A sports management game is not only number crunching and trying to assemble the best possible team. While this approach may be successful, as the Championship Managers series proves, it also leads to a more tactical-level simulation than a real management game. These simulations are known in the US as the Season Ticket and Mogul series (and a whole host of various on-line fantasy sports games) but due to the unique nature of American sports leagues, implementing a managerial game is impossible.
A true sports management game needs to give the player the opportunity to build up his team: to start low and proceed to better leagues, which offer a better payoff. To build up the team infrastructure and hire better players, in order to satisfy the greater demand for club facilities and victories, as the team rises in the tables. To be afraid of relegation to a lower league, which may cost the player his job with the team, as well as the loss of lucrative marketing contracts. It is this system of multi-tier leagues that the US is missing, and which makes the game a very foreign experience for most American players.
Total Club Manager 2003 (TCM03) is a true management game. In addition to taking care of your players and assembling the best squad possible; the player will have to take care of their training, trading and morale, as well as manage the club's finances, new club facilities, additional staff and much more. The game builds on a long line of predecessors and offers the best game balance thus far, sacrificing a portion of realism for a better playability. The game is very complex, but largely works in three categories: match management, player management and club management.
Let me start with the most important aspect of the game, the player management.
Once you start a new game and fill in a considerable amount of personal information, you will be able to select your team. At the shipping time, the game featured about 1,000 different teams from 44 different leagues; a couple more leagues were later added in the patches. In addition, many player-created leagues are available for download. When you select a team, you will be presented with your current roster, and the fun begins. Each player features a relatively low amount of the kind of statistics you'd expect if you played other sports management games, such as strength, speed, creativity, etc. Instead, the only hard numbers that are available are fitness, fatigue, morale and form. The amount and difficulty of previous matches affect the first two, as well as the time of rest and the training schedule. The third is influenced by a large amount of various, often random factors, ranging from the amount of games played to whether the player had a fight with his wife or not. The last number, form, is dependent on past performance, injuries and other historical data.
Instead of more numbers, the game employs a character development approach, where players can be trained in several levels of various skills, and by achieving a new level, the player's overall skill level increases. By combining certain skills, the players can achieve certain bonuses. For example: the "Lighting speed" bonus will be given to a player who has attained a certain level in the skills "Acceleration" and "Speed". Sometimes these new bonuses get a little too overboard, applying only to players who speak Spanish or have blond hair. In other cases, players can get negative bonuses, especially when they reach a certain high age. All this combines to form the Player Level, a universal number assigned to each player for each position he is able to play. The player's morale, fatigue, fitness and form give you the actual Level, the single most important number for each player. This number determines the player's performance in the upcoming match. This roleplaying-like character development of your players requires a whole new approach to your training.
Instead of some generic training, you will be able to apply a highly individualistic approach, telling each player what skill to concentrate on. In fact, the training model is so powerful that it is easily the most important aspect of the whole game. You will be able to divide your players into training groups and train each one differently. You will be able to create a whole training plan each week, assigning 25 different training regiments to up to four time slots each day and adjusting their intensity. The training will have not only a profound effect on your players' skills, but also on their fatigue level and the team spirit.
In addition to training, you will have to trade players from time to time. The game features over 20,000 players, but the actual number of players will be greatly dependent on the number of leagues you select on the beginning. Once in game, you will be able to both select and buy players from the transfer list or hire scouts to look for players in other teams. The transactions consist of two tiers. First, you have to agree with the club. After putting in a bid, you can either see if another club outbids you, or you can try to reach a decision immediately by jumping to a special screen where the club and you have a limited amount of time to agree on the final price. Once you win the bid, you still have to reach an agreement with the player, by assigning him the salary and various bonuses and perks.
In addition to training and buying players, you will have the chance to bring up your players, starting from the age of 10. Your youth team will provide a range of players, which you can promote to your squad once they reach 16. The developers paid a close attention to the youth team system as well, going into such details as allowing you to assign the players private tutors if they perform badly at school or give them mentors from the senior squad, in order to accelerate their training.
Once you build up your squad, it is time to go and play. Before the match, you will have to set the strategy. The game offers the most common formations as presets, but you will be able to create your custom ones. Certain formations will yield a certain bonus, depending on the skill of their players and their positions. You will be able to give each player individual instructions, ranging from being more aggressive to concentrating on a certain player. In addition, you will be able to adjust the team's shooting and passing distance, the basic defense strategy and whether to engage into quick counter attacks or not. One of the most interesting features is assigning various levels of player dedication to six 15-minute segments of the game. High dedication drains the players' stamina quicker, but is supposed to yield a higher-quality play (which I failed to notice).
The last thing to take care of is creating player lists for penalties, free kicks and corner kicks. Unfortunately, this is one of the few poorly implemented features, as it does not allow you to create relative preference for all players and assign positions on the list automatically, depending on your current squad. As a result, every time you switch some players, you will have to recreate these lists. After this, it is time to play... The game offers three modes of match display - a 3D mode, a text mode and showing the final result.
