Sports management simulations have finally hit the big time. After years of indie obscurity, at least in North America, the genre has finally been hauled into the mainstream by EA Sports and 2K Sports. But don't schedule a parade just yet. EA's NFL Head Coach series has gone through some growing pains over the past couple of years, and now 2K Sports' MLB Front Office Manager is off to a shaky start. The biggest problem with this latest attempt at taking management sims to the masses is a gamepad-oriented interface that makes even the most routine tasks about as irritating as trying to throw a curve ball while wearing oven mitts. Clunky controls and a near-total lack of feedback make it hard to feel like you're in control of anything, let alone a $150-million big-league ballclub stocked with equally extravagant egos.
Everything looks good on the surface, but good luck digging into the nitty-gritty of the player database.
The basic approach on display here, however, is time-tested. The game follows in the footsteps of independently developed baseball management sims like Out of the Park Baseball and Baseball Mogul by putting you in the shoes of a Major League general manager. You start off by naming your virtual head honcho, selecting from a few face and clothing options (are you Joe Suit or Johnny Polo Shirt?), and picking a personal background that determines your skill at specific duties. If you set yourself up as an ex-manager, for instance, teams on the field get a leadership boost. If you take the low road and choose the legal profession, you receive a helping hand when it comes to contract negotiations. As time goes by and you chalk up wins in the Majors, you gain experience points that can be spent on bulking up other skills.
There is no option to work your way up to the Show from the minors, so following this brief character creation you simply pick a Major League team and grab the reins. You have pretty much total control over your club from this point on. Budgets, lineups, pitching rotations, allocation of scouting dollars, trades, and so forth are all under your watch, although you can flip over to automatic and let the CPU take care of the more mundane jobs. The team owner sets a player budget that serves as a de facto salary cap, but beyond that you're free to do whatever you want. If you have a bad run, though, you can find yourself bounced to the curb and awaiting job offers from other clubs. Virtually all of the hardcore stuff serious baseball fans expect is present here, including the Rule 5 draft, player arbitration, and bidding on Japanese prospects.
Careers can be played as straight single-player campaigns, as a fantasy variation that employs a rotisserie-style scoring system, or in online leagues with up to 30 players. Just about nobody seems to be playing the game online, however, and we couldn't scrounge up a single open league. It's still only the start of February, but the lack of players isn't good news considering that real pitchers and catchers are reporting to MLB training camps in just a couple of weeks. This is also the first baseball game to hit stores in 2009, so you would expect a little more online excitement around it.
One of the few things that MLB Front Office Manager has going for it is its good-looking manager screen.
At any rate, the foundation of MLB Front Office Manager is solid. It looks very good, as well. Because the game was designed with the Xbox 360 and PS3 in mind, the PC version has larger-than-necessary menus that give the game something of a glitzy arcade sheen. Big, bold letters and numbers splashed on the screen have a strong visual impact. This is a real plus in a genre where most of the competition comes from indie developers and looks more like spreadsheet programs for the office than something you would want to relax with at home. 2K Sports makes great use of its MLB license, loading the game up with a wealth of player photos and an attractive manager's screen where you can watch the action unfold on the diamond and make calls from the dugout.
Implementation is where everything falls apart. A good sports management sim needs to have a database at its heart. This sounds like a dreadfully dull way to present a game, but it is an absolute necessity in this genre since you need to be able to easily sift through stats and sort players by the numbers. Yet here you're working with screens almost entirely taken up by visual chrome and player photos, save for a relatively small area filled with a couple of columns of players and the barest minimum of stats. Player lists are abbreviated so that you can see only eight names on the screen at once, forcing you to tediously scroll through multiple menus. Information is presented in an almost nonsensical manner. The player negotiation screen, for instance, covers just six core stats for batters and pitchers, like AVG and W-L. So you're forced to go rummaging around elsewhere in the rosters to dig up thorough information regarding essential data, like at-bats and hits allowed.