Championship Manager 4
'Addictive' is a much abused term when used in connection with videogames, and people have been bandying it around for decades now. In the early days of videogames magazines, the seminal Crash even used to rate a game's 'Addictive Qualities'. If Championship Manager had been around in that sepia tinted era, it would deserve 100 per cent. Nothing else in this author's 25 years of playing videogames has quite inspired the long term obsessive compulsive addiction that CM has. In the mid 90s, around the time of CM2, it was almost impossible to think about anything else. We can think of no higher complement than it became more important than real footy - and remember what Bill Shankly said about football being more important than life and death? Yes, it was that bad.
In the end it was a case of weaning ourselves off the game for the sake of our mental health. We purposely steered clear of CM3's various season updates for this very reason - apart from anything else, we missed playing other games, not to mention our social life. But this dangerous addiction may have to be revived, albeit temporarily, with the release of CM4 around the corner. We, like everyone else, waited patiently to download the 30MB 'Beta Demo' which went up on the SIGames.com site last Friday. But unlike other games, CM takes a fair amount of investigation to unravel its subtleties - some of which players won't experience for months.
It's a personal thing
As a game CM4 is almost impossible to properly review. Your impression of the game will be entirely personal to how deep you want to go into the management of your club. On a basic level you can pick a team, select the squad, and play the matches just as you always could, but the differences for version four are numerous. The interface, for starters, is far more intuitive this time around, and it immediately makes the game more navigable with a series of drop-down menus that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Windows standard. It may sound unexciting, and we can almost hear the sneers of the "it's just Excel" crowd from here, but anything that makes one of the greatest games ever made more slick and fun to play deserves to be applauded.
One of the key, and much talked about additions is the game's 2D 'bird's eye view' match engine, which enables players to really see the shape of their team, and make tactical changes based around this if, say, your full back is continually being skinned by the opposition's nippy winger. In the demo this overhead view only kicks in once there's a key moment of action, although the full release will allow you to watch the entire match like this. Personally, seeing the game played like this does take some getting used to, and in a way strips away some of the old magic of previous versions. Sometimes part of the charm is using you imagination to picture what your bunch of cloggers are up to, and holding your breath as the text commentary builds up your moves. Seeing a bunch of blobs moving around a screen, while it does give you an infinite amount more feedback on the reality of how your team is performing (and by extension individual players), it's something we believe will only be of real use once you've been playing the game for an extensive amount of time - which we clearly haven't, admittedly.
Worthy of note is the presence of 39 national leagues (with more to come in the patch, we understand), with reportedly over 200,000 players and staff. We seriously pity the poor bastards at Sports Interactive and its worldwide network of 'helpers' for having to input and check (and make realistic) the players and management of every single major league in the world. For us, we're only interested in the English league and always have been - it could have 100 leagues for all we care, but what it does offer is a bewildering choice, and makes the game a truly global commercial entity enabling footy fans all around the world to join in the fun. In addition, if you're really that insane, you can scour each and every one of these leagues for unheralded talent - and pick up some serious bargains in the process, we'd wager. But we're talking about people who never play any other game, spending literally hundreds of hours creating their perfect team. It's that type of game. We've been there. It's a deranged state of mind one step away from actual madness.
Play it the way you want to play it
One of the areas that most people tend to overlook about ChampMan is all this detail, all these stats, all the layers of coaching, transfer wheeler dealing, reserve, youth teams, the works, is that it's only there if you want it. One of our favourite things about CM2 was that it seemed to offer the perfect amount of features for our taste. In our humble opinion, most of these new features are superfluous for the likes of us, but the genius is that you can just filter them out. Not interested in your youth squad? Fine. Just leave it to your staff to take care of. Haven't a clue what your strongest eleven is? Let your assistant pick the team for you. It's just so slick and intuitive, some of the tasks that took an age to perform in previous versions can be performed with consummate ease, allowing those who just want to rip through a few matches the chance to just 'get on with it'.
Given that this is a BETA demo, it's not perfect. For example, we had a real headache trying to work out something as basic as switching our formation from the default 4-4-2. Although you can drag players to whatever position you fancy, and create your own crazy 8-1-1 formation, we fancied just flicking through a few of the preset formations. Scanning for a formation tab proved utterly fruitless, and frustrating - it wasn't until we were informed that around 20 formations are selectable via the 'Load Tactics' option that we realised that this wasn't some custom tactical option. Sometimes it's the simple things that catch you out, but after 10 years of playing this game in various incarnations it did seem odd to be stumped by such a fundamental thing. Apart from this example of our rank stupidity, we found the whole experience to be super slick, and it should perform admirably on even fairly low-specced PCs - which so many PC developers overlook.
Bang, there goes the weekend
It's just as well this isn't likely to appear on the shelves until March 28th, as the depth is staggering and we're going to need weeks to uncover its many hidden charms. Expect us to emerge blinking into the daylight sometime around the end of March with a full review - barring injury or suspension, of course.