On the surface, Championship Manager 2008 looks to be an improvement over last year's effort, playing at a higher resolution with a slicker-looking interface, but underneath this gloss, the gameplay fails to satisfy. To live out the dream of being a football manager, you take control of one of any number of club teams and--simultaneously, if you want--a national team, with the aim being to win all the real-life competitions your team faces. Teams and competitions come from leagues across the globe, with most countries having at least their top two leagues represented, and some, such as Italy and England, having five. You pick the team each week, negotiate transfers, settle contracts, oversee training, and have a certain amount of control pitch-side on match days.
The most obvious change on match days from Championship Manager 2007 is the representation of the match itself. The 3D match engine is similar to last year, with players represented by coloured vertical cylinders that jump, slide, and fall in a more convincing manner than before, but while the engine is watchable, the play itself doesn't feel quite right. Little things, such as the regular occurrence of goalkeepers scoring their own goals from corners, do make the games seem much less real, and in a game such as this, it's those little details that make the difference.
The match-day control itself feels very limited--you can make substitutions, change formation, and plan moves around set pieces, but you have very little control over your team's overall style of play. Rather than being able to control individual aspects, such as speed, width, and the fervour of your attacks individually, you are forced into simply choosing what your attack style to be or if you just want the team to waste time.
The interface you are presented with when the match engine isn't running--you only see selected highlights--is significantly different from last year. In CM07, you were presented with a wall of constantly changing statistics, representing percentages of possession, tackles, and almost anything else you could wish to see. However, now you are presented with static views of the two team formations with each player's morale and current performance marked next to his name. While this helps with making speedy substitutions because you know which players are underperforming before going into the substitution menu, all the information is duplicated there anyway. This change might make match days look friendlier for newcomers to the game, but the only real effect is a loss of information for the player as the match goes progresses.
You can set tactics before the match, as well as during the game, but the interface for both is clunky. During the match, you can drag and drop players in your squad to make substitutions. However, if you're setting up your squad for the next game or playing with ideas for new formations and line-ups, you can't do this in what is otherwise an identical-looking interface when there isn't a match.
One other problem that occurs on match days is the limited options presented to you for pre-match and half-time team talks. You are presented with up to four different--but very specific--options of things to say to your team, but it is rare that one represents what you actually want to say. For example, early on in one season, we beat struggling Derby County by nine goals to nil, but on coming to play them again a few months later, we were only presented with pre-match team-talk options suitable for a match the team would struggle to win. Sometimes these options are even more nonsensical: Playing a local rival in a major cup final, for instance, you may be presented with the option to tell your players that a draw would be as bad as losing for the fans because it's a local derby, despite the fact that a draw isn't possible in such a game. Player options have a similar problem--you are presented with a number of vague options for player feedback on top of the general team talk, but it is just as rare for these to provide the option for something you would actually want to say.
Derby matches are also the cause of another of the game's more inexplicable errors. Playing as Chelsea, it's disconcerting to receive a notice from your board telling you of its disappointment at your recent loss to "derby rivals Manchester United." These niggling problems aren't limited to match days and their immediate aftermath either. The messaging system through which the game passes you news and updates on everything from transfer speculation to injury news is clunky--even if you're in your inbox, you need to manually scroll up to read new messages. There's also no way to mark messages as read without reading the contents, meaning you have to open irrelevant items.
As well as being annoyed by the mode of delivery, you may take issue with the contents. Your physiotherapists may send generic messages, appending the word "injury" to the end of every condition after every single match even when this is completely unnecessary. Or you may receive messages informing you of stories in the press about you or your players that you can't respond to, which all adds up to an unsatisfactory experience.
The sound has taken a step back from last year. The few aural confirmations from the interface have been removed, as have the half- and full-time whistles on match days. The latter change certainly makes for a much less engaging experience, as it becomes hard to tell straight off when play has actually stopped.
One of Championship Manager's major selling points for more hardcore fans should be the integration of ProZone analysis tools, which also represent one of the game's only major pieces of external branding, but even this doesn't really work in the way one would hope.
ProZone is a tool used by professional football coaches and managers to gain tactical insight by looking at play patterns, groups of events--such as set pieces--or player data and comparing them over the course of one match or several. The full tool is said to be used by many Premiership clubs as an aid for finding and solving problems on the field that might not be immediately apparent.
After each match, you are provided with the ProZone tool's key points, which can then be gone into in more depth, but these condensed highlights are often unhelpful and seem to contradict the match experience. It is not uncommon, for example, to be told that your opponents defended well, were hard to break down, and hardly let anything through all afternoon when you've just beaten them by a three or four goal margin. If you go deeper into the tool, you can analyse every single play during the match to try to eke out a little bit more performance from your team, but the game rarely becomes challenging enough for that to be necessary or rewarding.
Ultimately, Championship Manager doesn't seem to be sure who it's meant for, which is its problem. The difficulty level and interface changes suggest it's aimed at the more casual player, but the lack of licences, music, graphics, or decent contextual help system mean that it's likely to put off all but serious fans of the genre. This lack of identity, combined with the in-game errors, mean that once again Championship Manager is hard to recommend to all but the most fervent fans of the series. While the game is playable and may provide a couple of seasons' worth of fun for those who can overlook the above issues, Football Manager does a better job for anyone interested in serious management games, while FIFA Manager may suit those with a more casual interest.