Footy fans will be cheering. Non-footy fans will be holding their heads in their hands in despair! Yes, it's another football management sim but before you switch off - this one is different I promise. It's by Impressions, yes those people behind rather serious strategy games, but it promises the same attention to detail as their other games - plus a novel twist! As well as having a full business game, you have the opportunity to play underhand should you so wish.
Where do I start with this one? There are just so many football management sims I could compare this to. However, this is really in a league of its own (if you'll excuse the pun!). The nearest game I can think of that's close to this is Ascon's On the Ball which had both a World Cup Edition and League Edition. This was another visually superb game which went for a less text-based approach. However, it doesn't have as much to it as this.
Other management games that spring to mind are the excellent Premier Manager series and Domark's Championship Manager. Both have been well received and proved highly popular, and both have quite a statistical angle which more serious gamers and those that have a good knowledge of football enjoy. Impressions, while retaining a good deal of realism and detail, have opted for a more fun approach. This will give it a wider audience, appealing to both footy manager sim junkies and those normally disinterested in the genre.
Football management games are notoriously sparse in the sound department and this has often been justified with the reason that this kind of game 'doesn't really need any.' This maybe so, but I think it really adds a lot more atmosphere and realism to the proceedings. However, the background music is far from brilliant and in fact it becomes almost depressing. But thankfully, you can turn this off and choose the rather excellent sound effects instead. Click on the newspaper and you get the realistic crinkling of paper, or make some ground improvements and a building noise starts.
The actual match sounds are good too, from crowd cheers to the ref's whistle. These may all appear superficial and unnecessary but they really compliment the action well.
Unlike some other management games, this is far less text based and uses a variety of beautifully drawn screens and animations. As the stadium development plays an important part, you get an aerial view of the pitch and surrounding area. As it progresses you get to see how your stadium develops. This screen also has a practical purpose and allows you to access other parts of the game such as the training ground or the bank. The other characters you meet add a nice touch too and rather than having to work from a screen full of numbers, you actually get a background of a bank and a picture of the manager. This is the same for the Chairman, and both have been nicely animated and actually talk to you (well, speech bubbles!) which really gives more of a human angle.
However, despite the high quality in other areas, I felt the actual match day graphics were very poor. You are given an overhead view of the pitch and the sprites are tiny, indistinguishable blobs. But what it lacks in graphical grace it makes up for in being rather practical. You can see how your formations are working out and change tactics accordingly.
A Teletext system provides you with plenty of important information and looks like the real thing - complete with Fastext buttons, which all add to an authentic environment. Other animations such as the paper coming out of the fax machine or the file drawers opening when you click on them all make for a highly polished product.
There are millions of features in Ultimate Soccer Manager and it would take me many pages to tell you about them all. But what I can do is highlight some of the more innovative, and those that work particularly well. One new slant to the genre is the way the game approaches the seedier side of football. For instance, if things aren't going your way or you simply want to play dirty, you can offer bungs to another manager if you are having trouble signing one of his players. And if things are getting really desperate, you can rig a match by offering the opposing team a large sum of money. A word of warning though - the FA may investigate your dealings and you risk losing your job or your liberty.
There is an excellent business sim option and if you choose to play with this option on you will be able to build your own shops, stalls and restaurants. Your supporters must have access to the buildings - they're not much use if no one can get to them - so roads need to be built around the stadium. You'll also have to set merchandise prices and make sure your catering costs are competitive.
Your financial decisions can have a marked effect on the outcome of the game though, and you'll have to make sure your money-making skills are up to scratch. However, you can turn this facility off and let your assistant manager handle this side for you should you want to concentrate more on the actual football. The bank manager needs to be dealt with too, whether it's to apply for a loan or make use of a high interest account, and it's worth staying on his good side if you need money for a top class player later on. Depending on how difficult you want the game to be, you can have varying amounts of starting cash, from £250,000 to £5,000,000. The team you choose will also affect this, for instance you can start with teams from the Premier League such as Manchester United, or one of the lowlier teams from the Conference League.
On the actual team side, you'll have to make sure your squad are on form and are receiving the proper sort of training. You can choose which coaches you want to employ and allocate them to work on players' particular skills. It's worth employing a good coach but those available to you will depend on the club's status and also on the information they receive from your current coaches.
There have been plenty of good management games around of late and I was slightly sceptical when yet another arrived on my desk. However, this is one quality title and thankfully it's different from all the others - and what's more, it's fun! Although it isn't packed with stats it gives you plenty of details to enable you to make informed decisions, and the more serious side still works very well.
What really makes it, though, is the additional business game and the dirty tricks side. The graphics are also exceptional and you get a better sense of realism, especially with the clever way you can access the information from their 'real-life' homes (e.g, the team list on the notice board) which adds variety. The whole game comes across as extremely polished with great attention to detail. Highly recommended to both fans of the genre and those that would normally give this a wide berth.
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