- Review Price: £25.00
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.
Now NHLEHM 2005 does play like Football Manager (remember, this is the name SI adopted when it lost the CM branding) except in one major area and that’s trades. Unlike the multimillion pound transfer fees slapped on stars of the beautiful game, hockey is all about swapsies. In a way, it is more elegant because whereas Chelsea can simply buy the best players from all over the world, the likes of the Maple Leaps and the Red Wings have to give up something in return. If they want a hot young prospect or established star they have to pass on some of their own players in exchange, often as well as sacrificing a first or second choice draft pick for the cream of next year’s young talent. It requires more subtlety than stomping up to Arsenal and saying “Here’s £30m, give us Henry!”
The AI in NHLEHM 2005 is spot on too, so don’t think you can hoodwink the other teams to give up their stars on the cheap. Impressively though, they will give you a detailed reason as to why they told you to take that long walk off a short pier and the moment you learn that getting the players you want is as much about giving teams the players they want, you’ll start to do a lot better.
In game, the action is on familiar ground. The text based descriptions do a good job of outlining the action and the top down view gives real insight into player positioning and their all round contributions. If you notice someone regularly taking up the wrong positions tell him and watch it have an immediate effect on the game (mind you, that’s only if his stats confirm he’s good at taking orders). I’m not convinced the arcade view has quite the refinement of its football cousin, but it is in a much earlier stage of evolution.
Away from the meat of the game, but still vitally important are the reduced load times. The incredible waiting associated with SI’s earlier CM games has gone down in history, generally suggesting good moments to go make a cup of tea, have a shower or write the great American novel (note to self: must get a move on with that). Things have got slowly better however and in NHLEHM 2005 you’ll do well to get the kettle filled – let alone the tea made – before the game is ready to move on. I still wish SI would introduce some kind of progress bar so you don’t sit there like a prize lemon on the rare occasions the loads do drag on, but I never seem to get it. No matter how many times I ask… (??)
So what have we got: Football Manager in a different skin? To some extent the answer is yes, but would you care if your latest car was designed by Pininfarina? NHLEHM 2005 takes all the strengths from 13 years of sports information gathering know how and remoulds it into a package that no one could find disappointing. Of course, there are small areas that could be tweaked, there always are, but don’t you know that’s what 2006, 2007, 20xx are for…
Hockey has never had a management series like this. NHLEHM 2005 is wonderfully detailed, full of depth, and – despite a couple of minor quirks – tremendous fun. Hockey has been ”Football/Championship Manager-ed” and I have a strong feeling that millions of people stateside are slowly beginning to realise just what a wonderful thing that is.