This game has been hailed as the best football (read soccer) management simulation on the planet. I wholeheartedly agree! Loads of stats, great 2D match engine, huge replay value. You will get addicted to this game.
OK, I admit that I am a soccer fanatic. I used to play soccer simulations that actually let you control the players with a joystick or mouse. Then it occurred to me that it would be a great game if you could control the business and coaching part of your team. This is where the Championship Manager series emerged, and I never looked back.
Championship Manager, also known as CM around the web, is a series of simulations created by an English company called Sports Interactive (SI). CM was developed over a few years with annual releases that included major overhauls and improvements. The latest overhaul was CM 4, on which CM 03/04 is based. It has the latest team rosters at the time of release, along with updated AI and game features. CM 4 also introduced a 2D match engine that lets you observe key plays with exciting commentary (alas only in text, no sound). CM 03/04 is a deep-career type of game, which lets you take a club (or nation) through the years to the ultimate glory.
Learning Curve: A It's a short one. If you are familiar with basic soccer rules, how the leagues operate, how players transfer, then you will need about 2 hours to get the hang of managing your team. If you are new to soccer, I would suggest reading the manual first, as it explains what team management/training involves.
Gameplay: A Gameplay is fantastic. The user interface is designed to let you do your job as a manager: scout for players, make transfer offers, compare players, sort various stats, change team orders. One of the most interesting things to do is to set the team formations where players have designated roles and play in certain areas of the pitch. This is exactly how real soccer is played! You can also change team orders during the match, substitute players who are struggling (the sim gives you in-game player performance scores), send transfer offers to other club. Another important aspect is management of a national side. You can take any country and guide them to qualification for continental or World championship. The only downside is that you cannot be managing a club and a country as the same person, you have to create two separate identities.
Graphics: A This is a management simulation game, with emphasis on management. Accordingly, you will not be running around in 3D. Your time will be spent looking at lists of players, choosing your lineups and giving orders. The user interface is simple, yet attractive and effective. It is more than adequate for this game. The only thing that jumps out of the scheme is the 2D match engine. You can actually see players represented by circles with numbers kicking the yellow ball around the pitch and running in formation (you'll see that it's the formation you set in tactics section!). Check out the game home page for screenshots.
Sound: B Same as graphics. There aren't any things that need sound associated with them. The only sound present in the game is the crowd noise during the match. Actually, it's pretty neat as the crowd reacts to things happening on the field, be it a goal or a red card. Perhaps the only thing missing is some background music while you are mashing the buttons outside of the match.
Replay Value: A+ This game provides days and months of replay value since you can manage your team for many, many years. As you buy and sell players, your objectives might change from fighting for that last place above relegation to winning the continental championships. Your board of directors will present season objectives to you and judge your performance according to your achievements. This might mean a long, successful career in charge of the club or a quick contract termination and job search. Either way, do not be surprised if, after playing for a few days, you will see a "time to change your underwear" message in the game!
Bottom Line: A If you want to try yourself in a management role, this is the game to do it with. It is quite simple to master and has a wealth of information. Look forward to the next installment from SI (it will be called Football Manager 2005). Now go and conquer that league title. Ole!