Every now and then I get into the management mood. A mood that has me pining for the good old days of pure strategy, managing your favourite team to glory. As far as management sims go though, those based on soccer have always lead the pack, possibly something to do with it being the most played game in the world I guess. Any wannabe manager needs to prove himself in this environment to count himself up there among the virtual greats. Championship Manager has had a 10-year stranglehold in this department, so Total Club Manager 2003 is up against the best of the best.
TOTAL club manager
The first thing that hit me was the word ‘Total’. Sure there’s been many a claim to having all the areas of management covered, but none so bold as to put it in the title. It seems to exude confidence in itself and suggests inadequacies in other management sims. ‘Time will tell’ I thought as I ripped open the packing and installed away. As usual the slow install process is a good (and possibly only) time to have a quick flick through the manual. Seems light on for a management sim, and having a skip through some sections it seemed pretty succinct and to the point. Later on I realised that the wealth of stats and inner calculations that usually accompany a game like this were absent. No great loss, but makes understanding and optimising the game a tad harder. Luckily the internet can help out in that regard. Installation was a breeze (as expected nowadays) so I sit back and watch the intro for the first and only time before starting a new game.
One of the first choices of the game is probably one of the biggest. Along with choosing the number of players, you get to choose whether to start as a manger for hire, a manager already hired at your chosen club, or fixed club. Fixed club allows you to always stay at your club, regardless of the performance you do. Good for starters, but you miss out on some of the pressures of keeping your job. Starting as a manager for hire almost always means you will have to start from the lowest division (Conference league for England) with only a few teams putting in an offer for your service. Most would go for the real career with club selection, although choosing a top team when you are a novice manager still creates some difficulties. Me, I typically play with a lowly 3rd division team called Rochdale as that is where my Dad grew up. It has always been a good, challenging side to build from the ground up. A few more housekeeping stats to fill in and off to windy spotland I go!
Assistant Managers are your friends
As with other management sims, the game is broken down into weekly ‘turns’. Not turns as such, but you have to plan all the things to do for the coming week before you hit ‘Proceed’. At the start of the game there is a LOT to do before going anywhere near the ‘Proceed’ button. There are existing players to review, team tactics to review, individual and team training to get into shape, new people to hire to flesh out the team, talented youth to sign up, plan training camps or friendlies, and so on. Luckily there are assistant managers for almost every section of the game, and although your personal touch could bring an advantage, at least they won’t forget something vitally important (like signing up sponsors) and will generally run their section OK. For beginners it’s a good idea to turn them all on and let them go a fair way into the season to get a more leisurely feel for what is going on. You can take over any section at any time or let them regain control at the click of a button, so it allows great freedom in choosing what you want to do in this game. For a more permanent solution you can also hire specific managers for each role that take over from the honorary delegates (read, freebies). They have bonuses such as a talent scout knowing a lot about a certain country, or a financial manager gaining a 10% bonus on advertising. They come at a pretty hefty cost, but will certainly do a better job than the originals if you aren’t going to go anywhere near that area. This flexibility is great for beginners and advanced players alike as it allows you to more play the game YOU want to play.
About 80% of your time is probably going to be taken up by what’s happening off the pitch, so it’s important to quickly get a hold of moving around ‘The Menu’ which dominates the interface. The Menu breaks the game into 19 separate areas. 1 for the weekly news & summaries, 4 for looking after your team, 4 for finding new players, 6 for looking after the financials and 4 game related items. Each area is typically a flat screen showing information relevant to that area, while moving the mouse to the right-most edge or pressing the menu button pulls up The Menu to allow navigation between areas. Hopping from one area to another is pretty simple, however it lacks an integrated feel somehow. Recent Championship Managers have had a semi-hyperlinked feel where right clicking on any player’s name, team name, etc. allow you to jump straight to that item and then keep drilling from there to other relevant information. With Total Club Manager it is easier to jump from one whole section to another, but more difficult to find a related piece of information.
