Franchise Hockey Manager 2014 Review
Disclaimer: This is a game of numbers. Lots of numbers. Are you good with numbers? Can you see and manipulate them in your head? Can you make them dance? I can’t. I’ve tried. Numbers can often be found in games, and in small doses I can take them. I’ve played enough turn-based RPGs to calculate probabilities fairly well. But numbers always feel like work, and when a game throws a stat-bomb at me, my instinctive reaction is to run away rather than try and defuse it. Given this, you can imagine how this review is going to unfold. Here I stand; I can do no other.
There’s no getting away from the fact this game is targeting a very specific niche; the ice hockey fan who plays management games. Fans of sports management games, although a relatively small slice of the gaming market, are reasonably well catered for, especially on the football front; the Championship Manager series (now know as Football Manager) has been going strong since 1992. Despite ice hockey being professionally played in the UK since the 1900’s, it’s never really become fixed in the public consciousness as it has with our North American brethren. This, then, is basically your only option if you want to guide a puck-slappin’ bunch to victory and legend. So, is it any good?
Management games tend to be more about juggling the raw data rather than fancy bells ‘n’ whistles, and Franchise Hockey Manager 2014 certainly has data; as well as the British, American and Canadian leagues, various European and Asian league are also included, with NHL seasons for the past fifty years. After selecting your personal details as manager and your starting team, you’re thrown straight into the manager overview screen; there are no tutorials of any kind, so you’re on your own to work things out, although difficult tasks can be offloaded to the AI until you get your bearings. A small community is beginning to form on the forums that you can turn to if you’re really lost at sea, but even a cursory introduction would have been appreciated. How quickly you acclimate depends greatly on if you’ve played any management games before, and how much you know about the inner machinations of your chosen league.
The home screen provides ready access to all the information needed to make decisions, including emails received, lists of current free agents, team schedules and scores, tactics and lines setup, and a host of other head-spinning figures. The marine-blue layout is clean and well positioned, with your manager’s name resplendently displayed next to a cartoonish self-portrait. Beginning about a month before the season kicks (slaps?) off, clicking the play button in the top right advances to the next day after a brief period of simulation. If you’re confident everything’s as it should be and you have no changes to make, you can skip ahead to the next game or any specific date you want, although the simulation can be configured to stop to inform you of any important news or events. The financials page shows a staggering array of salaries, free agent prices, and available balances. Sadly although I had picked to compete in the UK league, they were all in dollars, which is little use for someone like me who when presented with a foreign currency, has to think what it is in ‘real’ money. Hopefully the option to select your home currency will be available in an update or future edition.
If you want to tweak your team during pre-season you can access the roster section, where you can configure your lines for both even strength and power play situations, and how often to rotate them per game. When you’ve figured out who’s playing where, it’s time to flip to the tactics screen where an avalanche of more options reside, offering different configurations for mentality, aggressiveness and shoot/pass probability depending on how much you are leading or trailing by. It’s a veritable stat banquet and you could find yourself full before the season even begins!
When it came to game time, I was keen to hit the ice and see how my carefully arranged Belfast Giants would do against first opponents Cardiff, but my anticipation was quickly deflated. Even the early football management sims I remember from a decade ago had some kind of rudimentary engine to show you the game unfolding in real time. Sometimes the engine was quite good, maybe not as realistic looking as the corresponding year’s FIFA or Pro Evo, but readily recognisable. Sometimes the players were minimalistically represented by coloured dots, for reasons of budget or purity of form, but at least it animated their movements in real time. The devs here clearly thought that such frivolities have no place in this haven of stats. Instead you’re in for the treat of a static image of a rink and a rolling text explanation of play. ‘Highlights’ are marked on the rink where the best shots occurred, but I fear no amount of exclamation marks in the game description is going to invest you in the outcome. No action can be taken or decision made mid-game anyway, so there’s nothing here to do except look at a clock counting down, a clock that pauses every time a line of commentary text pops up, even if you set it to fast forward. Of course if the result is all that matters you can just click ‘end game’, but there’s no emotional impact to be wrung from a total totting up. There’s a ton of depth and customisable options here but it all seems for nought if you can’t revel in your lovingly assembled team dismantling their rivals on the ice, to just have it reported to you that it happened. There is a precedent for this in the early Championship Manager games, which initially had text-based commentary before moving to a match engine, which some players decried at the time. However if you do not prefer the match to be conveyed to you in a piecemeal fashion via the printed word, you’ll be disappointed.
This is dev Out Of The Park’s first foray into the hockey world, and unfortunately it’s nowhere near as polished as the baseball sim that made their name, which has been refined and improved since its initial release in 1999. This first installment in a new sporting sim legacy may have a rich future ahead of it, but its first iteration still has some kinks to be worked out; at the moment it feels about twenty years out of date. There’s no music, there’s no crowd cheering, no audio of any kind; anything that might inject some feeling or make it seem approachable to newbies is starkly absent, unlike its older stablemate. For this outsider looking in, it feels unfinished. I might be wrong here so if you truly only care about the games’ numbers and the players’ numbers and the teams’ numbers then buy this and the world is your statistical oyster, but the rest of us will probably be in the other corner of the room playing NHL ‘14.