Version tested: PC
Every year we ask ourselves the same question: will we finally witness a genuine two-horse race for the football management title? Historically, the answer has been a resounding no. But that changes this year, because in Championship Manager 2010 developer Beautiful Game Studios has created a game that has impressively rejuvenated the stuttering franchise. What's more, thanks to an array of new features and excellent refinements, CM2010 actually turns out to be a genuine and viable alternative to Sports Interactive's all-conquering Football Manager series.
Unlike its predecessor CM08, Championship Manager 2010 no longer feels like a poor man's Football Manager. This is a bold statement of intent by Beautiful Game Studios, and its willingness to take risks and try new things has resulted in a game chock-full of fresh ideas and interesting new approaches to tried-and-tested football management mainstays. While it may not quite be the finished article or have enough fire-power to knock FM off its perch, CM2010 does warrant your attention.
The game's most striking innovation is its sparkling 3D match engine, which not only ticks all the right boxes in terms of visual appeal but also proves to be monumentally more realistic than CM08's unconvincing, animated-bowling-pin-style action.
Admittedly, watching full matches still doesn't fully convince, but progress has been made, and this is particularly evident when viewing games in highlights mode. A few bizarre moments aside - such as players sometimes bumping off each other like dodgems or inexplicably hoofing the ball into touch - games are regularly full of satisfying passages, with defensive midfielders snapping, harassing and hounding the opposition into errors, and fleet-footed stars scything through defences. You even see players turning onto their stronger feet to pass and shoot, while more gifted individuals ping the ball around with both.
Goalkeepers have been notably improved, despite appearing to parry the ball with an invisible force field half a foot in front of their flailing limbs. These net nannies also advance off their lines with far greater regularity than CM08's sitting-duck goal minders and leap for shots with an agility that puts FM09's sack-of-potatoes 'keepers to shame.
The full-screen action is packed with excellent animations, whether it's players pulling up their socks or sinking to their knees in disbelief after missing a sitter or a last-gasp opportunity to rescue their team from defeat in injury time. Without doubt, this is the most visually appealing football management match engine your money can currently buy. Stadiums vary in size and construction, while crowd chants add oodles of atmosphere. The match interface is also excellent, minimising to a collection of unobtrusive sidebars that can be expanded at any time to access an array of stat screens and tactical and camera options.
There are plenty of other innovations and improvements here, including countless small yet effective polishes, such as Sky Sports-style stat boxes that keep you up to date with top scorers and league positions, and rotating player info tabs. What's more, there are many helpful tooltips and tutorial snippets, and these ensure that the game is more accessible than ever before, despite its new-found scope. However, navigation remains a problem.
While not every new feature is a runaway success, CM10's bold attempts to try something new must be applauded. Real-time training and drills are a perfect example. Being able to test new tactics during practice matches and having the ability to watch your players carry out your orders without the risk of jeopardising your job is certainly welcome, though more feedback as to how your drills and training sessions are affecting your players wouldn't have gone amiss. And while the set-piece creator could also have benefited from clearer feedback, this is somewhat offset by the intuitiveness with which you can craft your own set plays, and those rare, ecstatic moments when your training-field master plans actually come to fruition during a competitive game.
Since Beautiful Game Studios took over development duty from Sports Interactive, the Championship Manager series has struggled to define itself. Its watered-down, feature-thin gameplay was far too easy for any seasoned management gamer, while its attempts to appease this very demographic with hardcore analysis tools such as ProZone were made futile by the game's simplicity. Let's face it, why would you analyse the minutiae of your team's performance when you've just won ten matches in a row by a cricket score?
In CM10, that's all changed. This is a game with a new steeliness, a game that will genuinely challenge you without ever making you want to cry from sheer frustration. With matches more realistic and with the challenge levels ramped up, ProZone has now been transformed into a useful tool, especially if you prefer watching matches as highlights and want to ascertain which players are coming up short.
Buying players is also now subject to more lifelike variables, with some players simply refusing to join you and negotiations more protracted and precarious than ever before. But some very generous transfer kitties ensure you still have a fighting chance of adding several top-quality players to your squad.
The revised scouting and media systems are two further quality new additions that help add colour to your management career, with the former particularly noteworthy thanks to its use of player and regional knowledge. The more you scout a player or the more you invest in a country's scouting network, the more accurately you'll be able to gauge a player's exact ability. This results in you having to actively research the players you want to buy rather than simply picking them from an already comprehensive player database.
For the first time, the Championship Manager series is a viable alternative to Football Manager. While it may still be lagging behind in a number of departments - most notably match realism and its almost non-existent player, media, fan and board interaction features - CM10's attempts to innovate must be applauded, and the majority of its refinements are either solid additions or real winners. The game is not without its faults and glitches and only just scrapes an 8 - but if you're looking for an entertaining and slightly different skew on the Football Manager template and an experience that's more forgiving and accessible than FM09, then this might be exactly what you've been waiting for.
8 / 10