If football management games were solely about strategy and statistics then we would be on to a winner here. And no one is more experienced in strategy fields than our old friend Impressions, hence the inclusion of a business game option in Ultimate Soccer Manager. This, along with match rigging, bungs and general shady dealing are its main gameplay-related unique selling points.
You can play the game as either a straightforward train 'em, buy 'em, pay 'em and position 'em simulation, keeping your players happy and developing their skills, or you can add in the additional headaches and mighty challenges of building a proper first division style business empire, with sponsorship etc.
This business game continues in the background whether you select the option or not, it just isn't handled with flair. This many not be a disadvantage at first. You will never make wads of cash with your assistant manager in charge, but you could lose some if you take over the reins before you really know what the game is all about.
Yeovil for the winners cup
Ultimate starts off with a choice of teams from the premiership, first, second, third and conference divisions. You can edit the stats of the players on the teams you pick, but this is cheating; this way you could take Yeovil Town of Woking, bottom of the conference tables, change their player stats to 99 in all areas and win, win, win. Ha! No need to spend any money buying in players when yours are better than the Premier division's! Selling them will eventually realise a fortune too.
However, things are not all rosy if you take this option from the start. As your players perform well, their value increases and the lure of a top division club may get too much for them. Once their skill has been proved in the first season, you will have to regularly re-negotiate contracts and pay them much more than you really should have to. Even then they might get a bung or a better offer elsewhere, and you'll lose out a transfer tribunal ruling or through retirement.
The difficulty level is selected by how much money you start off with. This can be anything from £250,000 to £5M, depending on how skilled you become. Although £250,000 sounds like a lot of money, when you scan the transfer market you won't find many decent players for much under this. Also, the minimum amount for upgrading the terraces is £250,000.
Following this is the option screen which, among other things, allows you to turn the management game and match rigging on and off. Next you'll see a disclaimer screen. You see, all this bunging and rigging might not please the real life managers and players referred to in Ultimate Soccer Manager, because most of them would never dream of engaging in this sort of thing. Oh no.
3D isometric viewpoint
The game consists of six main zones, each of which has its own separate sub-screens. The opening screen is a 3D isometric view of the grounds and the surrounding area. Using this you can click on any of the five other areas immediately available; the bank, the playing field, the training ground, the manager's office and the chairman's office.
As usual the manager's office is the centre of the action. It contains a filing cabinet, fax machine, telephone, a notice board and a desk, upon which you will find a newspaper after most matches.
The filing cabinet has four drawers, the top one lets you see the status, stats and pay of your players. The second lets you see the state of the club in historical terms. The third is a record of how well you as a manager are doing and the fourth is a miscellaneous drawer with various statistics about the chairman's confidence, fan's confidence etc.
The fax machine is where you arrange friendlies, look at the transfer lists, buy and sell players and receive bills (or in some cases get nice things like tax rebates). The phone is for your more shady dealings; rigging matches, betting on the outcome and offering bungs.
In terms of transfers you will find it impossible to get a top division player to move to the lower echelons, even if you offer dodgy bungs. The only way they will move is if they are dissatisfied, but you run the risk of losing them again unless you pay them enough.
On the subject of bungs and match rigging, to try this you'll need wads of cash... and luck, 'cos the old football authorities frown on this sort of thing. If you offer a bung more than four or five times without succeeding you could get investigated and fire. That's the end of the game by the way, so it's a good job there are ten save game slots.
Get your hotdogs here
From the main isometric screen you can click on any of the shops, pubs and restaurants you've built and adjust the prices that are being charged. With the business game on you will have to offer people more than just a good entertaining game, you need to keep their tummies full and give them good value for money in team souvenirs, This merits constant attention because people will pay much more for souvenirs and refreshments when a cup or European fixture is at your grounds than for a normal league game.
Building pubs, shops and new stands costs money and this can be obtained by getting sponsorship and advertising. Here the assistant manager will help out by filling up hoardings as soon as they become free. Unfortunately he's not very business orientated, so you're better off switching him off and choosing them yourself.
The players are rated from 1-99 in seven categories; keeping, tackling, passing, shooting, pace, fitness, and age with the best strikers naturally having the best shooting ability and the best defenders having the best tackling ability. Age not only effects fitness, it also determines the player's ability to improve and his likelihood of retirement.
You can hire trainers in most of the above areas, though you're only allowed five coaches so you may need to fire them as better ones become available. Coaches are attracted by high pay and successful teams.
The interface for selecting the team and formation is easy to understand and operate, with a tool bar which will take you to any area of the game by right-clicking the mouse.
The game itself is viewed from above and the pitch takes up the left hand half of the screen. The right-hand side has a pause button, an instant replay button, a speed button and a 'subs' button. Before you start play there is the option of getting an instant result, but if you decide to watch the match right through, the speed button will allow you to move faster by a factor of up to eight.
By clicking on the pause button and then on a player you get to have limited control over their actions by ordering them to play up, back, right, left and in the case of defenders, man-to-man. By pressing the 'subs' button you will have the opportunity to either substitute a player or change formation and style of play.
Ultimate Soccer Manager does not quite live up its name. Ultimate Soccer Strategist might have been a better choice. Ascon's On The Ball series remains top of the management pile, largely because of its genuine footy atmosphere, whereas Ultimate is a worthy strategy and statistics game that really just happens to be about football.
To get the most from it you really do have to play the full business game and it takes a while to get into the swing of things. The player interface is good, the graphics are good and it's addictive. It's just not brilliant. More for strategy fans than pure football ones.