Ever since the Championship Manager series changed hands to Beautiful Game Studios it's struggled to compete with Sports Interactive's Football Manager. FM is so slick, refined and most importantly realistic that CM has seemed less like a title contender and more like a second division team struggling to find the right formula for success. This year showed signs of being different. The team took its time to work on the 2010 edition of the game, built tons of new features, made it more accessible and there was a genuine feeling that it might just have a chance of lifting a trophy. The result is the best CM game we've played in years, but it's still got some way to go before it'll replace FM as our managerial game of choice.
Anyone familiar with the previous CM will instantly see that 2010 looks and feels very different. The interface is a huge improvement, with the menu system being slicker and easier to use - a long way from the fairly dull, and in some cases ugly design of CM08. It's perhaps a small thing, but this level of polish makes a big difference when you're going to be looking at these same menu screens day after day after day.
More striking is the new 3D graphics engine, which initially appears to be quite wonderful. Matches play out with a visual quality we just haven't seen in a football management game before, players run about with what seems like a good understanding of the game, and there are some stunning flowing moves that result in glorious goals. This sadly isn't how you'll feel after spending some serious time with the game, though, with an absolutely unforgivable number of ludicrous player decisions often ruining what could have been the game's defining feature.
Small issues, like players bumping into each other, could be tolerated given the general quality of the visuals, but players giving away goals in the most ridiculous fashion over and over again simply isn't. We've had defenders kick the ball out for a corner without an attacker even so much as glancing in their direction - concede a goal from the corner and the anger is hard to contain. At other times players seem to have little to no clue about the rules of football in the first place. At 2-1 down you don't expect your strikers to run into the corner and remain there for as long as possible as the clock ticks down into injury time. Moments like this occur far too frequently to be overlooked and will frustrate anyone who has invested a serious amount of time in the game.
With the most important aspect of the game somewhat flawed, many of the big improvements don't have the impact they could have had. The game as a whole is far more accessible than ever before, complete with loads of helpful tool tips and mini tutorials. You're now able to train your players in real time and try out new tactics without putting your reputation and job on the line in a real match. It would have been good to get more feedback on just what your training is doing, but it's still an improvement over previous games.
If you want to feel even more in control you can build your own set pieces, working on them on the training pitch before seeing it play out in a real game. Scoring from a free kick you've master minded is brilliant, and is exactly the kind of feeling you want from a managerial game. Virtual football management has always been about immersing yourself in the experience, so it's a shame that CM2010 doesn't achieve this across the board.
Take post-match feedback, for example. You can give your overall opinion on the performance to the entire team, but why is there no option to give a grilling to a lazy striker or a defender that took too many liberties at the back? The ProZone is now a great way to see just who isn't performing, but it almost feels worthless when you can't shout at whoever isn't pulling their weight.
Other aspects of the game even manage to outshine the great Football Manager, with the more realistic transfer negotiation system offering just about the best implementation we've seen in any video game. Talks are often drawn out, players tend to make decisions that you'd expect them to in real life, and there's a sense that if you can put together a great package then you're in with a chance. It works really well and makes buying and selling great fun. Scouting, too, is an area in which the game has come on leaps and bounds. Put in the effort to improve your scouting and the rewards will speak for themselves. There are even some wonderful news reports, although the game doesn't seem to want to make a big deal out of them, despite their ability to make you feel like part of the game world.
Championship Manager 2010 is the most disappointing entry in the series we've ever played, but it's also the best in years. Certain areas are so good that the often broken match engine is incredibly hard to take. At times things click in a way that shows just what CM2010 could have been, but then it all comes crashing down to earth as your right back plays a suicidal ball across the width of the pitch as three attackers are storming through the middle. Your heart sinks and all the effort just doesn't seem worth it. That's a feeling you get a lot while pretending to be a football manager, but usually it doesn't feel quite so unfair.