The 3D mode is the eye candy of the game, but lacks in realism. It uses a slightly modified FIFA 2002 engine, to great visual results. The players have realistic shadows, and their reactions could hardly be better. I remember a game where a player scored an own goal, came angrily to the nearest camera and showed it down. Another highlight of this mode is the commentary. In addition to a fairly varied amount of general and play-specific comments, the game also has a relatively large database of names, which the commentators say. As a result, while some less common names are never spoken, the commentators always find a few players to announce by name, which creates a whole new level of realism. Game-wise, however, the 3D mode is a disaster. The engine keeps its bad AI from FIFA 2002: players labor to get up the field, only to do a long pass down the field and start from scratch, or they establish superiority in front of the opponent's goal, only to pass to each other and wait until the defense catches up with them. In addition, the ball always seems glued to the players' foot, and fouls and off-sides are almost unheard of. Finally, this mode is highly unstable, and crashes often. A series of patches solves many of these problems, but game-wise, the 3D mode remains inferior to the text-based mode.
The text-based mode is what most sports management players are used to. Here, you can follow the ball possession, as well as get text information from the match. The game boasts 12,000 different lines of text, which are used to describe everything from a potential foul to a goal.
As the manager, you will have limited influence on the play. Once in a while, you will be prompted to make a decision, mainly whether a player should pass or shoot, and sometimes you will be free to choose whether to yell at the referee or ignore his unfair decision. While basic commands for players are included in the 3D mode as well, they are largely ignored by the players (unlike those in the text mode). In addition, you will be able to select your own behavior, and change it whenever you think it's necessary. This behavior ranges from sitting and smiling happily, through chewing on your nails, to jumping at the sideline and screaming. Finally, you will be able to give pep talks for all your players during the halftime. Compared with the 3D mode, the text mode is more realistic, with more fouls, corner kicks, yellow cards and, most importantly, goals. While you get no-goal decisions here as well, they happen much less frequently than in the 3D mode.
Football is not only about chasing a ball and kicking it. Football is also about accommodating your fans and your players, and having the money to do so. For this reason, you will need to make your club profitable. You will be able to determine the price of tickets, to order, price and sell club merchandise, and to sign deals with various sponsors. As it is often the case, however, the main source of your income will be training up players and selling them. Once you save up or borrow enough money, you will be able to pay your team and your staff, as well as building new facilities. These facilities range from the usual stadium extensions and new parking lots to some really exotic ones, such as a girls boarding school, which prevents your youth players from quitting prematurely.
Tying it all together
I'll admit the game sounds overly complicated, but that's where the biggest strength of the game comes into play: a fully customizable gaming experience, courtesy of a relatively good A.I. of your staff. You will be able to hire staff for nearly every position and assign roles for them. If you feel that you cannot handle the finances, assign this to one of the managers. Does training sound too daunting to you? Assign it to your assistant. Every single aspect of the game can be assigned to the A.I., allowing you to play only with those features that you favor. The A.I. is fairly advanced, and at the two lowest difficulty levels works well enough to be a match for your opponents. That said, there is still the most important person in the game - you. The player has his own screen, where he can renegotiate a new contract with the team or sign with a different one (or get sacked, which happens uncomfortably often).
Full of hidden features, the game allows you to go as far as to buy yourself a house, a boat or get married. In addition, the manager earns points for victories and fulfilling special tasks, such as having a player scoring certain number of goals or increasing the team's fitness. Once enough points are made, the manager gains a new level, and one of his skills improve. These skills range from mastering a foreign language (essential for hiring foreign players) to improving motivational skills.
Overall, the gameplay is one of the most unique ones I have ever seen in a sports management game. The main strength lies not in having so many different modes of play and options, but in being able to select which features to enjoy, and which let the A.I. take care of. However, some small quirks, such as the lack of realism in 3D mode, the insufficient friendly A.I. on higher difficulty levels and the high level of negative random events make the game a little frustrating from time to time.
Those who enjoy sports management games know what to expect: tables upon tables with numbers, statistics and graphs. TCM03 is no exception, but it still manages to make the best out of the relatively limited options. The player will be able to upload his own image and the images of different players. The powerful editor offers the ability to create custom jerseys and team logos. The 3D mode is graphically the most advanced match mode in a sports management game. However, the biggest strength of the game's graphics lies in the interface. The screen is always relatively simple and easy to read. The menu, which switches between screens, appears only when you click on the menu button or move the mouse cursor all the way to the right, giving more room to the tables. The whole design is very elegant, and so intuitive that players will have little or no problems to grasp it, and dedicate all their attention to the gameplay instead.
As I mentioned before, the 3D mode offers some excellent commentary. However, the main advantage of the game probably lies in implementing an mp3 player, which allows you to play any songs on your computer. The basic tune included with the game stays in the background, and never gets in the way. However, the fact that some computer systems will be able to run the game only with the sound disabled detracts somewhat of the rating.
TCM03 is one of those games where you want to go on and on, making one more turn before turning the computer off and going to bed, only to find out that it is morning, and you are already late for work. With lots of extra fan-made leagues to choose from and a powerful editor if those leagues aren't enough, the game offers an almost unlimited replay time. In addition, the fact that all leagues can be divided into up to five tiers gives the player enough room to develop a hopeless 5th tier team into the world's greatest squad. However, one thing completely destroys the replay value, rendering weeks or months worth of effort into yet another corrupted save game.
Total Club Manager 2003 is the most advanced and most player-friendly sports management game ever released. It gives the gamer the freedom to play any number of features in the game, while giving control over the rest of the features to the computer. It provides the best-looking match mode ever. It is extremely well balanced between realism and playability.
People who downloaded Total Club Manager 2003 have also downloaded:
Total Club Manager 2005, Total Club Manager 2004, F.A. Premier League Football Manager 2001, The, Ultimate Soccer Manager 98-99, FIFA Manager 07, FA Premier League Football Manager 2000, FIFA Soccer Manager, Premier Manager Ninety Nine
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