With just days remaining before the big Premier League kick off, I've been given the opportunity to test the latest pre-release code of Championship Manager 2010 (formerly known as Championship Manager 2009). It's been almost two years since this traditionally annual series' last appearance - the hit and miss Championship Manager 2008 - but in a daring attempt to close the gap on Sports Interactive's all-dominant Football Manager franchise, developer Beautiful Game Studios has spent the last 20-odd months revamping CM with a number of high profile additions and innovations.
It's instantly clear that every facet of the game has been refined. CM10 exudes a newfound slickness from every menu screen, whether it's the gently animated backgrounds and cycling Sky Sports-style information boxes or the impressive new 3D match engine - which is displaying enough potential to suggest it could even give the animated offerings of Football Manager 2009 a run for their money. But more on that later.
As has become traditional for management games, you're first tasked with selecting a league (from 32 countries) and/or nation to manage. With your allegiances set you're whisked off to begin your managerial career. The first thing that strikes you is the sheer amount of work and innovation that's been put into revamping this once great series. Within a few hours, you realise that CM10 could be the first major step towards a return to the glory days. In an attempt to innovate rather than imitate, Beautiful Game Studios has taken the bold and welcome decision to introduce some genuinely fresh ideas into the series' tried and tested mix. For the most part, they're shaping up rather nicely.
Take real-time training, for example. At first glance you may shrug with disinterest, but on closer inspection it becomes clear that the ability to head to the training pitch and actually watch your players in action can be invaluable when it comes to squeezing every last ounce of potential out of your squad. What's more, you can set-up practice matches and tinker with tactics without the threat of failure hanging over you. Unlike friendlies, these semi-competitive kickabouts have only minimal impact on your players' stamina levels.
CM10's new set piece creator is showing even more promise. It allows you to fashion fiendish dead-ball routines using a simple process. You start off by setting the starting positions of your players on a top down tactical pitch layout. Next, you create a series of stages (player movements, dead ball delivery etc.) before heading pitch-side to see if your masterplan actually works. If you're not happy you can tweak to your heart's content or make your players practice the move over and over till their toes bleed. As I found out on a number of occasions, there are few more satisfying moments than seeing your custom-made set piece come to fruition in that vital league or cup game.
Another new feature is CM10's scouting system. Again, it's clear that Beautiful Game Studios has sat down and really thought about a new way of dealing with this often overlooked feature. Rather than simply presenting you with an overwhelming and comprehensive list of every player on the planet and their stats, CM10 tasks you with doing some of the work yourself. With the exception of detailed stats for the players in your league, the database for every other player in the game must first be scouted before their true stats can be accurately gauged. The more times you scout a player, the more precisely his stats will be represented. This throws up some interesting conundrums. Do you make an offer for that Brazilian starlet whose stats range between 65 – 95? Or do you scout him first to see how good he really is, but risk losing him to another club that takes a punt?
As well as scouting individual players you can channel investment into a worldwide scouting network. With a simple-to-use map you can select any country and invest in talent spotting within that region. The more you invest the more gems you can uncover, though as I soon came to realise there are no guarantees you'll find the next Zidane.
While this new feature may not be earth-shattering, it certainly has the potential to be the best scouting system the genre has ever seen. Once you identify a target you can make a bid (negotiations appear to be far more flexible than they were in CM08) and the papers will pounce on the story. You can find this in the all-new media page that provides bespoke reports that keep you informed of the latest football-related happenings from across the globe.
Of course the true test of any management game is on the pitch and thankfully it's looking as though CM10 has also made some major strides in this department. The progress that Beautiful Game Studios has made since the unimpressive bowling pin-style players of CM08 is promising. The pitch now stretches across your screen while the animated, 3D players can be viewed from a cornucopia of camera angles and distances.
Variable weather effects and numerous stadiums, ranging from towering edifices to a few makeshift stands housing two men and their dogs, provide matches with greater context and believability. The revamped match day set-up is shaping up to be a far deeper, immersive and more atmospheric experience than in CM08.
Match action also displayed plenty of improvements on just about every level. Players trapped the ball and made space while their team mates ran into intelligent positions. Skilful players took on their markers then whipped in crosses or unleashed searing shots, leading to some spectacular strikes. That said there were a few too many comical defensive errors for comfort, and these definitely need to be sorted before release.
There were also a few bizarre moments that also require attention before the final code ships, like players hoofing the ball into row Z for no apparent reason, the action occasionally jamming as the players refused to take a throw-in and a few lighting and shadow issues. However, if BGS can solve these problems, there's enough evidence to suggest the new match engine could represent a major step forward for the series.
Once matches are over you're given the option to minutely analyse your players' performances with the streamlined ProZone tool. As was the case with CM08, this feature will probably appeal more to serious management game aficionados than to casual management fans. However, the good news is that ProZone is looking as though it'll actually be useful this time as matches are shaping up to be far less one-sided and much more tactical affairs than in BGS's previous offering.
If this playtest proved anything, it's that CM10 could be the single biggest and most innovative step the CM series has taken since BGS took over the development reins. Granted, the tested code was still a little rough around the edges, but if the irks and glitches can be sufficiently cleared up before release we could finally find ourselves with a genuine two-horse race for the football management crown.