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Championship Manager 2006

There's a theory known as Beardsley's Law, which states that good looks are inversely proportionate to footballing brilliance. I've just made that up, but it's plausible, considering that for every David James, the game throws up a few Wayne Rooneys and Neville brothers to dazzle us on the field but disgust us off it.

Enter CM 2006, almost as ugly as ever despite a tarted-up match engine, and raring to test Beardsley's Law, with claims that it's the management balm we'll want to apply when England flop out of the World Cup this summer.

Since we last grilled the game's maker before Christmas, CM 2006 has taken to wearing a mask, and it's not to hide the blushes of dev team (wait for it) Beautiful Game Studios.

The mask in question is a tactical development tweak to hide the attributes of lesser-known players, which were so wantonly on display in earlier preview builds. It's an optional fog of war that breathes new life into a scouting system in danger of stillbirth thanks to the pointlessness of having to evaluate potential signings when you could already clearly see their various stats and abilities.

Last-minute fine-tuning aside, the developmental die was cast for CM 2006 the moment the ink dried on reviews of its critically whipped predecessor. This is a conscious attempt to put right what went wrong in CM5, and so resurrect the series.

A huge amount of effort has clearly gone into making the experience more fun, more solid and more realistic. Many areas of the game have been pulled off the field of play for an ear-bashing, before being told to improve their performance and shoved back into the action.

Particular attention has been lavished on the media and interaction aspects. Playing the game, we learned that a nifty press breakdown of your opponent's threats precedes every match and we even enjoyed Lee Bowyer merrily chirping about being "chuffed" to be in the first team. These neat touches bode well for the finished article.

Our first forays into the game also showed us that solving Shay Given's salary concerns with an arm round the shoulder could be just as important as fielding the right backline in the coming derby match. However, the long-term effects of one-to-one management remain to be seen.

Transfers have also clearly been given the hairdryer treatment. Every man has his price in a game that is designed to facilitate transfer deals without making your swoops too easy. You must negotiate deals and pay realistic salaries for the pleasure of your target's company on the team bus. It's an undeniable step up from CM5.

Homing in on new signings should be easier than in the often statistically bizarre CM5, too. Data comes courtesy of OPTA and fleshes out a worldwide roster of players, managers and staff.

And in a late substitution since we last saw CM 2006 in action, the Simulate World option, which plays out matches in the background leagues so you can eye-up transfer targets, has been extended to encompass all players in the database.

Despite this apparent emphasis on realism, BGS is challenging for honours on two fronts. On the one hand it's trying to cater for hardcore virtual managers with tactical options and AI depth, and on the other, it's set up a match engine that enables you to whip through games at lightning pace and a club benefactor option to swell your coffers, making life easier for new bosses.

The lessons of history, however, suggest that even the big boys of management focus on one trophy at a time.

And with Football Manager 2006 already runaway champions of the Hardcore Realism League and FIFA Manager 06 retaining the Accessibility Cup, neutrals will hope CM's comeback kid can rise to challenge this gaming duopoly. Go get 'em, Champ.

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