It's slightly weird how the staff of Beautiful Game Studios - the development team behind the current Championship Manager games - refer to 'The Split'. There's always the tiniest of pauses before someone mentions it, and it's pronounced slightly softly, with a teeny bit of trepidation. Everyone else even stops reaching for the little bowl of Celebrations in the middle of our meeting room. It's as if 'The Split' they're referring to was when the lead designer's mum was cut in half by a car crash.
The truth, of course, is that it refers to something far worse, back in 2004 when the original creators of Championship Manager split from Eidos, taking most of the series' hugenormous fanbase with them. To say since then Champ Man has been in the shadow of their new Football Manager series would be an understatement.
So what's Championship Manager 2008 doing to change that? Well, for starters it doesn't have any loading screens.
"Previously you'd sit there with a mouse in one hand and a book in the other," King dev Ross Alexander jovially explains. "Now, if you've got the power, we'll use it." So what happens in '08 once you click on that 'Continue' button is that time ticks on, but you're free to do everything you can do normally. Examine player stats, read messages, alter training schedules, the lot.
Nice, but it's made more impressive because this time around Champ Man's simulating an awful lot more football during every virtual day. To be precise, it's running leagues in 27 countries all over the world, and you're free to browse the results, matches and players of any one of them. One of these the devs were keen to bring to our attention was the new Australian A-league, which has special rules regarding your squad. You've got to have at least three under-20s, and the total salary for your team can't exceed 1.5 million, a cap which doesn't include each team's most expensive 'Marquee' players. Erk.
But this is all so much numbers, and Beautiful Game Studios wants to infuse '08 with a little more personality. To that end they've brought back hot-seat multiplayer, a feature Champ Man hasn't had since... the split. More interestingly, there's the new concept of Player Tendencies.
The way this works is that every footballer gets a few tendencies added to their collection of statistics, tendencies which make them more likely to act a certain way on the pitch. So a striker might favour setting up goals to shooting himself, and a midfielder might have a semi-perverted love of sliding tackles. Through careful player positioning and choice of suitable tactics it'll be possible to make these traits work for you, and it'll allow the greasy OCD sufferers among us to check the tendencies of everyone on the opposing team before a match, so they can make last-minute tweaks to their line-up. Tendencies aren't set in stone - any player can have bad habits broken or be taught new ones through training, but it'll take time.
You'll be able to watch your tactics unfold in a slightly improved match engine, too. '08 still uses the same cutting edge 'Peg' engine to bring matches to life, where each player is represented by a vertical peg. However, this time the pegs tilt, dive and slide as appropriate, and each is built from in excess of two million polygons (alright, two polygons). It actually took some prodding from us to bring the Beautiful Game guys to the climactic final part of their presentation. They whipped up a quick game to show off the match engine, then got so wrapped up in watching Liverpool embarrass Belarus they seemed to forget about ProZone entirely.
ProZone is the real life computerised match analysis tool that all the real football clubs really actually use in really real life. It was in last year's Championship Manager as a minor addition, half-baked and inaccessible. Now it's being brought to the forefront. At a basic level your ProZone advisor fella will feed you a few observations after each match, pointing out details you might have missed like players who strayed from your tactics. Or if you lose a match, it'll point out who played well and vice versa.
At a more complex level, well, if ProZone didn't exist in real life it'd be tempting to compare it to God Mode. Every pass, tackle or goal can be broken down into a sequence of arrows projected onto the pitch, or using those same arrows you could bring up every pass a player made during a match. With a couple of clicks you can get the average distance between a pair of centre-backs, or even watch it as an elastic black line dancing across the pitch. Absolutely everything's laid bare for you to examine, and not just the game you just played. If you wanted you could bring up your opponents' last game and instantly load up a projection of all the defensive interceptions they made, looking for holes for your own squad to push the ball through.
ProZone's an interesting enough idea, but it does seem a little at odds to the devs' hope to get more personality into the game. Sure, arrows and charts might be a step up from a spreadsheet, but a tool that breaks a match down into its component pieces isn't perhaps the most colourful of additions to the license.
What Championship Manager really needs right now to take the lead is the kind of re-branding and improvement that yearly sports games seem incapable of doing, and it's especially hard to imagine Beautiful Game managing it under their suit-wearing Eidos overseers. Still, you can be the judge of that. The demo of Champ Man '08 is out now and it gives you a whole six months of game time for you to make up your mind. Plus, should you fall in love with ProZone (or the all-new wobbly pegs), the demo save-games are compatible with the retail version. What have you got to lose?
Championship Manager 2008 is due out this Friday, 2nd November.