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LMA Manager 2004

Well I’m gobsmacked. No really, I am. Nearly everytime I write a review the introduction is thought out beforehand, usually taking a couple of days and is tweaked half a dozen times. But when I came to review LMA Manager 2004 I really was stuck. Where do I go? Do I use the same old “Just as you were wishing you were the one on the touchline” phrase again? Make a list of mildly amusing mishaps from managers, like the infamous Kevin Keegan quote “I know what’s around the corner, I just don’t know where the corner is”? No. Instead, I’m just going to steamroller my way straight into the review, as I can’t keep you from the truth any longer.

Shortly after the release of the 2003 version, many people started to question where the series would be going next. With a few cosmetic changes such as updated team rosters and tweaked match engine there wasn’t much new to tempt gamers to part with their hard-earned cash. So Codemasters did what no other publisher dares to do; ask the public for their views. A topic was set up in their populated forum, which asked for help from fans. “What do you want to see in the next LMA” it blazed, and soon many-an-opinion was raised, in a calm manner much unlike the flame wars we see on other game sites. Most people were of the view that if LMA was to go anywhere then it would have to start ‘borrowing’ ideas from the godfather of football management sims, Championship Manager. Of course, without a hard drive and various other specs to work with, such ideas as full player histories and unlimited squad members were impossible to include. But Codemasters instead decided to go for the little things in the game, which made the experience much more life-like, without having to endure the prospect of being sued for copyright infringement. And they did it rather well, too.

The first thing people answer when you question them about Championship Manager is the background screens, made up of many photos taken from various grounds around the country. It might not seem like much, but the level of atmosphere a picture of a dressing room before a match creates, or the showing of a cheering crowd is immense. And you guessed it, before trudging out into the dugout for a match on LMA, you are greeted with various background screens made by computer to look reasonably life-like. It’s the little things like this which can make or break a game- thankfully this is the former.

What Codemasters have done to their baby this time round is take what everyone has loved from the previous instalments and put more depth and realism into it. Players can now act for themselves; taking control of Darlington in lowly Division 3 bought me problems within days as Millwall stuck in an offer for my midfield linchpin Neil Maddison. Not content with playing at the lowest level in the Football League, he demanded a transfer after I rejected a handsome bid. Truly shocked by this ordeal, I told him to sit down and shut up, for which his morale went tits up and his performances got worse and worse, to the point where I eventually accepted the next offer that came into take him off my hands. At the time I wasn’t impressed; naughty words of discontent were mumbled, but looking back this is what LMA has been starved of all these years; interactivity with your staff.

This new level of depth is continued into the backroom staff. The head coach now gives a detailed weekly training report, telling you who has improved and which players are having trouble settling in. When scouting a player, you get to see his adaptability rating. Having a low stat in this area will mean he could have problems settling in the club, presumably not liking the tactics you deploy or the local area. This affects his morale, and as I said earlier his performances could suffer. But start to win games and make the club successful and these players could well soon forget their problems and start to perform, albeit with a higher salary of course. Also given in the report is a look at the recent high performers of your youth squad, which becomes more important the longer you play. Breathing new life into the game it becomes important to keep an eye on your youngsters as you could easily uncover the ‘new’ Beckham or use it as a steady source of income, essential if you’re struggling in the lower leagues.

Of course, selling these new players will get you a handsome amount but thanks to the new training screen you could be missing out on a promising talent. Given the freedom to choose which players you want to take under your wing, there is a healthy choice of options for which areas to train. But like Championship Manager, there are schedules that improve a group of attributes instead of just one. Selecting 5-A-Side training, for example, improves technique, dribbling and passing as well as a boost in intelligence as players learn how to win back possession and what to do with the ball once they have it. Best of all these new training regimes are actually noticeable on the pitch, given the rating of your coaches. Being seriously hacked off about being given the run-around against Arsenal, I gave my Fulham team a ruthless training schedule that consisted of 5-A-Sode football right up until the kick off of the next game. Playing Charlton Athletic off the park, my side ended up with 73% of the possession and we won 6-0. Of course, other attributes had taken a big hit in my quest for total domination, but just having the feeling that you are in control of your team gives off massive satisfaction.

And it’s the match day engine that shows whether your hard work during the week of buying and selling players, devising ‘unbeatable’ tactics and plotting devious training schedules has paid off. Unless you leave half of it to your head coach, you lazy bastardos. The options of a ball trail and fast matches are still hidden away in there, but this time round the graphics, most notably the stadia detail, have been given a damn fine clean up. You certainly notice at the start of the match at how well each stadium has been created. Playing as Torquay, for example, means you play week in, week out at a ground resembling a tin can. The stands are low, pitch a slight shade of yellow and the stadium in a right state. After many games during the season of looking at the same scaffolding-like stands, we reached the playoffs and went through to the final. Of course, this means going to the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. I didn’t think much of it as usual, until I saw my players in their pre-match warm up routines in front of towering stands. The seats just went up and up and up, the light much darker and the pitch greener. Fantastic. Pity we lost 3-0.

It’s not just cosmetic changes to the match engine. Playing games looks much smoother and players kick the ball with much more feeling and oomph. Players don’t just trundle up the line with acres of space in front of them, they now look to chip the ball in or accelerate full pelt to the penalty box. Whereas matches would turn into a game of volleyball, with teams knocking the ball at each other until one defence made a mistake and the striker would be in on goal, players now shimmy, dribble and in some circumstances twirl on the ball past opponents, with enough time between tricks to make them more believable (unlike a certain mister C.Ronaldo who attempts sixty billion stepovers every match). Of course, you won’t see any low-flair players like Paul Scholes attempting triple back-flips up the field, but give Zidane the ball and watch him fly towards the goal. Once I saw Saha hit the post with an overhead kick, and have yet to witness this event again since. I guess it’s more of being in the right place at the right time, which makes matches far more exciting.

