Franchise Hockey Manager Review
Out of the Park Development’s Franchise Hockey Manager 2014 is like a highly touted rookie--it has a good pedigree, a lot of raw potential, and fills a need in the sports gaming “roster”.
Unfortunately, you don’t usually give big contracts to unproven rookies, and, for now, I can’t recommend this game at it’s current price.
Franchise Hockey Manager 2014 (FHM14) is a standard text sim featuring ice hockey as it exists in the US and around the world. Basically, you take on the role of General Manager and coach, managing rosters, lines, tactics, and tendencies. There are tons of local and international teams to choose from, as well as over 50 years of historical NHL seasons.
Once you’ve been “hired,” it’s up to you to tweak nearly every part of your team. Basically, your day-to-day tasks will fall into under one of three screens: Roster, Lineup, and Tactics.
Under the Roster screen is a list of all players and their various statuses and skills. This display can be tweaked to show various pieces of information, based on their importance to you and the situation. You’ll also find your trading block, injury list, and affiliated (minor league) teams. The information is really deep, and while hockey experts will have no problem navigating and finding what they are looking for, the game doesn’t offer much help to newbies to the sport, which is probably not as big of a deal as it would be for a bigger box game.
The lineup screen looks even more daunting at first; but once I spent some time adjusting positions and ice time, things became clearer as to how things worked. If you are struggling, it is possible to have the AI make decisions for you, until you are comfortable handling different aspects on your own.
The Tactics screen allows you to adjust your team and line strategies. Again, the layout may take some getting used to, but overall things are logically arranged. Like the other screens, there isn’t much to help new players make better decisions.
Even still, as numerous as the options are, they don’t come close to equaling the depth and complexity of other text sims like Out of the Park Baseball from the same company.
For instance, there isn’t any kind of preseason games or training camps; while preseason hockey doesn’t get the press that Spring Training does, it would still be neat to watch players develop and make decisions based on early performance. All of the recent additions to OotP, like real time events and storylines, don’t make an appearance in FHM either.
In-game, the comparison really falls apart. Where OOTP's in game screen is simple and arguably elegant, FHM just seems shallow. It’s a fairly empty box with absolutely no animation. Play-by-play and changing line portraits are about the only thing to look at or pay attention to, and both are relatively sparse. Commentary seems empty, with only key plays (shots, face-offs) getting any kind of attention.
Even worse, there is zero user control when in-game. While this puts a heavy emphasis on pre-game planning, it makes watching games unfold a chore.
All told, FHM looks pretty good. It eschews the classic look of OotP for a stylistic animated look. Players portraits sort of look like they come from the pages of a graphic novel, and while that may sound strange, they fit the overall look of the game. This contributes to the overall light feel of the game, but otherwise is a nice change of pace from other text sims.
Menu-wise, everything is clean and easy to find. Nearly every name links to more information and more actions, which makes navigation a breeze.
However, there will be times when the one thing you are looking for isn't where you'd expect. I had this issue with Training settings; it took a trip to the FHM forums to figure out where to find them (right click a players name on the roster screen).
Bugs and other Problems
One of the problems with this game, at least in its current form, is its steep learning curve. Often, complex games are the most enjoyable games to fully master and take the most time to fully learn. The problem with FHM is that it presents this challenge with very little help in-game. In fact, the manual doesn’t do much beyond explaining the UI.
The best place to find help is the aforementioned FHM forums. Unfortunately there are also widespread reports of some crippling bugs: not being able to resign players, multiple crashes, AI weirdness, roster issues, etc.
It seems that, as least for now, this game has its fair share of issues. Personally, I had multiple lock-ups and crashes; even with AI in control of my line-up, I kept getting chastised for missing players. There are plenty of oddities on the in-game screen as well.
However, what's most promising with FHM is the developer's past: they do interact with fans and constantly release updates to their products.They are a small studio, but don’t rest on their past successes when it comes to supporting games. Hopefully, these issue get ironed out with their ongoing updates as the folks at OOTP Developments take their products very seriously -- so here's to hoping.
I suppose it is a little unfair to judge FHM based on OotP-- the latter has had more than a decade of development time and iteration to get things right. That said, FHM is selling for $40, the same price as the stellar baseball game. If this game were $15, it would be easier to look past its issues and limitations.
Like I mentioned, past practice is that Out of the Park Developments support their products and listen to fans. If you are a huge hockey fan and have been waiting for a long time for such a product, $40 might seem like a steal--just think of it as a long term investment that will pay off in time, not necessarily immediately.
For everyone else, I’m suggesting the wait and see approach. The learning curve is steep, the bugs seem rampant, and the product seems a little unfinished.
Again, this rookie has huge potential--it’s just hard to recommend it for the price at this point.
Learning Curve: If you are familiar with both OotP and the inner workings of hockey, you’ll be fine. Otherwise, expect a rough go at first and be sure to visit the forums. This is a complex game!
UI: At once logical and frustrating--some things will make sense, while others will have you digging to find what you are looking for. Overall, though, the UI gets better with practice.
Visuals: Not what you came for, but the game has a nice stylized look. Don’t expect realism from player portraits.
In-game Simulations: Easily the worst part of this game. Its “set it and forget it” approach makes “watching” games especially boring.
Score: 5 (Average)
Scoring Note: At a five, Franchise Hockey Manager is in the middle of sports game quality. There are a lot of games which are a lot better, but many which are a lot worse. A five on our scale isn't a failing grade, it's an indication the game is average. If the game's crashing/lock-up issues are fixed, you can add a point or so onto this score easily.