With increased depth, a better match engine, and endless training tools, Championship Manager 2010 should be a triumphant return to form for the football management series, but its lack of attention to detail means that it ends up falling well short of its lofty goals.
At first glance, the 2010 iteration of this troubled franchise looks to do a lot of things right. The team behind it didn't put out a game in 2008 in an effort to rebuild Championship Manager into a game worthy of the name once synonymous with the best in the genre. That work is obvious from the moment you start up the game, as the menus look cleaner and the animations are sharper.
Unfortunately, this veneer starts to crack the moment you come to pick a team to manage. There are more leagues to choose from this time around, but that said, there are a couple of glaring omissions. While Championship Manager goes into some depth across a total of 32 countries, these are mostly European. And, while there are leagues from the likes of Japan, Argentina, and Brazil, the MLS from the USA is entirely absent.
So you choose your team and get thrust into the preseason, and this is where problems really begin. Small details can be inordinately important in some games, and this is especially true of management games that rely on massive amounts of detail to draw you into their version of the football world under the premise that it's the closest thing to reality. The first thing that strikes you in this regard is looking down your team roster at the start of the preseason and seeing that all of your players are 100 percent match fit and ready to go. This means that your challenge at the start of the season has more to do with making sure none of your players are too tired for the big kickoff rather than the more realistic challenge of trying to get your team and new signings up to speed after the summer break.
The problems then continue off the pitch. Whether it's dealing with transfer rumours dominating your news ticker after the window has closed, learning that thousands of fans took to the streets to celebrate a Chelsea Community Shield victory on penalties, or having bans being applied in the wrong competitions, Championship Manager never quite gets it right.
Similar but more serious issues about detail bedevil the improved match engine. It looks like a massive step forward when you first watch a game play out because the models actually look like people running around for the very first time, many goals look really convincing when knocked in, and strikers' celebrations add great flavour to the game. However, it just goes to show up the underlying code's limitations; defenders are liable to make suicidal passes, strikers and wingers have an alarming habit of leaving the ball behind when they tootle off on runs, and goalkeepers often catch the ball when facing the wrong way. Add to this the seemingly arbitrary system for doling out cards--often no contact seems to be shown in the engine while more serious challenges that give away penalties go unpunished--and you have a match day experience that lets you down. These odd issues even out between teams so their influence on results is minimal, but they do make the game significantly less engaging and fun.
It's not just the engine that is found wanting as you play your matches out either. While changes of personnel and formation are your main weapons, the actual control you have seems limited. As with a real game of football, there is nothing more frustrating than playing with one striker upfront only to see him holding the ball up near the corner flag or knocking in crosses to spaces simply occupied by eager defenders. While this does give you the feeling of impotence that is no doubt felt by many leading manager as their charges go astray, it's also very annoying in the context of a game. To make matters worse, there's no option in your post-match team talk to give your individual players the tongue-lashing they deserve for not following your instructions, though you can aggressively express disapproval at the entire team for not scoring goals should you wish.
Other than the engine, the most obvious changes have been made to scouting and training. You can now mould your players to dive more, go around the keeper rather than shoot when one-on-one, or spread the ball wide from defence rather than punt it up the middle--among an almost immeasurable host of other things. All of these changes look really promising, but without a solid match day experience, they ultimately count for nothing except to indicate missed opportunities. The same is true of the set piece creator that's integrated in the training section; it's really very satisfying to see one of your practiced goals go in, but the pleasure is tempered somewhat by the fact you won the free kick from one of your strikers randomly falling over with no apparent contact.
The improved scouting system is a notable highlight, however. You can choose in which countries to allocate your budget and how much money you want to spend researching each area. As you get to know areas better, you get more and better suggestions from your team on which players to take a closer look at, and the ones suggested are generally around the same level as your squad. This ensures that you're not constantly scouting players who are well out of your team's league, if you happen to choose to play as one of the game's smaller clubs.
The game does implement a few other things well; the news reports are excellent at adding some real-life flavour into your season (once you find them--they're not linked from the news ticker, unfortunately) and the stadium sounds are generally excellent. Hearing a massive crowd convincingly "ooh" and "ah" as the ball ricochets off the crossbar or sneaks wide of the post does serve to increase your emotional involvement with each game.
While Championship Manager 2010 is not the triumphant return to form that had been hoped, it is showing signs that it could once again challenge for the title if the details that have derailed it this campaign are addressed. The game looks and feels much better on the surface than in previous years and is--for the first time in a long time--showing serious promise for the future, despite falling short this time around.