It's safe to say that there are two types of players when it comes to hardcore sports-team management sims like Franchise Hockey Manager 4. There are those that go into this stats-heavy, almost-no-graphics, super-serious sim and bring their own seriousness to the virtual table, attempting to play the thing like it's a digitized version of the real world of sports brought in number form to their screen and meant to be respected and played dutifully in a realistic manner to bring hard-won victory to a team as much as often over many years of play, achieving the incredibly difficult goal of creating a dynasty in the sport in a way as similar to a real-world manager as is possible.
And then there are the folks who jump in, trade all future assets away with giddy abandon in order to gut a bunch of other teams for their best players and proceed to try and do what all fans secretly wish would happen by proceeding to wreck the rest of the league in one glorious, reality-shattering season with no regard for the future of the league as a whole, much less their own team, which will find itself next season with absolutely no draft picks, an insurmountable pile of hideously expensive contracts to re-up and nary a youngster left in the fold to bring in to replace the superstars that now surely must be abandoned to free agency.
Considering I had but a few days of play to review this title and have no Rick Sanchez-style powers over time and space, you can probably guess which route I went in order to test out Franchise Hockey Manager 4 and bring you some tasty, tasty notes on this, the latest and greatest hockey management game out there. Here's what I found after about seven hours of ridiculous hockey wheeling and dealing that would, were this the real NHL, have gotten me not only fired but probably merked by some Gary Bettman-hired assassin within the first few days of my tenure.
All the Players, All the Stats, All the Stuff
For those that haven't jumped into a game like this before, probably the most important thing to know is that it has all of the things you're wondering about being in the game. It's got the all the NHL/AHL players, all the leagues from around the world, all the historic teams and players and pretty much every stat and detail that you find in the real world. This is what Out of the Park Developments, the devs here, excel at, and they've really turned things up a notch for the franchise for both this and the last game. There's so much here in terms of real-world content that it's actually a bit staggering to think about it all, and that you can jump in and literally play as a manager for almost any pro team in the world speaks to a level of detail that few other games of any kind can really claim.
I especially like that the ratings for players, most particularly the young players, are so detailed and feel so realistic. You have guys here that aren't just rated based on their last season or so, the way that the NHL console franchise tends to do, but instead it seems like the OOTPD folks have really taken the time to evaluate each player's career thoroughly and give an honest assessment. Of course, there are always a few I'm gonna disagree with (c'mon OOTPD! Tyler Johnson is totally a beast, 2.5 stars ain't enough!).
Except for the Photos, Which is Still a (Minor) Issue
One thing you won't find in this or any other OOTPD game is something gamers might expect, that being the photos of the players. Now, I know why they don't include these – there are frankly just too many of them, and getting the rights to 'em all would be a ton of work – but it's still a thing that feels a little weird. You can fairly easily go out and find directories of the photos to download online, and it's not that hard to add them into the game, though the amount of space the files end up taking up is frankly horrific (part of why OOTPD doesn't add them in itself, surely), but I've found that new players are always a little let down by the omission of the photos, so it's worth noting that they aren't going to be there if you get this game. Instead, OOTPD uses a system of 3D modeling lookalikes for each player, which, frankly, still isn't all that successful. It does make the game tremendously more engaging, I've found, to have the real photos, and any game that requires manual tweaks by the purchaser to become its best version is one that has an issue, even if it's not one the developers can do much about.
It's Still a Complex Set of Spreadsheets, for Better or Worse
Maybe there will be a time, especially if VR gets super good, where some visual excitement can be added to this kind of game, but as it stands, these franchise-management games are still almost exclusively numbers and names in tables on a screen. For some of us who are into stats, that has its own form of enticement and excitement, but unless you're “one of us,” games like this can quickly start to feel like work.
Hell, even as a fan of the game style, I can get a little burnt out on it if I play too long, and I also still find myself a little lost sometimes among all of the screens, which is a problem these games have always had, but another one that I'm not sure there's much that could be done about. When you go into a management game, you need to be ready for some minutiae and byzantine layers of menus, and while that still carries some mental exhaustion with it, I will say that OOTPD has really done the best job yet with both this and its baseball franchise of making this kind of spreadsheet-style game colorful and as approachable as they can.
The Presentation of Games is Lacking
What Franchise Hockey Manager 4 gets right with the spreadsheet side of things, it doesn't so much on the presentation of the actual games, another fairly common complaint about the FHM series from longtime fans. Now, it should be noted that for none of these kind of games is the actual playing of the matches the point – you're supposed to do all of the work before the matches and then the rest is mostly just simulation; actually getting to watch the matches and interact with them is mostly just fluff in terms of the game's point. However, that doesn't change the fact that what sports is about on the surface, the big draw and what most people think of as the whole of the sport, is the match itself (which, though it could easily be argued that this is wrong, is going to be the case forever).
So, OOTPD is right to include a way to (kind-of) watch the matches play out, but in the case of FHM, they still haven't gotten this down in a way that feels satisfying. This isn't just a problem with FHM, it's something every game in the genre has struggled with, but FHM has the worst version, literally reducing the matches to lists of events that are hard to follow with a few graphics that represent places on the ice where things are happening. Even as a hardcore hockey fan, I could barely relate what I was seeing graphically to the actual events of a game, which made it not really worth watching and also caused any in-game adjustments to feel like random decisions as opposed to being based on analysis of the play.
