There is no question that MLB Front Office Manager is for very specific types of gamers – the ones that spend most of their time in the franchise/dynasty mode of current sports titles, building their rosters through savvy trades, drafts and free-agent signings. In essence, this game is a franchise mode on steroids, focusing in even greater detail on the minutia of running a major league baseball team. Being just that type of gamer, I was very much anticipating this release, which does a lot of things right, but also experiences the growing pains of a brand new foray from 2k Sports.
Now, in the past, I have broken down video games into four categories – controls, graphics/sound, gameplay and overall – however, that would be pointless here since 95 per cent of the game is played in menus and what gameplay elements exist are more of a secondary feature. So instead I’ll just sort of wade through the experience and give you a feel for what worked well, what needs some tweaking and what needs improvement.
MLB Front Office does offer a fantasy mode and Xbox Live integration, which has a lot of potential for online leagues if you could piece together 30 serious players, but the real meat and potatoes of this game is the career mode, wherein you create a General Manager, assign him to a team (I chose the Milwaukee Brewers) and follow him over a 30-year career. You take over following the end of the 2008 season and before free agency – meaning C.C. Sabathia and Ben Sheets were still on Milwaukee’s roster- and once the owner assigns you a budget your first task is to re-sign your players.
The game tracks MLB experience, meaning those with fewer than three years are pretty much obligated to take whatever you offer (excluding “Super 2s” of course) while veterans with 3-to-5 years of experience are eligible for arbitration. Those with six-plus seasons under their belt can also be offered arbitration, but they all turned it down – even Eric Gagne! I then sat back and watched as my top free agents signed with other clubs, choosing to rely on my young talent and nibble here and there. Some of the contracts looked pretty out of whack, like Mike Mussina, 40 years old and retired in real life, getting a four-year deal at north of $17 million per year from the Yankees. But I didn’t mind; it made me play the game smarter, which is what real small-market GMs need to do (unless you’re Kevin Towers).
Unfortunately, a couple more serious issues came out of this signing period. First, several high profile free-agent signings (like Francisco Rodriguez) were placed on waivers following Spring Training and ended up on new teams just months after inking huge new deals. The other problem was that for all the Type A and Type B free agents I lost, I gained zero draft picks when the Amateur Draft rolled around. Of course, in real life, when a team loses a Type A free agent they are given the signing team’s top pick as compensation, as well as a “sandwich pick” between the first and second rounds. The game tells you that you’ll be given the selections during the signing phase, but no picks were forthcoming.
Getting back to the main game, your GM gains experience points by performing various tasks, such as signing a player with a certain level of potential, sweeping a series, winning streaks and more. At certain intervals you’ll level up, granting you points to apply to your own GM skills and the skills of your coaching staff. The more points you put into a category – U.S. scouting, contract negotiation, etc. – the more adept your GM becomes in that area. It’s a tried, but true system and rewards your ability to build a winning team while also allowing for some originality in your GM as you choose which areas to upgrade, thereby enabling you to create an astute talent evaluator with poor negotiating skills or a shrewd trade artist with limited scouting knowledge and so on.
In addition to the previously mentioned areas such as free agency, arbitration and the amateur draft, the game also contains the Rule 5 draft, multiple levels of minor leagues (Triple-A, Double-A, Single-A, Rookie League), a scouting system where you assign amounts based on your budget to areas of the country and world to scout prospects and a surprisingly active waiver wire.
Most of your time, however, will be spent in the day-to-day grind of player evaluation to build your team into a pennant contender. With so many players to keep track of, the interface you’re saddled with isn’t exactly ideal. There is far too much backtracking within the menus with the information spread out across them. While I didn’t find it prohibitive, it can become tedious and is certainly something the team at 2k Sports should revisit before any potential 2010 release. On a related note, the filter system also needs some tweaking as it only allows basic searches when looking for players in free agency and during the draft. I’d love to have the ability to search for specific abilities – say for example, a catcher with an arm rating of 60 or more and a power figure of 40-plus – rather than going through lists of names and overall ratings.
Despite the interface issues, I found the actual building of my club to be very satisfying. While the AI can be quite unforgiving when it comes to trading (and frustratingly not forthcoming about the reasons) I was still able to swing some solid deals, picking up David Price from the Rays and Brandon Morrow from the Mariners to solidify my pitching staff and turning third base over to Mat Gamel. When those moves and several others paid off in the Brewers’ first World Series championship (by beating the Cubs in the NLCS and Yankees in the WS no less), it felt like a real accomplishment because of the time I invested into the process. And believe me, you need to be committed to staying on top of your roster because the computer AI makes some brutal decisions if you elect to “auto fix” your team in the event of injury.
The games themselves can be simulated or you can choose to manage them at the major and minor league levels. In the majors you’re given a bird’s eye view of the action with close ups on the pitcher and hitter, and then additional close ups once the ball is put in play. For minor league games all you get is the overhead view. You’re presented with a basic set of options on both offense – hit, bunt, steal, hit and run – and defense – pitch to, walk – and once you select one it stays active for the entire plate appearance. That means if you choose bunt, your hitter with continue trying to lay one down even with two strikes. It would’ve been nice to have the choice to go into a pitch-by-pitch mode and also to see a few more options, like the ability to “pitch around” hitters. The graphics here look like PS2 quality and there is no announcing, but this mode isn’t the draw of the game so it’s not a big deal.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out a couple other issues I encountered as I played through MLB Front Office Manager, one of which was the game’s occasional inability to correctly assign wins and losses. For instance, I removed a starter after four innings in a 0-0 game, eventually lost 2-1 when my closer blew the lead in the ninth and…my starter was tagged with the loss. Also, after the Amateur Draft I suddenly found the computer filling any available slots at the various minor league levels with players with no notification. One day I was just checking out my rookie league team and found it stocked with former major league players (including valuable arms like Joey Devine) while my first-round pick had been promoted to Double-A, where he was the No. 3 catcher. I couldn’t find an option to stop it from happening, but at least the CPU wasn’t cutting any of my players to make the moves, and my MLB roster remained untouched, making it more of an annoyance than anything else.
Overall Ranking (3.5/5)
While the final product didn’t quite live up to the lofty hopes I had for it, I think a solid foundation has been laid for further iterations of MLB Front Office Manager. Some will undoubtedly be turned off by the somewhat clunky menu system and occasional jaw-dropping AI decision, but those that can get past the game’s shortcomings will find an interesting and often rewarding experience.