It seems to be the year for incremental improvements in baseball management simulations. Just like its main rival, Out of the Park Baseball 9, Baseball Mogul 2009 enters a new season looking a lot like it did last season. After adding a tremendous number of new features and enhancements during the past two years, the current edition of the text-based sports sim is more of a taking-stock upgrade. It focuses on minor revisions to the presentation and artificial intelligence. The result is a good game with subtle improvements that make a better big-league management experience, but one that isn't essential if you already own its predecessor.
Baseball Mogul 2009's personality remains pretty much the same as when it first hit the market way back in 1997. In contrast to the more complicated and stat-heavy Out of the Park Baseball series, the Baseball Mogul line has always tried to balance accessibility with depth. Its gameplay is geared toward both hardcore hardball buffs and casual fans who want to play an authentic turn-based baseball management game without drowning in numbers. While you take over the complete operation of a big-league baseball club with all of the responsibilities that such a job entails--either in a solo league or in an online league with other human players--you're never overwhelmed with player stats, long-winded negotiations with free agents, or financial screens with more numbers than the average corporate tax return.
All of the tasks here are simplified takes on their real-world counterparts. Signing a free agent can be as simple as meeting his asking price and getting the deal done instantly. The minor league system consists of handfuls of prospects organized into teams. Trades are little more than quickie swaps on a dialogue screen with a rival GM. Entire seasons can be simmed in under a minute, or you can manually proceed through games as a spectator GM, a manager making dugout decisions, or as players choosing pitches then taking swings using the mouse. Economic management tasks range from figuring out ballpark prices for tickets and concessions to committing to a policy for TV broadcasts to setting budget lines for farm teams, scouting, and medical staff. Just about all of the financial nitty-gritty can be automated, too. If you don't want to haggle over the price of tickets or how much you're committing to the minor leagues, you can just click on the "let the computer choose" box and forget all about them. Basically, this is a game that's as detailed as you like. If you don't want to get so heavily invested in every aspect of team management, you can hone in on core gameplay elements, such as setting rosters, and let the rest of the game run more or less on autopilot.
Changes to this laissez-faire formula have been implemented this year. It's now a bit easier to set up the league that you want courtesy of the five franchise scenario options that greet you every time you fire up the game. You can instantly choose either the 2008 Major League season (complete with updated rosters and 2,500 minor leaguers), any season from 1901 to 2007, a totally made-up league, an anything-goes custom league, or any MLB expansion team going back to the 1960s. The latter is perhaps the most intriguing way to play Baseball Mogul 2009 because it's tough to resist the challenge of trying to guide a truly abysmal club like the 1962 New York Mets or the 1969 Montreal Expos from the outhouse to the penthouse.
Interface improvements can at least make those early years running an expansion team a little more bearable. Many visual elements have been overhauled from last year, providing a more intuitive, cleaner look to the game. You now have access to a depth chart, giving you a quick reference to your full roster at all positions. The improved scrolling status bar at the bottom of the screen now tracks more pertinent big-league developments in addition to running classic player quotes and league leaders. Play-by-Play mode is now more lifelike when manually playing games. A new physics engine provides more variety to plays during games, with the ball being knocked all over the diamond. The only drawback to all of the above is that a few bugs have crept into the mix. Menu screens sometimes come up blank, as if the game isn't properly importing schedules, stats, or even player lists. Saving and reloading always clears this problem up, thankfully.
Artificial intelligence appears to have been boosted somewhat as well. Computer-controlled managers employ cutthroat tactics, smartly subbing in pinch hitters and pull pitchers at opportune moments. Rival GMs offer mostly sensible trades now. You're typically presented with a raft of solid options to buy or sell instead of the blitz of stupid offers that used to come across the screen every July before the trade deadline. Teams seem to make moves to benefit their circumstances. Also-rans look to dump high-salaried old guys for the prospects needed to rebuild, while contenders will make pitches for key veterans that they think will get them into the World Series. Nothing says Major League realism when cellar-dwelling sad sacks like the San Francisco Giants come calling on July 31 looking to dump $18-million-man Barry Zito for a trio of fine Yankee prospects. Some stat generation is a bit wonky, though. As in previous years, offensive numbers trend higher than they should, which is particularly noteworthy when you move back to earlier eras without the home-run-enhanced scores that have been so common in Major League Baseball over the past decade or thereabouts. Seeing games where teams routinely score 10 or more runs back in the Dead Ball Era--or similarly run up scores in the offensive desert that was the mid-1960s--takes some of the shine off of playing classic and expansion seasons.
Ultimately Baseball Mogul 2009 isn't a bad sequel, it's just an in-between one best reserved for series completists and newcomers.