Was it the matches or was it the computer games? I have to say, twenty years later and I can’t really remember what started my love for football. I know what started my interest in ice hockey though, and it originates in pixels.
EA’s NHL series certainly got my attention, showing me a game that is like football on steroids, something faster and far more brutal. But it wasn’t until the deities at Sports Interactive got pleasantly milked by the bigwigs at Sega (loosing the Championship Manager name in the process) that I truly recognised a sporty bit on the side. In fact, if the slow and torturous collapse at SI’s previous publisher Eidos shows us anything, it is that the coders were being seriously underexploited.
After all in Championship Manager here was a database engine that could be easily adapted to baseballs, basketballs, cricket balls and rugby balls yet tried nothing of the sort for more than 12 years. In the end it has taken pucks to get things moving and the second in the new NHL Eastside Hockey Manager series keeps the momentum going.
NHLEHM 2005 (I love that preposterous abbreviation) is more an evolution of NHLEHM than a revolution, but SI games usually are. It takes a tried and tested formula and throws in new training camps to test try outs and see how new players fit in, greater feedback on trade negotiations (actually giving you an idea why an approach failed), more scope to hire and fire coaches and plan finances, expanded international tournaments and an all new 2D snapshot view to provide feedback on player positioning second by second whilst coaching the game.
The database is more comprehensive than ever too featuring 3,200 teams and over 32,000 players and staff, while over 50 attributes gives you the knowledge for some serious character assassination. It still doesn’t compare with the 5,000 teams and 250,000 players in Football Manager 2005, but footy is a more global game.
Now, despite the fact we are dealing with two different sports here, both series play (perhaps unsurprisingly) in a very similar way. The root menu is the familiar news screen that keeps you up to date with the latest developments from your team and around the leagues (both domestic and foreign). From here you can jump to player rosters, the training camp, scouting, tactics, leagues, a player search engine, in game options, etc etc.
I do have some issues with the menu layouts, however, as many options are only available from specific screens, but this is a problem with SI games in general and, to be fair, it does help minimise clutter. In general, the back/forth browser style of navigation and sliding menus work efficiently and it’s just as well, because this is one hell of an addictive game.
From the moment you jump into it and the board tells you of its expectations for the season (which is naturally different depending on which team you pick), you are sucked straight into a living, breathing world of egos and opinions, where media speculation is rife and maintaining a bonded locker room is almost as challenging as winning matches. I instantly built up a rapport with certain players and was at loggerheads with others. With every new game SI says it focuses a great deal of time working on the individuality of the players and coaches that populate the game. Well, I believe them.
Moulding your own bunch of jokers into an unstoppable winning machine is no mean feat either, but if you don’t you’ll only have yourself to blame. The tactical options are vast, ranging from simple line selection to the most tiny details like whether a specific player should crash the net or aim to check opposition players against the boards. Training lets you pit your roster against each other as reds and blues and – if you don’t mind risking injuries to star names – can raise a few eyebrows when it comes to sorting out the wheat from the chaff.