I freely admit that I love acting out the role of a GM in sports games. In fact, when I first get a new sports title, I usually spend two hours adjusting my roster before ever having my players throw on their unis. So when 2K announced it was publishing MLB Front Office Manager with an assist from A's GM Billy Beane, I was pretty pumped. But from the outset, really from the first few minutes of taking on the role as general manager of my beloved A's, I could tell this was a flawed experiment, one lacking in both thought and execution.
Starting a career, you're given a budget, based on the market realities of whichever team you pick. The A's start in the $65 million range, the Yankees well over $150 million. Things begin pretty much from the moment the World Series ends, with your first task being to evaluate the talent in your Major League club as well as in your vast farm system. You'll need to assess the talent of your current players and decide who deserves new contracts, who can be traded, and who should be let out into the Free Agent market. The baseball rules are all there, from arbitration to the Rule 5 draft to waivers. Every last bit of nitty gritty baseball management rules are included, so consider this an authentic representation.
You start out as a rookie GM, but as you earn experience points (gained from winning streaks and other team achievements), you can spend to improve your stats. Build up your scouting to help you find better prospects across the world or improve your development skills to help your minor leaguers reach their potential. The nice thing about the various GM skills is that you can cater them to fit the type of team you want to build.
The bulk of your duties are to assemble a team capable of becoming World Series champs. Most of your time is spent sifting through the rosters at the various levels of both your own team and your competitors. And that's where MLB Front Office runs into issues. The interface is not ideal. Rather than create a system where you can perform multiple duties from the same screen, just about everything in Front Office Manager is relegated to it's own specific area.
When you receive an email that a team may be open to trading a player, you can't just hit a button and move to the trade screen of the team in question. Instead, you have to back out of your emails, open up the transactions toggle, select the trade option, cycle to the team, find the player in an unsortable list, then make the trade offer. And once you make an offer, there's no way to modify it or even review the offer until a team gets back to you with a decision.
There's a menu screen to view your 40-man roster, extended roster, depth chart, batting lineup and on and on. Almost none of these are connected together, so that you constantly need to check one menu, then back out to find the next. Worst of all, there are no keyboard hotkeys--no text entries to type in player name for searches--or anything specific to the PC. I guess this comes down a lack of thought or just bad design. Whatever the case, it's incredibly tedious to navigate through so many menus and often a challenge to find that one double-A player on the Twins you remember seemed like a good prospect when the season first started.
You can't track players either. So if a player you might be interested in is put on the waiver wire, you will only catch it if you check the wire every single day. And it's often not clear what teams are ahead of you on the waiver list (with the option to take a player on waivers). It's also virtually impossible to keep track of valuable minor leaguers on other teams, to see who hits waivers or if someone you wanted pops up in the Rule 5 draft or becomes a free agent. Though Front Office Manager includes several Sabremetrics stats, these often don't help at all with evaluating minor league talent, forcing you to focus solely on their base stats and potential, which are often little help in finding the diamonds in the rough that keep clubs like the A's and Twins in contention.
While I have considerable complaints about the interface, I will say that MLB Front Office Manager is a fully realized game. You can do just about everything you'd want as a GM (except for three-team trades). There's something immensely satisfying about seeing a player you drafted three years earlier have a breakout rookie season or check the stats to see the highly rated (and overpriced) player you shipped off to another team for prospects has been in a slump for a month.
A lot of this pleasure comes from playing as a small or mid-market team. Winning with the Red Sox or Yankees or Angels is actually boring, because you have so much money, it's easy to stock your rotation with aces and your batting lineup with All-Stars. You do have to be careful not to ship off a popular player, as morale can dip, but winning tends to solve that anyway. Winning with a small budget can take a few years, but when you topple the Yankees in the playoffs it's a great feeling.
Of course, you are just one GM among 29 others. The AI doesn't seem to treat any one GM differently, however. The AI, at least from my observations, seems only to consider the skill level of the player and their current budget. You don't have GMs focused more on the farm system than veteran heavyweights or GMs who are trade happy. Every GM is sort of the same beast with a different spending limit. This can lead to some really bizarre decisions (Chipper Jones, six years for $28 mil per) and those that seem counter to the organization's longevity (such as the Brewers spending 40% of their budget on Manny Ramirez).
Though being a GM is the core of MLB FOM, there are some additional elements to spice things up. You can play the role of manager during any game, be it in the big leagues or the minors. The visuals of the game on the field aren't at the level of MLB 2K8 and you have no control over the players, but it's not the focal point of Front Office Manager. You can shift the defense, substitute players, and make some basic calls when your team's batting.
Before your batter steps to the plate, you can call for a bunt, a steal, a hit & run, even a squeeze. You can't make a call from one pitch to the next. You can only make a decision at the start of the at bat. If your batter bunts the first two pitches foul, you can't call off the bunt, for example. It's not a big deal, though, seeing that these managing sessions are just meant as a change of pace and not a significant portion of gameplay.
For good measure, there's a Fantasy Mode. This is almost identical to Career Mode, except you can turn on fantasy scoring for kicks, control multiple teams from the same profile, and adjust a number of different gameplay toggles (force trades, restrict CPU trading, player injuries, etc.). You can also create online leagues with up to 30 players, with the league commissioner setting the rules. If online interests you at all, this is the way to go with Front Office Manager. You still have to work through the poor interface, but human intelligence proves far more entertaining than artificial intelligence.
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