When I was in university, the one game that we played religiously was the latest EA Sports NHL games. Sure, it’s not the best investment of money because the games are largely the same year-to-year but we still all loved playing (and trash-talking). Being a fan of Football Manager, I also gave Sega’s hockey management sim Eastside Hockey Manager a try but was a broke college student so I was limited to the free trial. That and you could cheat your way to the Memorial Cup by literally buying players from other junior teams so where’s the fun in that.
Now, there’s a new player in the sports management sim genre. Out of the Park Developments, who also make the popular Out of the Park series of baseball sims, is getting into the world of hockey with Franchise Hockey Manager. How have they handled the transition from grass and bats and chewing tobacco to ice and skates and stitches on the bench?
While I mentioned that EA Sports doesn’t really make many changes to their NHL series year-to-year (unless they’re in rebuilding from a console transition year), OOTP Developments say they’ve put a lot of work into updating the Franchise Hockey Manager from FHM 2014 to FHM 2. The game’s Steam page claims a new game engine, an updated tactics system, the ability to add expansion teams in real and fictional leagues and face generation for player and staff profiles.
I can’t comment on those changes since I didn’t play the first FHM, I did see a few changes while reviewing. For example, they changed the most recent birth year of your character from 1985 to 1997 so Leafs assistant GM Kyle Dubas could play. Also, on my laptop, there was a problem with some of the options being cutoff because of the low resolution (1366×768) but that was fixed in a patch. In fact, in the first month after launch, their patch notes listed 130 improvements and/or fixes made.
As for the game itself, if you’ve played Out of the Park Baseball or Football Manager or, yes, Eastside Hockey Manager, you know what you’re getting into. You’re the general manager (and possibly coach) of a hockey team. You can sign, trade, release, promote and demote players to and from your team. You can set the lineup for your team along with the tactics for each line.
The user interface is okay. It takes a while to find things at first but I suppose that’s standard for these games. I wish that OOTP was a little quicker with tool tips and that they were more common. For example, numerous players have little abbreviations in brackets next to their name including P, TB and F. It took a while before I found the explanatory tool tip. Each players has a happiness smiley next to their name but it took me several hours to realize that to find out the reason why a player is happy or unhappy isn’t in their profile but in a tooltip for hovering over the smiley.
I will say that I really like a lot of the displays for managing signings and the salary cap. There’s a Cap Geek-esque salary cap chart that helps you track your money. While sorting through your own players can be a bit difficult, I found going through all the free agents and players on the trading block wasn’t too bad. That being said, I wish filtering was quicker and had more options while the players had easier access to historical data, especially financial history. A franchise-wide depth chart would have been very helpful in determining what my future plans should be but there were no depth charts to be found outside of the lines.
Fortunately, I found getting to where I needed to go to set my lineup and tactics fairly easily. Even if navigating inside the various menus could be frustrating, getting to them was fairly easy. Everything was very clearly labelled at the top of the screen and the names were fairly intuitive, except for Front Office which covered anything related to player transactions without actually telling you that’s what the screen is for. It also took me a while to figure out how much money I had in cap room as I was negotiating with players and how many players I had on the active roster. That’s sort of important in negotiating.
One thing that defeated me for my whole time with the game is that you can apparently actually be behind the bench for a game. The problem is that I spent over 20 hours with the game and I could not figure out how to actually get some sort of in-game screen. Granted, simulating all the games helped me get through a season in about 17 hours and it would have taken considerably longer without simming all the games.
That opens up another major problem. Without actually watching the games, you are completely devoid of feedback. One of the big additions to FM in recent years has been the feedback from your assistant. While you can get your assistant to pick the lines and help with tactics, you aren’t getting anywhere near enough feedback to properly tailor your team and tactics.
Sure, each player is assigned a Game Rating score after every game but you can’t really do much with it except considering swapping out a player with a poor rating for one who spent that game in the press box. Does that send a message to a player? I don’t know. Would changing lines or roles make a difference? I don’t know. How do you set a player’s role in the lineup? I don’t know. Would changing your tactics help your team’s performance as a whole? I don’t know.
FHM’s biggest problem is that everything in that last paragraph is something that I know is in or can be done in Football Manager. It’s probably unfair to keep bringing up this comparison but that’s the gold standard. No, FHM doesn’t need the 3D in-game engine to show you the action because you can get away with improving every other part of the game before you even think about implementing any sort of visual representation of hockey. If your coach or assistant coach gives you sufficient feedback about your players, team and tactics, you can work around showing game highlights. Back in university, I had the same problem with the FM games of old (and had quite a few suspensions from the FA for criticizing referees). It comes with time but it really impacted my experience because I’m used to a certain standard.
There are a few other issues that I noticed with the game that more nitpicky. For example, when negotiating with free agents, there’s no way to submit a low offer in the hopes they’ll take it if they get desperate. At the start of the season, I was looking to throw professional try-out contracts at players but they don’t exist. In fact, training camps don’t exist at all which is odd. I don’t like the idea of just throwing my main roster into meaningless games and risking injury.
Near as I can tell, entry-level deals don’t max out the right way since the top EL deals are mostly bonuses so you can shunt the bulk of them off to the next season. That is actually probably a good thing because I’ve finished one season so far and so no change in the salary cap. When everyone wants a raise, it makes things kinda tough to manage which I suppose is part of the problem. It’s also unrealistic that the NHLPA wouldn’t invoke its 5% escalator clause.
And there are a lot more features that I wasn’t able to touch on in 1,600 words of this review and 20 hours of play. There is all sorts of customization options available for real world leagues which includes expansion. Alternatively, you can set up a custom league. And it all that creativity and future plans isn’t your speed, you can pay historic seasons to see if you can end the Maple Leafs’ Stanley Cup drought short of 50 years.
As I’ve mentioned, the user interface is pretty clean and easy to navigate even if actually getting around in the various screens and getting information is a little difficult. There isn’t any sound in the game so you can listen to your own stuff or put on YouTube or Twitch in the background. The simulating and loading takes a fair bit of time (at least it did on my laptop) so you get acquainted with ALT-TAB quite a bit while playing.
The biggest problem that Franchise Hockey Manager 2 runs up against is that it’s in the same genre as Football Manager. The FM franchise is on top of the sports management sim world and everything is going to be compared to it. The fact of the matter is that apart from salary cap management and contract and rights tracking, there isn’t really much that FHM does better than FM.
I don’t know how easy it is to start providing more feedback and guidance to players to help them improve their teams in one of these games but that has to be the focus for FHM3. When I went on an epic losing streak, I had no idea how to end it without throwing new lineups at the wall until something stuck. Coaches get better feedback from the fans heckling them from the other side of the glass.
Still, as my first foray into the FHM franchise, this was a decent first effort. For being two years into a series, it’s got a good starting point and I don’t think that there are too many areas that require significant reworks. They aren’t going to make up a 10-year experience gap on FM overnight but they aren’t as far off as I would have expected.
Franchise Hockey Manager 2 was reviewed on Windows PC but is also available for Mac OS X. A retail copy of the game was provided for review by Out of the Park Developments. Your impressions of the game may differ depending on platform played on, PC specs and whether you actually think you can save the Maple Leafs’ season. That’s easy mode for the 2016 Entry Draft Lottery.