An example is looking for stats on the team you are about to play next. You can click on ‘match info’ and find out a handy little summary of the next team, however this doesn’t show the current tactical formation used or who is likely to be playing. Digging up the team in the stats section shows this type of information, but is them hard to visualise a summary. Once you get the hang of knowing what you want and where to go to get that information the interface works well, however it’s not as intuitive as I’d hoped. Management games are almost akin to data analysis where there is way too much information to possibly process, so you need tools to quickly cut through the chaff and tell you what it is you want to know. Looking for a left-footed striker that wants to move to your club? Is Harry Kewell fit enough to play the next match? Is it worthwhile upgrading the stadium? The questions you can ask are almost as varied as the data itself, so the program is rated by how it responds to these questions and how easy it is for the user to get the question answered.
3D or text ?
In an interesting move, you have the ability to watch the game being played either in 3D using the FIFA 2002 engine or in a more traditional text mode where you see a running commentary of the game at hand. I’ve always been sceptical of a management game that utilised a 3D (or 2D top down view) engine as it rarely captures the tactical and positional changes requested by yours truly, as well as sometimes lacking in atmosphere.
You may think it strange that a 3D view lacks atmosphere over a simple line of text with possibly some crowd noises chucked in for good measure, but the one thing that traditional text modes have over their 3D counterparts is imagination. A good text engine can describe a game very well by simply using highlights and allowing the player’s imagination to fill in the blanks, and since they have been around since the beginning they have become very good indeed. With all that said, I’m pleased to announce that the match engine oozes atmosphere, and there is something special about seeing a new signup blast in an equaliser from 40 metres out! Combined with the text engine being not quite up to the standards of others like Championship manager, the 3D mode is great to watch and more likely conveys more atmosphere about the game than the conventional mode. The commentary is superb, the actions are as lifelike as I’ve seen (well, being the same as FIFA 2002); the whole thing is simply watchable.
Although the harder task of getting the atmosphere right has been achieved, the feeling that you are in control is lost in the 3D mode. If you stray from the pre-built tactical formations such as 4-4-2, the engine has troubles integrating that into the game. Strikers often act like wingers and always want to cross the ball instead of having a go themselves. You have some limited interaction with the players by being able to yell ‘pass’, ‘shoot’, ‘tackle’, etc from the sidelines. Sometimes this is effective, but doesn’t make up for poor positional play, something the engine struggles with. Changes to tactics or field position seem to have little to no effect. Playing against a team using both the 3D engine and the text engine also gives wildly differing results, with the text engine capable of many more yellows, reds, dummy spits, injuries and even goals. The 3D engine is like a sanitised version of the game, and although the time accelerates, it still feels as though it is only a 20-minute game, not a true reflection of a 90-minute gruelling match.
I believe this all stems from the use of the FIFA engine. Although they gained a great deal of code and work by bringing on board this great engine, it still feels like it has been bolted on. It seems as if the TCM coders had to work within the frameset given to them by the what the FIFA engine could do, a very likely scenario since this is their first attempt at expanding the engine’s repertoire. Hopefully in coming years this integration will become cleaner and managers can finally see the fruits of their trade in glorious 3D.
Total Club Manager is a hard game to classify. It has by far and away the best 3D engine presented to managers, but serious managers would more likely find their satisfaction in the text engine. Budding managers can get a really good leg-up into management sims by letting the assistant managers run around doing most of the work, but may still find it a tough leap to get into the whole game proper. To me the thing this game does best is the day-to-day management of your training. The crux of this game is to get in there yourself and balance the fitness and fatigue of your players while still attempting to eek out a few skills exercises so your young stars to reach their potential. In a way it is like one giant jigsaw puzzle of optimisation that all goes to hell when you find your heavily fatigued squad is facing 3 matches this week!
As I was playing this game it felt as though it was 3 different games in one. There’s The Menu, the 3D engine and the text engine, all seeming like they have been mooshed together to form this game. Independently they work marvellously, but together there just seems to be something missing. As part of the EA sports lineup I believe this game has a lot going for it in the future, and once the FIFA engine is given a chance to settle into its new management role it will be unbeatable. It will be interesting seeing Championship Manager 4’s attempt at a 2D match engine in February. I believe that the existing fans will keep supporting that title, however the new generation are probably going to come EA’s way.