To many the sports simulation genre is nothing more than trumped up spreadsheets made to look pretty. However, for those invested in the sport in question, it is a pathway to guide their favoured team to unparalleled glory. More renowned for their baseball management games, Franchise Hockey Manager 2 is Out of the Park Development’s second entry to tackle the hard hitting world of ice hockey. After a less than stellar entry into the genre, which we reviewed last year, the team at Out of the Park Developments were honest in their appraisal of Franchise Hockey Manager 2014. They were humble and admitted they got some things wrong. After that experience the team responsible went back to the drawing board and re-wrote the game from the ground up. Can Franchise Hockey Manager 2 right the wrongs and give hockey fans the management simulation they’re after?
Right off the bat, the biggest difference between Franchise Hockey Manager 2 and its predecessor is the new look interface. From the start screen to your roster, the look and feel has been drastically overhauled. It gives the game a slightly less cluttered feel, starting with your lines being separated from your roster, and your home screen more dedicated to the overall picture of your season, with information pertaining to upcoming fixtures, league standings and so on. Main navigation is done via tabs at the top of the screen which are separated into ‘Game’, ‘Team+League Controls’, ‘Manager’ and ‘Play’. Each of these sections have their own sub-menu allowing you to quickly access all the core functions required to do your job as either a straightforward General Manager or with the added function of being a Coach as well. Whilst limiting the main menu to just four sections could make things too simple, in this case doing so makes everything much quicker and easier to access.
Every screen you visit has been overhauled too, with a flatter feel to the aesthetics. It is easy to read and softer on the eyes making longer game sessions less daunting on the eyes. One thing that Franchise Hockey Manager 2 cannot be accused of is being lightweight in the statistics department. Presenting such a wealth of information as this game provides is no easy task, but Franchise Hockey Manager 2 manages to overcome this hurdle quite nicely with each section well laid out with all relevant numbers quickly accessible.
Speaking of numbers, the sheer depth of information available is quite simply astounding. As well as the National Hockey League (NHL) many other leagues from the around the globe are present and accounted for, including feeder teams and their respective leagues. There’s even historical information included, allowing you to take control of one of the founding teams of the NHL and guide them through history and the expansion drafts that went with it. It’s a credit to the developers that they have gone to such lengths to include all of this as part of the package.
Another area that has received some tender loving care is the tactics and match engine. As a coach you have an impressive amount of control over how your team shape up, depending on where the puck is and whether your team is on offense or defense. A game plan can be set for your team to follow, depending on how the game is panning out, and you can even set how much time on the ice your players get. It’s an impressive set of options which to the uninitiated can seem a little overwhelming. Thankfully though, if tactics aren’t your thing there are templates for you to choose from - or if you are confident you have the right man as your assistant you can let him do the heavy lifting.
However, it is also here that Franchise Hockey Manager 2 exposes its biggest flaw; accessibility. As with Franchise Hockey Manager 2014 there are no tutorials present to introduce new players to not only the game, but the genre itself. In comparison to other management simulations such as Football Manager and older versions of Sports Interactive’s now resurrected Eastside Hockey Manager, those who choose to pick up Franchise Hockey Manager 2 with little to no experience of these types of game will likely find themselves a little lost, and even more so if the sport of ice hockey itself is new to them. In other sports simulations players enjoy concocting tactics of their own devising, seeing whether or not they succeed and if not trying out new ones. Newcomers to either the sport or the game will find this difficult, even if they have more than just a passing interest; the game doesn’t seem to have any mechanisms within it to help either. Where a game such as Football Manager can hold a new player’s hand through the first few saves, teaching them how to set things up and what to look for in their team and so on as they go, Franchise Hockey Manager 2 simply dumps the newcomer in the deep end and hopes they can swim. This doesn’t mean that someone who doesn’t know anything about hockey can’t play and enjoy Franchise Hockey Manager 2, because they can. However, they likely won’t learn anything from it either, which seems to be a missed opportunity to engage newcomers with the sport.
Moving on, and with your roster set, line-up chosen and tactics decided: game day approaches. The match screen that appears is not too dissimilar to one that you would find on an online sports website. A representation of the rink takes centre stage, with an appropriately coloured target identifying which team is in possession and roughly where on the ice the action is taking place. The descriptive side is done via text commentary below and those who have played Championship Manager games of old will feel very much at home here.
Whilst it certainly feels very nostalgic, given the game engine that their marquee title Out of the Park Baseball 2016 has we know just what the team at Out of the Park Developments are capable of. To see little to no change here is a disappointment. It gives the feeling that the team concentrated on the other facets of the game day, such as the match engine that drives this in the back-end. This is very important of course, and we don’t wish to detract from the excellent work they have done here, but especially with the newly resurgent Eastside Hockey Manager having a 2D engine to represent the on-ice action something more substantial here feels like a big misstep.
With this lack of visual eye-candy and interaction on game day, you may find yourself simulating each game to avoid the match screen completely, which creates a feeling of detachment from your team. Win, lose or draw it doesn’t really matter as part of the appeal of sports simulation games is creating a connection to your team and its assembled personnel. Without watching the games and seeing the fruits of your labour rip apart your opposition this relationship is harder to cultivate. Thankfully, the depth of the game comes to the rescue here and with access to farm teams, drafts and so on bringing through the next generation of players for your team can somewhat help build this relationship instead.
When all's said and done, Franchise Hockey Manager 2 is a big step up from its predecessor. Those who have stuck by the developer and go out and purchase this game having previously owned Franchise Hockey Manager 2014 will find a much more polished game this time around. They will also be pleased with the care and attention the team have given to the database, game modes and options, and the sheer number of teams and players available from the get go. The wholesale changes made have corrected many of the wrongs that were apparent with Franchise Hockey Manager 2014. However, they are not the only kid on the block and with Sports Interactive dipping their toes back into the hockey management arena with Eastside Hockey Manager the team at Out of the Park Developments will have to step up their game if they are to see this franchise survive and thrive.