As a person who's played a lot of games in the genre, I realize that it is a lot to ask of a game to get this right, but I think it can be better. What we don't need is full 3D; something like the EA games but simmed. That, I think every fan realizes, is outside the scope of these simulation games in terms of how much time, money and tech it'd take to implement. These are not EA-level studios, and while it'd be cool at some point in the future to have that, we don't need it. This is the mistake that, I think, Football Manager has made, and I think OOTPD is right to eschew that approach.
What we do need, though, is something like the old Football Manager method, which involved a visual representation of the game's action in real time on a 2D surface with icons indicating players and puck. Yeah, it'd take some extra coding, possibly a lot, but honestly, the game feels incomplete without it, and you only have to go onto the Steam comments for all of the games in these series' to see that it's something that fans sorely need to not just like these games, but love them. Even OOTP Baseball's system is a little better, giving something akin to a visual representation of a real baseball game, and the lack of something similar in FHM is probably the game's biggest problem.
The Real Fun Is In Getting Weird with It
Now, both of the approaches to sports management sims – taking it super seriously or making superteams and getting crazy with it – are viable and have their fans, but if we're being honest, most of us just don't have the time to sit with these games for as long as it takes to play the serious way, especially considering that a new version of the video game is almost always just a year away and, of course, there are a ton of other games to play in the meantime.
Luckily, these kind of super-serious sim games, somewhat ironically, absolutely shine when you throw out the reality rulebook and get weird with them, and FHM 4 is no exception. When you stop thinking about long-term consequences and just go for one or two big, blow-out seasons with Frankenstein's monster-style teams slammed together with whatever pieces from around the world's various leagues that you want, things can get really, really fun.
As an example, let me tell you what I did with this game last night. After running a few months in a semi-normal season with the Dallas Stars (I mean, I did go and fetch Matt Duchene before the Sens could, so I'm not being entirely realistic there either), I had an idea that it might be fun to try an entirely different approach to the game, one that didn't even focus on winning.
What I did next was, frankly, the most fun I've had in any game of this genre, and also a great example of why stats and research-lovers can have so much fun in the systems that these games present. Using the huge amount of available historical statistics from NHL.com, Hockey-Reference.com and Wikipedia, I figured out that the 2014-2015 New York Islanders had the most hits in a season since the stat was first recorded, with 2685 (interestingly enough, they also had the next two highest totals, from about 15 years before). I also found that (shocker) an NYI player, Matt Martin, has the highest hits total in a single season, with 382 in that same 2014-2015 sporting year.
Also using these stats sites, I put together a depth chart of the players at each position with the most hits from the past three years. And then I went out and made a team with only those players.
I didn't even cheat; instead, I went out and actually traded about half of the assets of the current Toronto Maple Leafs (bye, Nylander, Marleau, Bozak, Marner, Rielly, etc., etc.!) for those players and then rostered my team with exclusively the heaviest hitters still in the game, and then I told those players to, basically, do nothing but hit by assigning them all roles in my strategy with names like Grinder, Punishing Forward, Enforcer and, oh happiest of sports roles, Goon.
My goal with this monstrous team? I want to beat those hit records, both for the season and for a single player. Goals? Pshaw. Winning? Who gives a damn: I want them hits.
This, my friends, is fun stuff. It might be ridiculous, it absolutely would get me fired in real life, but that's exactly what these games are best at: creating insane situations that would get you sent packing faster than a Pittsburgh coach on a bad run, but are a ton of fun to see play out.
A Game That's Trending in the Right Direction
The ability to either play a straight-faced, dry and serious simulation of hockey or to get utterly whacked with it and start your own mini-revolution within this digital sporting world is what gives the games in this genre their continuing draw. And indeed, that's a lot of why sports sims exist and have for almost as far back as most sports. FHM 4 is a title that comes in a long line of similar video games that goes back to the original Championship Manager of 1992, but whose concept goes all the way back to the statistics-heavy team-management board/dice games from Statis-Pro and Strat-O-Matic in the 60s and 70s, and even farther back to the origins of fantasy sports in the 1950s, and even even farther back to the first board games meant to simulate playing a sport that can be traced back to the late 1800s (most of which we don't even have copies of, though we have the patents).
The Verdict: Great
There's something just so fun and satisfying about being able to take the reins and make a team in your own image, getting realistic answers to those “what if” questions that you have sitting around the TV with your friends watching the real-world counterparts of these games. In that, FHM 4 definitely succeeds, and is better than its predecessors, and I feel confident in saying that OOTPD is creating the best, deepest and most responsive sports sims that have yet been created.
That said, these games still have a lot of progress to make, particularly in presenting the actual matches and, a less-solvable but still-real issue, in being approachable and not exhausting. For the latter, I'm not sure that there's much to do to fix the issue, and it doesn't seem to be keeping the genre from having fans (though it certainly keeps it from being mainstream in any conceivable way, this being maybe the most niche genre there is). Maybe someone brilliant, or some tech advance, will find a way to do it. But for the former, the presentation issue, it seems entirely solvable, if definitely a pain in the ass.
When they do solve one or both of these issues, there will be an automatic crowned king of the sports sim genre, a watermark game that every other aspires to. FHM 4 isn't that game, but, it is a good one, and if you like hockey stats and/or creating horrific teams of near-murderous players just to see what happens and if the league even survives, it's worth playing.