In a period dominated by brain scrambling American election shenanigans, intense action games obsessed with violence, death and retribution, a frantic media obsessed with games obsessed with violence, death and retribution, the death of John Peel, and the hideously unlucky plight of Norwich City, it's good to know that the warm bosom of Sports Interactive is never far away.
In the eye of the Autumn storm there has been, for most years over the last decade the calm, the measured, obsessive compulsive guilty pleasure of Championship Manager. But Championship Manager, until we're proven wrong, is dead. A now meaningless brand name highjacked by impostors determined to make the most money it can out of people's blind ignorance before the game's up and people realise the entire team behind the game moved on and started up a new game.
As the million quid's worth of marketing money should have alerted you by now, that new game is Football Manager 2005. But despite its new 'home ground' of SEGA, it's a game so deeply connected to Championship Manager legend that it's actually made with the very same code base - albeit enhanced - that powered CM4 and CM 03/04. It may be a rebirth in the minds of marketing team, but to the old hands well versed in the ways of the Champman, this is simply SI's latest game. Who cares what it's called? The result's the same; Football Manager 2005 is the only football management game worth bothering with if you've got any real interest in the game.
You'll never click alone
As always seem to be the case whenever SI turns out a new game, it goes ever further than ever before. More teams, more players, more leagues. You get the picture. But there's only so far you can run with that before even fans of the game's eyes begin to glaze over. The changes are, as they've always been, are genuine improvements born out of feedback from the enormous community. Probably one of the most passionately involved communities around; people who would - and do - work for nothing just to make the game better. How else do you suppose 51 league countries, 158 divisions and 5300 playable teams have made it into the game without a little help from their friends? It's a mind boggling task but in some respects a fairly meaningless set of statistics - or they would be if the game underneath wasn't top quality.
What on Earth is there to say about the game that hasn't been pondered over a gazillion times before? It's an intensely personal experience. Every single FM game (or campaign is probably more accurate) you play will be different to the next, and utterly unique to the individual. There are so many potential permutations that it's probably easier to contemplate how big space is that figure out how many possibilities there are in FM.
But while it's possibly one of the biggest, most bloated games ever made, with more statistical depth than your average corporate company tax audit, it's important to emphasise this isn't a game to be scared of. You grow with it, it grows with you. It's the ultimate elastic gaming experience that shrinks to fit, or expands to obese proportions if you let it. The beauty of it, is it's all up to you. Scared of the prospect of nursing your Youth Development through their spotty teens? Then just ignore it; hand the role to someone else and simply get on with whatever it is you want. If you can't be bothered spending 10 minutes picking your first team and deciding on their latest training regime, then leave it to the coaches. It's fine.
Okay, so most of what we've written so far could apply to any of the last handful of CMs, right? So what's new? Well, there's only so much you can add to a football management game without getting into the realms of Total Club Manager's novelty territory; surely it's about the team and only about the team? That was certainly the mantra before, but the biggest addition to the role of management is the increasing role of the boss as front man. The buffer between the club and the players and the media, and your fellow professionals. As we've all seen - especially in the football mentalist countries such as here in the UK and in Italy - the media obsession and involvement in the game is often bordering on unnerving. It can turn previously sane men into gibbering wrecks if things go awry and affect the entire outcome of a season. Messrs Fergie and Wenger are masters of the art and do all they can to instil psychological damage into their opponents when the going gets tough - much to the general amusement to the rest of us.
A football RPG?
In Football Manager these media-lead tussles are split into two, the heavily trailered Manager Mind Games and the general media approaches. You know the type - the ones that try and goad you into snapping back over the (lack of) expectations surrounding the club. Throw in the odd bit of player input and the occasional comment from the board and it's a game that's about so much more than the basic transfer and tactics sim that it was built on. As has been pointed out, it's taking the concept of management and steadily moving it into Role Playing Game territory, and it's all the better because of it.