Tactics also play a bigger part, with the possibility of actually being able to change the flow of a match by tinkering away. If you need more men in the midfield, get a striker to drop back with an advancing arrow to run forward at every opportunity. Need width? Get the fullbacks forward, ask strikers to nicely drift out wide to stretch the defence and pile men forward to get that last-gasp equalising goal. Of course, the computer teams won’t just sit there and let you play around them. During the course of a match your opponents can and often will change formation and modify tactics to counter your style of play, which means you have to be more eagle eyed and watch the matches properly instead of turning to the TV. My only gripe is that defences seem to be breached far too often, with strikers bearing down on goal after a cheeky lob from a midfielder, but maybe it’s my preference to get my players pressing constantly. Thankfully defenders are more intelligent than in previous instalments, smacking the ball into the crowd after dangerous corners, passing the ball out wide instead of dilly-dallying in front of goal and basically contributing to the team. Above all of the improvements made, the way that midfielders play in matches is superb. Many times have we seen midfield battles on TV, with wide players sprinting forward and central hard men going in two footed on each other, and now the same is in LMA. Watch as your captain leads by example as he encourages his powder-puff team-mates to play dirty by sliding in at every opportunity, look in awe as that new multi-million pound twinkle-toed midfield magician plays a lofted through ball to your strikers and marvel at a 30-yard strike from that bloke you were about to take off.

After the gem that is the match engine you are greeted by a rather lacklustre attempt at highlights. You can take control of the camera and swing every which way, but the commentary really is a let down. “He’s running now” is a good example. Who’s running? Where is he running? Why is he running? Tell us dammit! “Oh and he’s scored a goal”. When Beckham swung in that freekick to take us to Japan, did you say “Oh yeah, we won”? I was hanging off the light fittings in the front room singing “Here we go, here we go, here we go, Ingerland are off to Japan”. It’s such a shame because it really deflates the atmosphere are you’d most likely have been jumping around the room shouting at your players like a chimp at feeding time, only to be greeted by this tosh. Luckily you aren’t forced to watch them, so just skip the liability and prepare for the next game.

That is the basic premise of LMA Manager 2004. You buy players, sell them, train them, devise tactics then go crazy as it all falls apart in front of thousands of fans. Or you scout promising talent, ship out all the crap lining the barrel of the team, train players in areas that need improvement and draw up tactics that complement your training schedules then you could be facing plaudits from cameramen after the match. Add to that the option for two players to wear a trench into the living room carpet as they march up and down the ‘touchline’ and you have a title that will never stop giving. This has been the backbone of LMA since its debut on the PSOne, and after a few seasons of play things could get a little repetitive and dare I say it, boring. But 2004 has seen new life in the form of a revised training system, deeper tactics mode and interactivity with your players. This means that you will encounter different situations throughout your years at the helm, and thanks to all the little things that Codemasters has included (above all, actually listening to the fans on the forums) LMA Manager 2004 gets to keep the crown of the best console football management title for another year.

Of course, the game doesn’t stop there either. Saving your teams in the full game mode as an exhibition team means you can pit your Division Two dwellers against your friends’ top European side and see what the outcome is. But perhaps the most welcome feature included is a Fantasy Team mode, where you get given 80 million moola (or just a pittance of that if you wish to start in Division 3) to buy players for a new side. Then pick the club name, choose the strip, stadium, moniker and then get round to buying a pool of players. Your side then takes the place of relegation fodder in any division in the game (you have to unlock the other countries by scoring points in this mode) and you spend hours trying to take over the world. Truly exciting yes, but totally satisfying no. First off your team name is limited to a certain number of characters, so you can’t have Wendsleydale United, just Wendsley. Second of all you have to pick a moniker (like United, Rovers or City, yet why can’t I leave it just like Fulham and Chelsea?) and these are fairly limited. For example, my dream team name of choice was Jemison Yard, yet because they had no ‘Yard’ as a moniker I had to settle for Borough. Boo. Strip designs and colours are also fairly limited, so you can’t have that green spotted pink jersey you always dreamed of, and nor can you design your own stadium, instead picking from a total of 5 “Here’s one I made earlier” grounds. But just because you are fairly limited to what you can tinker with doesn’t mean you’ll care once you beat Man United 5-0 with your wonder side. It’s just something that will have to be re-thought once 2005 comes staggering round the corner.

And the added bonus of Codemasters choosing to release their ‘baby’ on two next-gen consoles is that the Microsoft followers who have broadband can keep their team rosters up to date via Xbox Live. Sadly no exhibition Live matches, which would have been a neat feature, but again this is something that could be considered for 2005. Also of special note is you can use your head set to shout instructions to players like “Pull your ****ing finger out!” and “Thats a ****ing dive ref!”. Unfortuanetly the game doesn’t recognise these commands, instead prefering to listen to anything along the lines of the dugout tactics you can press on the controller. But the damned thing doesn’t respond very well to these instructions either which makes it quicker to just press the correspnding button of the controller.

What Codemasters has done to their long-running series is something that all developers should be doing in this day and age. Having created a topic on their forums, the admin took note of what the fans craved so much and did their very best to include it in the game. The temptation to just update the teams and churn out another title for £40 is simply too great, yet one of the most recognised British developers has delivered a game that keeps its heritage and core gameplay whilst breathing new life into the old girl with new ideas to take it to the next level. And it’s not just here in the football side that things have changed, we’ve seen this amongst almost all of Codemasters range, from TOCA to McRae and World Championship Snooker. And with their new titles such as Pop Idol and Club Football rating quite highly here as Thunderbolt, this surely is a step in the right direction. Well done Codies, you’ve done it again!

9 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in June 2002.

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