As divorces go, the breakup between Sports Interactive and Eidos Interactive has been downright friendly. The developer and publisher split their marital assets down the middle, with the former claiming code base of the Championship Manager series and the latter taking the valuable franchise name. The real winner, however, has to be fans of soccer management sims, who will now have two games to enjoy. But while it remains to be seen how Eidos will fare with Championship Manager 5 when it comes out later this year, Sports Interactive has already moved forward with Worldwide Soccer Manager 2005 (Football Manager 2005 in the UK), a game that is every bit as thorough and addictive as its predecessors.
Although the new name might take a bit of getting used to, the encyclopedic scope of the game design remains the same. As with its Eidos-published forebears, WSM 2005 has more names and numbers crammed into it than the US census. Or at least it seems that way when you're playing the game. Over 2,500 scouts spread across the entire planet have contributed to putting together the game's massive database of leagues, teams, players, and support staff. In total, there are 158 playable first-team leagues here from 51 nations, some 2,351 clubs, and approximately a gajillion players. Soccer may be the world's biggest sport, but somehow Sports Interactive has managed, once again, to cram it onto a single game CD.
Despite this incredible under-the-hood complexity, the game itself isn't all that complicated to play, even for soccer neophytes. No, it's not Ms. Pac-Man, but it is remarkably easy to slip into a campaign managing the soccer club of your choice, as the game design is fully scalable. While you can take the reins as manager and directly oversee every aspect of the club's operation when it comes to looking after the pitch product, you can also assign your assistant coach to the fine details and micromanagement. For example, we didn't want to bother with looking after the reserves or the Under 18 squad with Liverpool, so we turned those duties over to assistant Paco Herrera and focused on the first team. Most responsibilities can be similarly dodged. The assistant does an excellent job, too, even with financial duties, like renewing contracts.
Once you feel more comfortable with additional managerial duties, there aren't any limits to what you can do. Dozens of tactical options allow your team to embrace any style of play that you can imagine. Teams are given orders in 13 categories governing every aspect of play, including mentality, creative freedom, tempo, marking, passing style, and tackling. Want a measured pace reminiscent of Italian Serie A? Turn down the tempo slider bar and switch the passing style to short. Favor an all-out attack as seen in the English Premier League? Crank up the tempo bar and set the mentality to attacking or above. Instructions can also be issued to individual players. Sixteen options let you tell your lads how to handle forward runs, runs with the ball, crosses, location of crosses, and set-piece scenarios like corner kicks and penalties.
Essentially, there are as many ways to fine-tune your roster and its tactics as there are grains of sand on the beach. Every match sees you trying different approaches to get the best possible performance out of your squad on the pitch…and then going back to the drawing board because, as with life in the real sports world, you can never get things perfect. Each new career, each new season, each new game is a wildly different experience from the last.
Even though you're largely repeating the same duties again and again--scouring the transfer market for a piece to complete the puzzle, tweaking match tactics to increase offensive output and shore up the defense, re-upping contracts for players and staff or letting them go, and so on--leagues in WSM 2005 are so organic that the appeal is as hypnotic as that of following a sports league in real life (even more so, since you play a direct role when rivals retool, veterans age, and young stars arrive on the scene). The ground constantly moves under your feet as time passes. Although your job responsibilities never change, the situation does. This forces you to constantly reinvent yourself and your style of managing as the years go by. So do we really have to add that the replay value is through the roof?
The new mind-games feature adds more realism, too, allowing you to invest your manager with distinctive personality traits. Although the game is still primarily about numbers, intangibles can be influenced with choice comments in the media. Want to rile up Arsenal legend Arsene Wenger on the eve of a big match with the defending Premiership champs? Make it publicly known that you can't stand him. Or release a backhanded compliment saying that, although others aren't too keen on his managerial skills, he's always seemed just fine to you.
Of course, playing games with the press can backfire. Attack a rival coach and his team might just respond with its best effort of the year, or you might gain a reputation as a jerk. Praise a rival and you might start to be viewed as a classy guy, but your own players might see you as too much of a softy. All of these points of view can affect whether or not players will sign with your club, how players perform for you, the hiring of staffers, and your chances of landing a new job when you're sacked. How big of a hole you're digging yourself isn't depicted through any visible rating, so you have to be very careful when shooting off your mouth.
Another new addition is the official support of an online multiplayer mode. The mode seems flawless, and there is even a force-continue option to keep everyone moving. But considering that the game is already so incredibly addictive playing solo, it's almost frightening to consider its hold over players taking on other human managers online. Play WSM 2005 in this fashion at your peril.
There are a few minor flaws here, most of the "why hasn't Sports Interactive done this yet?" variety. Visuals are still bland, if clean and attractive from a sports management-sim perspective, and there is very little audio. Load times are longer than they should be, particularly if you're running more than a dozen or so leagues concurrently, and for this reason, simming everything that the game offers at once is practically impossible. A 3D match-view option still hasn't been addressed, even though it has topped the wish list of Championship Manager fans for years now. And the game has been built on the same engine that powered the past two Championship Manager games, so an occasional sense of déjà vu crops up. This isn't entirely unwelcome, as it mostly reminds us that this new series is following in the footsteps of a classic. But at times you still wish that the developers had given the interface a face-lift, or even just tossed in some wildly different fonts.
Overall, though, WSM 2005 is pretty much the perfect sports management game. Even though there remain a few desires to be fulfilled, Sports Interactive has released yet another sports sim that's almost impossible to stop playing. And now that the developer's games are finally being sold in North America under the Sega label, sports fans here can experience what they've been missing during all those years that Championship Manager wasn't available on this side of the Atlantic.