The Championship Manager/Football Manager saga has been well documented, but for those who've just come in, here's the latest score. Following a decade of dominance, Eidos acrimoniously split with original CM developer Sports Interactive, with the name reverting to the publisher. While SI went from strength to strength with the newly-branded FM, development duties for CM fell to bespoke outfit Beautiful Game Studios. Something of a tall order, it was a bit like The Beatles being replaced by some buskers and told to follow up The White Album.
Rarely was a studio less appropriately named, as to the surprise of few and glee of many, Championship Manager 5 was a shambolic bug-ridden mess that sullied the good name of the series. When the game informs you that you've secured a 2-1 draw, for instance, even the most casual of football fans will realise that something is seriously amiss.
Nevertheless, those same beautiful people have been tethered to the same typewriters and instructed to try harder. To the studio's credit, this year's model is a considerable improvement on CM5, in so much as it actually works without grinding to a halt. It's still a brutally ugly beast though, admittedly in a genre where looks aren't everything. But if Football Manager is the functional M&S of the bunch, this is in the realms of Lidl, with a cheap and nasty looking interface, whichever of the various skins you choose to use. Blue Gel, anyone?
Negotiating your way around it takes some getting used to, but it's moderately functional, and most of the information you need is at your fingertips, albeit spread over a series of miserable screens, many actually copied word-for-word from ancient incarnations of the game. When it comes to actually picking the team, it's a fairly irksome business, making it all the more tempting to reach for the auto-pick button. As for the tactics screen, players can be instructed via a great big arrow to make a run, feed the ball, or - excitingly - both. And while the news messages work in a largely identical format to previous instalments, 2006 sees the addition of some reasonably comprehensive pre-match previews.
On the pitch, the aesthetics improve marginally from CM5, with the action played out by what appear to be headless Subbuteo figures. A variety of camera angles are on offer, although the default 'TV view' is probably the best, and at first glance it appears as if a game of football is being simulated. It doesn't really bear close examination though, and over time begins to resemble blind football, with only a bell in the ball required to complete the macabre image. The keepers are probably the most inept, regularly missing crosses or deflecting the ball into the net. In their defence, they have no heads nor arms.
Overall, the play rarely gels, and there's little sense of the match ebbing and flowing, instead seeming more like a series of largely unrelated plays and set-pieces. To the game's credit, you can watch as few or as many highlights as you choose, thanks to a comprehensive filtering system that enables you to tailor the action for your viewing pleasure.
When you're not watching the action, it's mildly bewildering, with the default screen presenting a swathe of largely useless information. Does anyone really need to know the current best and worst player on each team in terms of Performance, Condition, Outfield Work Rate, and Outfield Touches, particularly as each factor changes approximately every half a second? Elsewhere, you can see the player's individual ratings, but not at the same time as their physical condition, and not while watching the highlights. But even if you do want to pick over the details and attempt to make some tactical changes, the difference they make seems negligible, which either means that you've lost the support of the dressing room, or the game is knackered.
Awkward though the match experience is, it can occasionally elicit a glimmer of satisfaction when you win, and the odd grunt of disapproval when you lose. However, it never comes close to the genuine tension created by the classic versions of the game, and compared to the extremes of emotion they could engender, this might as well be a screensaver.
It's probably damning it with faint praise to say that one of the best features is the fact that you can play it in a window, thus allowing you to simultaneously get on with something less boring instead, such as Instant Messenger stalking, online poker, or even some work (particularly if your work is reviewing the game). The point is that the game will chug away in the background with minimal input, and there appears to have been a conscious attempt to cut down on the admin required. For instance, first team players who are lacking match practice will automatically be played in the reserves. And while that may be one of the most boring sentences ever committed to space, it does hint at the streamlining that has been attempted. That said, you'd be a bit pissed off if one of them picked up an injury.
It's by no means a terrible game. The stats are reasonably in order, and the transfers are mainly realistic. Even with the optional club benefactor - the equivalent of Football Manager Handheld's Sugar Daddy - you'll still struggle to bring Dennis Bergkamp to Chester City. Ultimately though, you only really need one football management game in your life. Or none, ideally. But if you insist, you have to decide between a game that sucks up the hours and leaves you a hollow-eyed ghoul, or one that you'll play for a couple of days, shrug, and toss on to the pile. Can you guess which one this is?
By way of tenuous analogy, if Football Manager is hardcore porn, then this is softcore. As a famous letter to Viz wisely observed: "What's the point? People who don't like porn don't like it. And people who do like porn don't like it."