I got a review copy of Championship Manager 2006 through the post yesterday, and did my carpal tunnel all sorts of good by playing it after work until nearly midnight. I haven't always had a very good relationship with the Champ Man games, in fact, when I did a review of one of its older incarnations for State, I said that I'd rather use the CD as a drinks coaster than play the game.
This doesn't appear to be nearly so bad, though it still appears to have a lot of the same old problems. These manifest themselves particularly badly in the match engine (now in glorious Subbuteo figure 3D!), where you have defenders running away from the ball in the final third of the pitch, or neatly passing the ball to the opposing strikers in the six yard box. Now, I know that just about anyone who watches more than three episodes of Match of the Day per year probably fancies themselves as a bit of a football manager, but the game's still that hideous combination of too complex (so many management options, so little that actually makes any difference at all!) and completely unrealistic.
The temptation for a lot of players is to go straight for the glamour clubs, but I chose to manage the Championship team I came to support at university, Leicester City, as they're only mildly rubbish and will provide a bit more of a challenge than romping away to the Premiership title with Chelsea and Roman Abramovich's billions. In pre-season, they were true to form and couldn't beat an egg, thanks to absolutely no cutting edge infront of goal and a defence leakier than a Welsh supermarket's vegetable section, (leak... leek... oh, please yourselves...) even suffering a 4-1 drubbing by Birmingham, of all people, whose strikers couldn't hit the side of a barn at five paces. We couldn't even beat *Sunderland* in a friendly, for feck's sake.
With the limited transfer resources available, I get rid of our "star" player, Danny Tiatto (who went into a strop for me fining him after he got sent off), and spend the money on Paul Hartley from Hearts for a bit of creativity and flair in midfield and a youngish central defender from Reading (John Halls), to help plug the gaps at the back.
And suddenly we're the class side of the Championship, losing only one game in our first dozen competitive matches of the season. I have four players sent off in our first six matches, yet still manage to win every single one. By two clear goals. Umm, what? Things get back to "normal" when I sign an unknown Italian teenage striker on loan for the season, who promptly scores a hat-trick on his debut, then decides he's not going to score in the first team ever again.
I'll probably turn on the PC when I get home tonight, play half a dozen games with the exact same squad that's beaten everything put infront of it for the last three game months, and lose every single one. It's a still a game of bewildering inconsistency and random whim. Not only that, I'm positive that everything is worked out and predetermined from the start since the one draw I've had playing the game so far (with Sheffield Wednesday) was because the game was so uneventful that nothing happened to trigger the highlights, meaning the game was over before I had chance to put on substitutes...
It's still massively addictive, purely on the principle of running your favourite football club and seeing if you can do a better job than your current real-life managerial muppet, but I'm not convinced that the extra layers of complexity make any difference at all, and the visual match engine is essentially useless, because the flaws in it are exposed by the player avatars moving in ways completely at odds with those a genuine player would make in the same situation. It's still football as a spreadsheet, and I'm not sure that's good enough anymore. I'll see how things go over a couple of seasons, but I don't think this'll be coming out for a kick around once the review's out of the way.