Manager Mind Games in particular gives players a real chance to create their own personality; a personality that - over time - affects the type of players you're able to sign. If you're always nice and compliment your rivals, some players might respond well to the level of respect you have for others, but on the other hand, being a soft touch could be counter productive. The wonderful part of Football Manager is sussing out for yourself how to behave. Your general gut instinct is to be the nice guy, make everyone happy - but is that really what's required? Sometimes you just don't really know one way or the other what's working and what isn't - but adding a layer of mystery somewhat unravels the cold clinical formula for success that the previous games used to have.
One of the other new additions - the addition of Physioroom's input is fine, and it's certainly welcome to have more realistic and detailed info on what's happening, but it's not as if it makes a significant difference one way or the other to the game. Ultimately you'll soon settle into a pattern of playing the game that soon feels very familiar - an all-too familiar feeling of 'just one more match' or 'just to finish scouring for cheap foreign left wingers'. That endlessly compelling feeling that you're missing out on something. It really does never end, and that's where the trouble starts. The addiction. The compulsion to try and build and conquer and clean up. Next to other games, there's really nothing quite so maddeningly compulsive as a few solid weeks playing nothing but this.
Now in its third code revision since the buggy CM4 emerged, perhaps the happiest thing to report is how slick the whole playing experience is. Throughout the review session we alt tabbed between the game and the desktop, continuing our work while the game sat suspended in the background, sneaking a quick go here and there when the opportunity arose. Not once did the game freak out, and even on a relatively underpowered Centrino laptop it ran fast and smooth without crippling the machine's resources. Admittedly we didn't bother weighing the game down with too many concurrent leagues, but that's just the way we wanted to play it. The chance are if you feel the need to run multiple leagues at once you'll have the kit to run that; we don't see that as important, and for the purposes of what we wanted to do it ran like a dream.
There's no such thing as a review of Football Manager. Much like a role playing game, there's often hundreds of hours of play to go through before you can experience it properly. We wouldn't assume to have seen all there is to see. Perhaps in this game no one ever will, but that's all part of the enigma, and why we insist on coming back for more, because it's all about proving yourself over and over again. It's tough - certainly more challenging than we ever remember it, deep, complex, yet intuitive enough to not frighten off those still contemplating what the fuss is all about. The interface is marvellous, in fact.
But is it perfect? No, of course not. A game as complex and multi faceted as football always provides room for tweaks and additions, and there's always a wish list to wade through before anyone would be truly one hundred per cent satisfied; 3D match engine, dynamic spoken match commentary, and a FIFA/TCM-style integration with a fully playable football game. PES combined with FM, anyone? It's a dream combination, for sure.
Novelty or necessity?
But as much as we long for forward looking integration, we also hanker after slightly more choice; for example, some might rightly argue that media questioning and manager mind games arenít what they want; either too repetitive or just plain intrusive - and the option to filter them out altogether might have been wise. We know that it's a big part of real football management - but so are lots of things that we don't necessarily want to have to go through in our beloved game. The experiment was a noble one, but after a few seasons you might wish you didn't have to bother with it, and let your assistant manage it, just the way it allows them to look after the other areas of the game you'd rather not get your hands dirty with.
Before we draw to a close, a special mention must go to the online multiplayer mode of the game, officially supported for the first time. For a game that involves so much fiddling around, the implementation is excellent, with all manner of customisable options to stop people taking too long to take their turn. We'll truly lose our social life if we get properly embroiled in this. Perhaps we should pass. Computer competition is addictive enough as it is, without throwing in the added drug of nailing your cocky mates.
For such an anachronism as Football Manager 2005 to be as stunningly enjoyable as it is after all this time is a credit to the talented bunch down in Islington. It'll still have the piss ripped out of it for being a spreadsheet number crunching exercise, a game that reduces passion into numbers, but take no notice. It's an abstract extrapolation of emotions. A beautiful game of the beautiful game. Chaotically absorbing. Get me away from it before I lose another girlfriend.