Whoever said Championship Manager was the most addictive gaming experience known to man was sage-like in their wisdom. And probably divorced, friendless, jobless, and living in an Internet Café, having been evicted from the home they once occupied. After a period of enforced abstinence, there was almost a feeling of dread when the CM4 review code arrived, as we knew just how all-consumingly antisocial the effect of installing it on our fearful PC would be.
You see, CM has time-shifting properties. You put it on, and you vow to have a "quick go", maybe reshaping your favourite team in your image, checking out your squad's form and fitness and dithering over which central defensive partnership works best. If you can resist the temptation to check out how other team's players are performing (and maybe put in a sneaky bid or two) then you might just get around to playing your next fixture. But then your team puts in a thoroughly indifferent performance; throwing on subs and a switch of tactics makes little difference. Dang. Time to rethink. This team are a bunch of overpaid prima donna donkeys.
But oh gawd. We've got how much in the transfer kitty? How on Earth are we going to restore this bunch of apathetic losers to the elite? Best check out those out of contract players, and best we start polishing up on our precise knowledge of the lower leagues. We need hunger, desire, commitment, a sympathetic board, loyal fans, and hour upon hour of our spare time. Shit. Is that the time? Oh my god, it's daylight. Time to throw a sickie...
How do you do a game like this justice?
It's impossible to do CM justice in a review so soon into its lifespan. Sports Interactive's lavish attention to detail is staggering, and it's no exaggeration that you'll be discovering the intricacies of the game in months, and possibly years to come. Already this game has forced us to forfeit sleep, forget to go to work, and had us furiously scouring the sports pages in the vain hope of surreptitiously gaining a degree of in depth-knowledge on the stars of the lower leagues.
Naturally, CM4, like its predecessors is a game with an almost infinite number of skill levels to suit the demands of the player. With an incredible number of teams and leagues to choose from (from 39 national leagues across the globe) it really does come down to personal preference of an extraordinarily precise level. If you don't fancy scrapping it with the basement boys, then you can always choose a fantastically rich club with unrivalled funds and a huge stadium. Think ManYoo.
Or, if you've got soul and fancy awakening a sleeping giant, then you could, in theory, choose a Conference club and eventually guide them to the dizzy heights of Champions League glory. You'd have to overcome overwhelming odds to do so, and work tirelessly to grab every underrated and under-valued player going, but the option is there if you've got the stomach for the battle.
Abandon your life, all ye who play here
There are pros and cons whatever end of the difficulty spectrum you choose to plump for. Choose a big club, and the odds can be stacked against you in all manner of ways. Success will be a given. Both the board and the supporters (and the media) will demand it, and if you don't get things right from the off, you'll soon find the pressure will be on. On the flip side, at an unfancied club you'll be given time to turn things around, and expectations will be correspondingly lower. It's all a question of how you want to play things, and this level of depth and flexibility runs throughout the entire package.
On first glance it's possible to dismiss CM4 as a tarted up version of the previous two versions. The core of the game has, since CM2, been almost flawless, and SI is right to have retained the simple core of the game. But peek behind the surface and it's almost unbelievable how the team has managed to pack so many easily accessible layers into the package. Careful use of the right mouse button opens up so many possibilities, and within literally a few minutes you're able to traverse a world of information and hidden detail with virtually no effort.
Filters play an equally important part of the experience. At its most bloated, CM can seem ridiculously over-stuffed with insane amounts of detail, including the option of taking charge of reserve and youth teams. At this uber-hardcore level you'd barely get through a week's fixtures in a night's session, but CM4 always gives you the option of filtering out the peripheral detail. It's this ability to play the game as deeply as you require, with a beautiful interface that is ultimately the key to the game's success as it is an everyman game. Pick up and play, tinker like an obsessed lunatic and all points in between; it's hard to think of a single other game out there that allows you to do this. And it's this very element that makes CM such a personal experience; literally every single player of the game will be living their own unique vision of the beautiful game. Or suffering harrowing hardship - it's all down to the decisions you make; the teams you pick, the crazy 8-1-1 tactics you employ and the time you take.
Get Roonaldo as soon as you can…
Talking of time, you reap what you sow in CM4 like never before. As we've discussed, the layers of detail enable a breathtaking amount of micromanagement that can have a subtle effect on what goes on on the pitch. The team, of course, will be your prime concern, and careful observation of their personalities, contracts, and physical attributes are all important. Even with the right qualities, in the right positions, and with the correct team balance, success can be an elusive quest. But part of the fun of CM is the trial and error; you may not realise what works until several seasons into the game - at which point it may well be too late. One tactic we always employ is to play the game for a few seasons, find out who the real bargains are, and start over, identifying the transfer targets. Signing Wayne Rooney in pre-season is always a good one (after all, who had heard of him back in July last year?).
The much vaunted 2D match engine is clearly the biggest addition to CM4. By default, the game flicks to an overhead viewpoint of the pitch and displays numbered, coloured blobs to represent the players. It takes a little bit of getting used to, but it gives instant feedback on how your team in performing: are they being beaten for pace? How sharp is your No.9 in front of goal? Is your central defender winning the aerial duels? All these previously difficult to determine factors are answered in seconds, and the more you get involved in the game, the easier it becomes to work out who deserves to be in the team, and who deserves to warm the bench.
Of course, the running text commentary still delivers an atmospheric sense of anticipation but being able to actually see your onrushing forward in the 2D engine takes away some of the old magic. But in reality, you get a far better idea of the relative merits of your (and your opposition's) team, which was never that easy with the old system of playing blindfolded. Many still argue that a fully realised 3D match engine would be the ultimate way of displaying highlights, but we suspect that this is not something Sports Interactive would consider, at the risk of diluting the purity of the game. Looking at our crystal (foot)ball, however, it can't be beyond the realms of possibility to imagine CM5 in 2007(?) sporting a glitzier approach to the match highlights. Think of all that power at their disposal.
Even rubbish PCs will run it
Back to the present, CM4 is considerate when it comes to your PC's capabilities. One of the most intelligent elements of the series is its ability to run on a vast array of PCs, from the creaking underpowered relics upwards, taking advantage of any extra processing power or memory capabilities if they're there. The latest version does this even better than previously, even to the extent of making recommendations of how many leagues your machine is capable of running simultaneously. Admittedly, we weren't prepared to go against this advice, but by following the recommended settings, the number crunching was pleasingly swift, even on a relatively underpowered laptop.
At the risk of turning this review into a dissertation, CM4's feature list is exhaustive to the point of madness. Every element of training, scouting, injuries, the media, commercial opportunities, and the all-important transfer market management is handled with such conviction, it's clear that this project has been a labour of love for everyone connected with the game. The old adage of Sports Interactive creating a game that they themselves would want to play is never more apparent. Of course it's utterly self indulgent, but in the most gloriously satisfying and complete way possible. It doesn't get any better than this; fact…until the next CM, naturally.
Kiss my face
The greatness of CM4 screams at you from every angle: it has a fantastic user interface that even the complete ChampMan novice can slip straight into, is underpinned by a staggering amount of depth to cater for literally anyone, and is frighteningly realistic - not to mention ridiculously entertaining. As we scribe, the game has already smashed the sales record for the fastest-selling PC game ever. If you're a PC-owning football fan, you owe it to yourself to own this game - it's that simple. The ultimate fantasy football? Back of the net.