MLB Front Office Manager Review (Xbox 360)
Fair or not, MLB: Front Office Manager is going to be compared to NFL Head Coach 09. Both are a part of the relatively niche market of console sports "text" simulations; each places "on the field play" behind managing contracts and executing trades; and both of these games invariably and critically depend on their user interface and realistic simulation results.
These areas, in my opinion, are unfortunately where Front Office Manager (FOM) fails.
The in-game managerial area of the game is actually ok.
Before tackling what went wrong with FOM, let us look at what is good. Everything you might expect from a console baseball text-sim is here: arbitration, Rule V Draft, 40-man and extended September rosters. Each team even has at least four levels of real minor league teams, and you will have to manage contract options as you move players throughout them.
Like Head Coach, there is a relatively rudimentary "GM maker" and an RPG-like system of leveling up. I especially like how your background and previous job experience modifies your initial skills. For instance, if your GM was a lawyer, you will get a boost during contract negotiations -- likewise for an ex-player in the area of player development. There are not as many background options as Head Coach, but it is much easier to know exactly what they do.
Once your GM is created, some of the more interesting tasks will be assigning money to scouting different regions and responding to the media. While neither is as deep as it could be, each one adds a few interesting elements to the tasks at hand. Speaking to a reporter is as simple as choosing a multiple-choice answer, but your answer generates a small media report and could affect team morale. Scouting has you pouring money into various geographical regions, including a Japanese bidding system. The more money you put into a region, the better chance you have of landing a top-tier prospect.
In the Dugout
Once you have allocated funds, participated in your first offseason (the game starts in November 2008), and tweaked your rosters, you can jump into a game. Managing a game is actually one of the bright spots, with a unique visual representation of the game. It features a lot of on-screen stats, picture-in-picture and a nice press-box view of the field.
To manage the game, you simply pick an action before each at-bat (hit, steal, hit and run and so forth). Unfortunately, you cannot switch between pitches, so if you change your mind about that bunt attempt, you are out of luck. Thankfully, in that situation, the batter is smart enough to swing away on the third strike. There are also no base-running commands other than steals and hit and runs. Anyway, your other options are pretty standard, albeit limited, including bullpen control and defensive positioning.
Once you have selected your action (whether batting or in the field), the game unfolds in small "windows" of action: the batter/pitcher matchup, an outfielder tracking a ball, the throw to first base. These are layered over a high view of the field, which also shows the ball in play. One complaint is that you can never quite clearly see the plays that make baseball fun to watch. There also are no instant replays, which is kind of a bummer because the graphics are somewhere between current- and last-gen, and do not look too bad in action -- especially when you consider that the visuals are not vital for a game like this.
What Is Bad
What is extremely crucial though, is the user interface. The entire game is based on a series of menus: rosters, transactions, scouting, etc. Since just about everything you do in the game is done at some point through a menu, the menus had better look and work well. To be blunt, they do not.
None of the menus are linked to each other. This means that when you are alerted (via the game's e-mail system) to a free-agent signing, you first have to back out of the "inbox" to the "pending transactions" menu. There you need to accept the player and move him onto your roster. If you do not have room, you have to back out and enter the "call up/send down" menu and do some adjusting. Then it is back to the "pending transactions" menu so you can add the player to your roster.
Assuming you actually want the former free agent to start, you need to back out again and move into the "batting order" screen. In the history of baseball video games, there have been good and bad methods of organizing your lineup. This would be a bad one.
If you want to move players, you select the first player and then the second. This brings up yet another menu, which asks whether you want to switch the order or switch positions. It is defaulted to "cancel," so you need to move to the right option. The point is, to move your number two hitter to the leadoff spot requires no less than three button presses plus the navigation.
Rating the Ratings
Another menu oddity is the rating system, which seems to be much more conservative than most sports games. I started by using the Phillies, whose best player, Chase Utley, was only rated an 80. In fact, many superstars seemed to be ranked somewhere around 80. Also of note, is the fact that ratings only exist in multiples of five (70, 75, 80). None of these quirks are really faults; in fact, it is the reverse of the trendy "99+" ratings most games use for star players. Still, it is strange to see a such a limited ratings scale.
Speaking of ratings, you will often come across a screen that does not show individual ratings or is not sortable (except by overall rating). And even if the menus are sortable, the sorting resets after you do some kind of action. It is also occasionally hard to find the menu item you need.
I realize these things may seem like small quibbles, but they add up to a really frustrating and tedious user interface. After a few hours of play, I was able to navigate with some ease, but it was never intuitive. You actually are training yourself to use a poorly designed interface, not simply becoming familiar with a new game.
If you can grow accustomed to its interface -- some sincere baseball fans will -- you will find an average baseball simulation with a fair share of problems. First off, I noticed some strange A.I. behavior: the economically strapped Blue Jays signed Manny Ramirez, then had him hitting in the number seven spot. While simulating, the A.I. dropped my starting (and higher-rated) catcher to AAA and started a no-name rookie. On top of that, the A.I. never added another catcher to my active roster, and also seemed to randomly put Jimmy Rollins second on the catching depth chart.
Pitcher stamina seems to be a problem: Cole Hamels had a no hitter going through the sixth. However, as soon as his pitching "circle" was drained, he gave up three runs on a home run and three consecutive doubles. This certainly is not improbable, but he should not have been completely tired after about 50 pitches.
End of season statistics also seem off, which probably kills this game for the targeted market. A number of teams were hitting over .300 collectively, and many individual stats seemed bloated.
These problems may only be a sign of bad things to come. Games of this type, with such an intricate balance of user control and simulation, seem to breed more issues than most. Time -- and an eye on the FOM forum -- may expose more glitches and bugs. 2K's continuing support may or may not help some of these already evident problems.
Sharing the Pain
The online mode, Fantasy Leagues, is similar to the Career mode, except that a rotisserie or head-to-head element is layered on top. This may end up being the best way to play the game, but it will depend on how many of your friends (or even people in general) have this game. While playing against others may eliminate A.I. problems, it will not fix the interface or simulation quirks.
It is missing some of the flourishes that Head Coach added to the genre: trade and contract mini-games, season goals and a "real-time" clock. For me, the biggest thing missing here that was in Head Coach is a fun and welcoming experience. And that is too bad, because I actually like baseball more, and feel that consoles can benefit from a game like this.
As it is, it is comparable to an average to below average PC text-sim, just with a really clunky interface.
In the Front Office: Considering it is essentially a text-sim, most of what you could ask for is here. Some strange moves by the A.I., and simulation problems, will ruin the immersion factor.
Graphics: Adequate visuals for a game that does not rely on them. Menus look a little cold, and lack any kind of real baseball "feel."
Sound: Atmospheric music might put you to sleep. Stadium sounds while managing a game are about what you might expect.
Entertainment Value: This is a game that is retailing at $40. If you are a really patient person who can get past the user interface, and do not have the ability to get a better PC sim, you might find this game worth it. If you are just holding out for MLB 2K9 or The Show, this game probably is not worth it.
Learning Curve: Unreasonably high because of the tedious interface. Billy Beane offers some advice, but a familiarity with baseball management is required.
Online: Potentially the best way to play, but will depend on the number of people playing.
Overall Score: 4.5 (Below Average)