Genre: Sports Simulation
Publisher: 2K Sports
Developer: Blue Castle Games
Release Date: January 27, 2009
MLB Front Office Manager is 2K Sports' effort in bringing the magic of the Football Manager series to an American audience via the Major League Baseball license. The audience is more limited, as it can be argued that there are several "big" sports in the U.S., and although baseball is America's pastime, its fan base has waned in recent years. However, due to licensing issues, the MLB is the best that 2K Sports can get. It also doesn't help that the title manages to be far too clunky and poorly developed to be a worthy game.
MLB Front Office Manager manages to present a halfway-decent first impression. Upon starting a new game, you immediately have star power thrown at you and told that you'll get help along the way. The star power comes in the form of Billy Beane, who is the current General Manager for the Oakland Athletics. It's kind of neat to see that he was involved with the creation of the game and would be on hand to give me advice. He never really has much to say, though, so the extent of his advice is informing you of certain rules and reminding you that you always need to plan for current and future seasons.
The other nice bit is that you get to create your GM. While the creation tools are fairly limited, there's a nice touch in that you can create your GM's history. He has statistics that affect how well he can do certain things, and depending on your background — ex-player, lawyer or one of a few other options — it will affect what you're initially good at. As you play, you'll gain experience that can be used to further upgrade your statistics. Once you've created your GM, you're free to select a team to get your career started. Unfortunately, as soon as you do so, the game starts to fall apart, and very little feels right or works correctly after that.
My biggest beef here is with the menu system in MLB Front Office Manager. In a game like this, it's a given that you're going to spend most of your time knee-deep in menus. This menu system is amazingly bad, though: Screen space is very limited, and this title doesn't make very good use of it. The right side of the screen consists of drop-down menus that are clunky to navigate, the middle portion the screen gives you information about upcoming games and events, and the right side of the screen is an ugly background with an image of Beane. I have no idea whose idea it was to cover up one-third of the screen space in a menu-based game with a picture, but it's one of the worst design decisions in recent memory.
One of the main issues with the menus is that they simply don't flow between one another at all. Upon offering a contract to a free agent, I have to wait for him to consider the offer. If he accepts, he's moved to a menu called "Pending Transactions," where I need to move him onto a team. Upon trying to move him onto a team, I'm usually informed that there's no room on that team, whether it's in the major or minor league. There's no quick way to solve this, so from here, you have to go to the "Call Ups/Send Downs" menu and make room on your team by either demoting a player from the MLB to AAA or releasing a player. On a note of frustration, it seems as though it's not actually possible to demote a player from AAA to AA ball. There were several instances when I wanted to put a player on the AAA team to test him out before bringing him up to the big leagues. I couldn't actually send a player down to AA, so instead, I was forced to release another player to make room for my shiny new player. Once I had released a player, I needed to return to "Pending Transactions" and move the free agent onto a team.
Many of the other game menus revolve around player statistics or the money that they'll be making, and most of these make very poor use of the space and give you very little information. Player statistics are numbers in a limited amount of categories that doesn't give as much information as is needed by most players of a management sim. All of these menus can't get it right in terms of ease of navigation and information, so they're just far too clunky to be effective.
Once you start wading through the mess of the menu system, you'll find that you can control pretty much every aspect of your team. Contracts, depth charts (changing the starter via the depth chart menu is impossible), batting order, and even allocating scouting money to specific global areas is in the mix; all of this requires constant attention from the player.
It's probably in your best interest to turn off all of the options that allow the computer to simulate things for you because the AI is completely incompetent. While it's nice to have the option to have the AI do much of the work for you, you need to have AI that can actually take care of overwhelming scenarios in a reasonable manner. Front Office Manager's AI makes terrible decisions left and right, and even with some guidance from the player, if you leave team management largely up to the AI, I can assure you that your team will finish in the MLB bottom five. Every time without fail, trying to simulate the season resulted in awful decisions by the AI. Surprisingly, the AI mostly falters in the pitching arena. I watched it try and handle a few seasons, stopping the simulation every few weeks to check on my lineups and make sure everything was running smoothly. The game handled things, like the batting order and position players, reasonably well. If a player got injured, the game would find the best player in the franchise to fill the gap, and it would usually move things back when the player recovered.
Pitching is another story, though. If a starting pitcher gets injured, your team is going to collapse in a hurry because the AI manages the pitching staff about as well as a toddler. There were several occasions when I caught the AI giving relievers, who only have the stamina to pitch a single inning, jobs as starting pitchers when there were more qualified pitchers on the bench or in the minors. That's just the start of the problems, though, as the AI will frequently overload your team with pitchers who never see any playtime, thus forcing the amount of your backup position players down to two or three. There was one instance when I found that my team had a backup second baseman — and that was it.
This is frustrating because the constant micromanagement and frustration with the menu system isn't going to appeal to many people, and being able to skip over much of the annoying bits would've been fantastic. Instead, you're treated to awful AI while you watch the rest of the league's AI handle well. There's some bizarre trading that goes on every now and then, but knowing that there is competent AI hidden somewhere in the game is truly aggravating.
If you really feel like it, you can go in and "manage" games as they take place. Here, you're given a full 3-D view of the game, although the graphics don't belong on a system like the PlayStation 3. The animation isn't any good, either, and sound is virtually nonexistent. This is a bit of a shame, as I'm sure the MLB 2K9 development team had access to the assets from that title. Managing the game is a joke. You can tell players to hit or go for a walk, or hit or bunt if there's a player on base. It's just glorified menu-based gameplay with some really weak 3-D work to back it up.
If you can will yourself to keep going with this mode, you can slowly build yourself into a GM powerhouse that any team would want. If you manage to do badly enough as a GM over the years, you'll wind up fired. There's no real feeling of penalty if you do poorly, but there's no real reward for doing well, other than having a high number under the "W" column of your career stats.
If you want to, you can play in leagues with other players. Each league contains all 30 MLB teams, and one person can control a single team as he plays all of it in a fantasy baseball setting with a few different scoring options. However, there is a limited number of leagues, and leagues with more than two or three players are even harder to find. In my time online, I saw five leagues organizing, and only one had more than five people in it. There's just not enough of a community for the online experience to be worthwhile.
Even for a first try at a sports management sim, there are far too many problems with MLB Front Office Manager for me to recommend it to anyone. Even the most hardcore baseball fans will likely take issue with the poor AI, clunky menu systems and unattractive presentation. If Front Office Manager is going to become a serious series, it needs to sort out a lot of major problems in a hurry if it wants to be a gamer's radar as a potential purchase. As it stands, there's little to no reason to even rent this sub-par management title.
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