Last year's Championship Manager was a big step forward as the series made a determined effort to reclaim its pre-Football Manager glory days. While many aspects were improved, it was still a tad cumbersome, which is why the aim this year has been to improve information flow and make it more engaging for the user. But there's so much more to it than that.
Taking a leaf out of Sky Sports News' book, the game now features dynamic information displays which adapt according to what you're viewing at the time. Data screens are also easier on the eye thanks to glossier windows and subtle movement in the backgrounds. It doesn't sound like much, but considering you could be staring at these screens for 100 hours or more, it's welcome.
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Aesthetics aside, there are plenty of meaty improvements to the experience, the biggest of which is the bespoke 3D match engine. Arguably this should have been included last year, but at least it's here now and it works. It's not going to win any awards for graphical detail, being as it is a very basic interpretation of the pitch, but the players move smoothly and even feature some advanced animations, such as falling over after particularly stretched crosses.
There are five views in this mode, from a television-style broadcast angle all the way down to a top-down view, complete with what we suppose have to now be called 'retro 2D player indicators'. In other words, the coloured discs of last year.
There are different stadia, but we're not talking FIFA levels of detail here (well, a cleaned-up FIFA '98, perhaps). More importantly, weather types will feature and there will also be pitch degradation over the course of each season, with the groundskeeper's budget affecting repair quality. So while Man Utd may finish with a pristine playing surface, the Bournemouth Cherries may not.
The game menus have been simplified so that any manager will be able to look at the screen and immediately understand the condition of their players. For instance, in team sheets, players now have colour-coded lozenge-shaped indicators next to their name to indicate status problems, such as injury, international duty, whether they're wanted by other clubs or being rested. If a player has two or more status flags, a simple hover over the button will display them.
Scouting plays a much bigger role in the new game. As a manager, you can decide how much money you want to spend on scouting in a particular region. It's not a magic research tool, either, with the quality of the reports reflecting the money put into them. For instance, if a scout only sees a striker in one game (and he doesn't score), his return verdict on shooting ability could be 15-90. Watch a whole season and the score will be narrowed down to 76-80. That's a really nice touch.
Also new is the set-piece creator. This lets you set up free kick and corner positions for your players, with up to five phases per set-piece. You can then watch the 3D match engine rehearse it, before tweaking it accordingly. While you can save these and share them with your mates, their effectiveness will vary according to your team. If Drogba and Lampard link up well in one move, it doesn't mean Fabregas and Arshavin will necessarily work as well in the same situation.
With Season Live mode allowing you to subscribe to real-life transfer and status updates and then manage a real-life scenario mid-season, the game is likely to remain fresh all year. Couple that with a frankly unbelievable 'pay however much you think it's worth' business model at launch and Football Manager must surely be looking over its shoulder.
We'll have a review soon, but in the mean-time, get out your chalkboard and start designing those set-pieces. It'll pay dividends when the new season of Championship Manager kicks off on September 11 on PC.