As you head into Eidos' London headquarters, there's a noticeable buzz around the place. First of all, the highly publicised Square Enix takeover could see the company under completely new ownership before this year's E3. Secondly, the internal studio behind Championship Manager is about to put out this year's game, which could be the most important version in the series' 18-year history. You see, CM09 is a conscious decision to reboot the franchise--to right the wrongs of the past few years of lazy updates and finally provide a worthy challenger to Football Manager's throne. With a month until the game's kickoff, we were invited into the inner sanctum of Beautiful Game Studios to talk to general manager Roy Meredith and see some exclusive new features from the game.
According to Meredith, the focus for the new Championship Manager is in creating "fun between matches." The game will still have plenty of match-day features, but for BGS the focus has been to make the Monday-Friday job as fun as possible. What you have is a game in which the core management components have been refined and improved, and extraneous features such as stadium design have been stripped out. There's also been a focus on clean and simple presentation, Google-esque information-management tools, and Sky Sports-like visual feedback.
Jumping into the game itself, we saw exactly what Meredith was talking about. The menus all have individual visual signatures that, though incidental, should help you subconsciously identify which menu you're in. The Sky Sports-like presentation is no accident, either: Ticker-tape news updates feed info at the top of every screen, and news information is sorted into folder trees on the bottom left. That's not to say that the game is flashy, though; it feeds back key information such as player form just by hovering the cursor over a player's name.
The game's communication menus follow a similar design ethos, and it's clear that Beautiful Game Studios has learnt a lot from modern e-mail-management systems. Your e-mail system will bombard you with information on every aspect of your club, but you're encouraged to filter out the extraneous details and focus on what you want to see as a manager. In real life, Alex Ferguson won't be e-mailed details of a player injury, and if you're hands-on with your team, you might not want to receive that information either. Other people may want to have every last offer, loan, and transfer detail sent to them to digest once a week, so the system can be tailored to fit your expectations.
Alongside your messages is the media tab, called The Back Page. This tab is like having a subscription to the world's biggest news outlets, and you can subscribe to your favourites just like you would in an RSS reader. Officially licensed publications such as The Sun, Daily Mail, and The Guardian fill you in on all of the happenings around the world, and as with the e-mail system, you can filter what you want to see, such as domestic or international news.
After giving us a brief overview of the menu system, the conversation turned to the delicate issue of teams and licences. The English Premier League features correct, up-to-date teams and players, but the official team logos were sadly not included. Meredith is honest about the licensing problems involved, which he puts down to EA's exclusive agreements, but on the plus side the Spanish LFP has been acquired. Furthermore, the game goes incredibly deep with the number of leagues on offer, in England even going down to the seventh-tier Ryman league.
In terms of the management itself, it looks as though Beautiful Game Studios has trodden a fine line between depth and accessibility. Nearly every menu that we saw offered a great deal of tweakable options, but there was also the ability to delegate a lot of options. For example, you can get the computer to autopick a squad for you; it won't be the most efficient team, but it will be able to play a match. However, those who really want to get into team management can create A and B teams and then fine-tune the positions by experimenting in practice games on the training ground.
The training system also looks like it's set up in a highly logical manner, being based around graphical feedback. Sliders let you quickly change the areas that you want to focus on, and graphs show you the chance of injury that might result from your actions. Meredith showed how from Monday to Wednesday you can give your team individual sessions, whereas on Thursday and Friday you can run practice matches between your A and B team.
The final feature that we got to see was the new set-piece editor, which lets you set up and practice around 40 to 50 different routines. You can drag your players into specific positions and map out five stages, with each kick of the ball forming one separate stage. Meredith was keen to stress the importance of this mode, claiming that as in real life, 60 percent of all goals in the game will be scored with set pieces. Once you've set up your drills, you can then jump into the game and see them being played out in 3D, and the game moves impressively swiftly between editor and match engine. You can also set up defensive set plays, although Meredith warns about overwhelming your players with information. Having too many set pieces can cause players to forget what they're doing, and they will actually make mistakes if you push them too far. That said, ex-Leeds United Goalkeeper and Carlisle United Manager Mervyn Day has apparently been toying around with the tools for hours, and the results may be uploaded to the CM Web site postrelease.
As for the matches themselves, the big new talking point is the 3D engine. The engine has been programmed completely in-house, and though you won't get to see accurate player likenesses or realistic stadiums, we're impressed with the results. The camera is positioned far away, letting you see your formation and set pieces being played out, and you also get visual feedback on how well your games are being attended. There will also be snow, fog, and rain effects, with a promised result on the physics of the ball, whereas smaller clubs will also see their grass being degraded by the weather and overall usage. There will be different sizes of stadiums, with bigger ones having running tracks around the outside, but they won't be modeled on real-life stadiums and they won't be customisable.
Championship Manager 2009 will be released on April 24, with a demo promised toward the end of March. Postrelease, Beautiful Game Studios promises to update the game with data patches, plus there'll be a feature to upload videos of your set pieces to the site and YouTube. Clearly, a lot of effort has gone into improving the game, and the results are looking promising. But will it be enough to bring Championship Manager back into the premier league? Find out in our review next month.