential should you take on an impossible position – encouraging people to give a toss about ‘MK Dons’ for example. The star players remain key figures in the team and naturally produce the consistently good performances, therefore buying Beckham isn’t a risk in terms of his ability, but like true management it may be in relation to how he could fit into your system, his physical and mental state, and whether the expenditure leaves you weak in other areas. Options on scouting players are unchanged, but there’s more choice when attempting to offload players to rivals, and you can now advertise your jobs for staff – them coming to you rather than a fruitless pursuit of the uninterested. The database starts correct to reality as from the close of the September transfer window. (The inclusion of a data editor gives you the ability to maintain accuracy.)
A nice new feature in the game is the opportunity to issue additional comments on other personnel. Previously you could mouth off to the press if you felt one of your boys was slacking off, or praise him to the hilt if he’d been in a rich vein of form. Now you can also comment on forthcoming opponents and other figures in the game, tell the world Kevin Keegan is your mate, or that Sir Alex isn’t up to the job however the dozen or so quote choices stop short of seagulls and trawlers. (SI have said that a media comment editor may be forthcoming, and are requesting suggestions for next release – some of Peter Reid’s eloquent phrases may not pass censorship.) Also included are the appropriate badges, logos and photos of some teams. It’s a shame not all of them are available, apparently it’s connected with obtaining the appropriate permissions, but as mentioned previously there are some great free downloadable enhancements easily dropped into the package.
For anyone unfamiliar with how the games are played out, for years this was via a flashing text box, simple yet effective leaving more capacity for proper gameplay than fancy rendered player likenesses. A couple of years ago this was changed to a pin board style moving pitch, a kind of helicopter view of the action as it happened – it was a massive hit with fans. Enhanced for FM2005, it can now be viewed split screen, in conjunction with other events, and tweaked even more for speed, level of highlights and replays. Those developers who think that we gamers only care about pretty pictures in ‘God’ sims should take note how many copies this title will sell – a lot of us came up via the Spectrum, Amiga, etc route, we want gameplay first and highly textured shading second.
By now you’ll realise I am trying to tell you to buy the game, in addition can I urge all right minded people with a friend or two to try and get a network game going? FM2005 is a superb game in a stand alone capacity and will provide months of interest (years if you use the editor.) However a network game adds in the opportunity for winding your mates up in the process and stirring up the soup throwing tendencies in the best of us. Once perhaps viewed as a loner’s game, Football Manager 2005 is now the social event of the year.