Yearly iterations are somewhat of a mainstay of sports games. This is mostly down to fans wanting their favourite sport franchises to stay up-to-date. Developers know this and so most, rather than just releasing an update, they roll out a new game each year. The pitfall here is that if, in the fans’ eyes, there’s not enough of an iteration the release will feel like a money grab (we’re looking at you FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup). So here we have Franchise Hockey Manager 3 (FHM3) successor to last year’s decent if unremarkable Franchise Hockey Manager 2 (FHM2) and the question is, have OOTP Developments (OOTPD) done enough?
If you’ve played Franchise Hockey Manager before and you’re a fan of any one of the major NHL franchises you’ll notice from the off that the game now has an official license. Present and correct are all 31 teams with logos, jerseys and rosters and while this is the only official license the game has, it’s a big one! When you start a new game you have a choice of playing either the new “Path to Glory” mode, Sandbox mode or Historical. The latter two are more tailored to those who wish to change the past or create an entirely fictional hockey team so most will likely want to play the career orientated “Path to Glory.” Pick your team and your level of involvement, either GM or GM/Head Coach and then off you go. This is great if you’re generally knee deep in hockey stats and know the difference between a setup man and a garbage collector. While there are explanations in the game for most things it’s still a case of either knowing or not.
We made a point when reviewing FHM2 that the lack of in-game guidance to new players early on is a massive hindrance. Whilst you don’t want to be flat out told what to do, a gentle nudge in the right direction is always welcome when finding your feet in a new game especially one such as this. It’s disappointing to see that this has been overlooked, again, as if you don’t know your hockey that well being dropped in the deep end here with little assistance makes things harder than it needs to be. Sadly this isn’t the only area within FHM3 that could do with an overhaul.
When a game has a solid foundation with fundamentals and a method of interacting with the world at large is enjoyable, you can sometimes get away with the major updates being behind the scenes. However, FHM3 hasn’t got there yet and while it’s a decent game and a fair representation of ice hockey, the way it’s presented and moreover how it aids less knowledgeable players has a long way to go. It’s disappointing to see so little attention paid to areas such as the game day screen which we identified last time out as an area in dire need of an update. It’s true to say if it’s not broke don’t fix it but to us the whole relationship between the team you’re building, their performance on the ice and what you get as feedback is barely there. When we were losing we had no clue what wasn’t working, no idea whether it was our defence lacking in power or whether we were slow and being beaten on the counter. Two games later, against the same team, we’d win with no changes to our roster or our tactics.
When you’re trying to build a team that adheres to a philosophy it’s hard to know whether things are working if there’s no readily available feedback to go on. In other sports management games watching the game unfold “live” helps you see just what your tactics are doing. It gives you a sense of how each of the tactical tweaks you’ve employed affect your players and their performance. When limited to text commentary with a barebones rink showing where the play was taking place you’re left to take a best guess on what to do next. Even with the new momentum slider, showing which team is in the ascendancy, it’s still pot luck on what best to change. In the end we found ourselves doing the exact same thing as last year which was to simulate past each game such was the tedium of watching the game.
One change we did like was that OOTPD casted out the old tactics system and implemented one based on roles and philosophies. Whilst it makes things a touch abstract it’s certainly less tricky to set up than the one found in FHM2. When combined with the new player roles you can start to create your own twists on those philosophies slowly creating ones of your own. The explanations for each player role or team philosophy are well described and make sense. If they are intelligently applied it can result in drastic improvements in your team’s on-ice performance. In fact many of the team philosophies are accompanied with a nice bit of history explaining its origin and the effect it had on the game. It’s a nice touch and will no doubt scratch an itch for the hockey die hards who may likely pick this game up.
The interface, much like the game day screen, has pretty much stayed the same. It’s functional and the wealth of data on offer is nicely presented. Some things can be a few more clicks away than one would like but overall it’s pretty decent. If the NHL doesn’t set you alight there are twenty two playable leagues on offer so there’s plenty on offer if you fancy more of a challenge. Historical mode is fun in a way as you’re able to re-write history and the depth of data here really is quite astounding. If you’re wanting something totally fresh the sandbox mode is definitely for you. Here you can decide to start with an existing team and draft your own players or, if you really want to have some fun, you can create your own league. There’s something fun and intriguing about creating something entirely fictional and letting it run wild.
All things considered, the changes made here do make it distinct enough from FHM2 - the new tactical system especially. With the addition of the NHL license giving an air of rightful authenticity, it’s a game the NHL can be proud of associating itself with. The team at OOTPD continue to show that it’s not just Sports Interactive who know how to build a good management simulation. However, the lack of improvements in key areas such as the match day experience and accessibility is worrying and if future versions are on the cards we would hope these two are at the top of the to-do list.