Total Club Manager 2004 is a football manager sim from Electronic Arts. EA have dominated the football videogame market over the last few years with their Fifa franchise however, when it comes to manager sims, Championship Manager from Eidos has long been the undisputed king. Club Manager introduces a host of options and a slick interface style which creates a very different managing experience.
The installation and set up are easy provided you have at least a gigabyte of hard disk space, 128 RAM and at least 600Mhz of processor. The game is a complicated beast and it would be worth studying the manual provided with the game before you try to start playing. If, like me, you are too impatient then you´ll find the hint style tutorial help comes in quite useful. You can refer to help throughout the game via a button at the top of your HUD, however be warned it doesn´t always tell you anything useful.
Upon entering the game the main menu gives you a variety of choices. You can select the team you want to manage and begin, or you can start a career with a random club (you are given a choice of three), or you can even choose the club you want and turn sacking off. This is recommended for beginners but it seems a bit pointless to me, allowing you to continue when you should have been sacked won't teach you anything.
The first main difference from Championship Manager is the choice of involvement for the player; it asks what kind of a manager you want to be. You can be as involved as you want in the business side of the club or you can cut right down to just coaching. There are a few options between and so you should be able to find the right balance. The business side of things appears to be very detailed, allowing you to fiddle with everything from the ticket prices to loans and investments.
Every manager in the game has a rating; to begin with yours will be at one. You need to gain success with your chosen team for that rating to improve. At the start of the season the board will give you their expectations and you must try to meet them or risk facing the infamous vote of confidence. It seems difficult to succeed, particularly if you start with a big club where expectations can be very demanding. I had several attempts which seemed to go inexplicably wrong before I managed to win anything. The variety of ways to play does provide great replay value and the difficulty creates a real sense of achievement when you do actually win something.
The menus in the game are glitzy and overly detailed for my liking. There are so many options which simply are not clear and even with the help hints I struggled to figure out whether I had correctly set the training regimes or managed to hire a scout. The menu does not feel intuitive and although it is packed with options I found that many of them could be ignored completely with little or no impact on your game, which begs the question why are they there in the first place?
For pre-season you have to select the team, the training regimes and set up friendlies via the calendar option in one of the many drop down menus. The team screen works ok although I found the tactics screen very irritating to use, it just doesn´t seem to have the options you would expect. The whole interface is overly complicated, it just overwhelms you with hordes of shiny options, and I was often left with the sensation of not being in control at all.
When you finally get to match day you are greeted with a choice of ways to enjoy the game. You can watch the action Champ Man style with text commentary, you can watch the game on a terrible simulator (poor graphics, slow and boring), or if you own Fifa 2004 on the PC (which nobody does), you can plug it in and watch the game using that engine. This is a great development, the ability to watch the team you are managing actually play in quite a well realised way, but it requires you to buy two games. Fifa 2004 is a much better console game so few people will own it for PC and sadly the alternative simulator is so awful that there is simply no point in enduring it.
Not owning Fifa 2004 and being unable to stick the awful simulator provided just left text commentary, which is something that Champ Man does better. To its credit Club Manager does try to be different and this came across strongest in the host of small options provided. For example during the text commentary you sometimes get the chance to command your players, you can tell them whether to pass or shoot or where to stick a penalty. I also liked the option to determine what you would do on the sidelines, you can march up and down the touchline or sit serenely on the bench and best of all you can energise the crowd which comes across in the audio as they begin to scream and cheer.
Throughout the game it is the small touches which make it worthwhile while the overall package falls down. You have the option to access your own play lists during the game and the aforementioned plug into Fifa 2004, both of which are clever ideas. There is also more of a sense of being a manager with regard to non-football areas. If you are married then you even have to keep your wife happy, you also have to give press conferences to the press and can even take your players to a theme park for the day. None of these options really has much to do with football but they are fun nonetheless.
Most people want the football side of things to be right and this is where Club Manager really falls down. The transfer market is rubbish; there is no way to search for players who are interested in signing for you which makes it a dull and lengthy experience trying to add to your team. You can also only buy players on the transfer list. Worse than this the teams are not well researched, although all the big names are correct I found that many of the positions were wrong and that many players were missing. These things are essential for a good immersive manager simulation.
I found it difficult to play this game as a big fan of the Championship Manager series because it just is not as well designed. Champ Man employed their own scouts to help put together the most detailed and comprehensive list of players anywhere on the planet, Club Manager cannot compete with this, and to an extent it cleverly doesn´t try, instead concentrating on introducing some new unfamiliar options. Sadly I feel that many of the new options, which are great at first, become boring after repetitive playing.
The sound in the game is good; the cheering during matches, which is always for the home side, is nicely done. The music is irritating techno stuff but you can choose your own play lists and this is a great feature. There are also voiceover lines for the half-time speeches but unless you are English this is just annoying, as the accent is unmistakably northern English.
Total Club Manager does try to give you the modern media experience of being a football manager. It is full of clever little ideas and innovations; however this appears to have been to the detriment of the core game and the football side of things is simply not as well handled as it could have been. I'd have to say that Championship Manager can sleep soundly in the knowledge that this effort is not going to threaten its unassailable position at the top of the football management sim tree.