Setting up a business is hard work. It takes money, good people and most of all, time. You have to train your staff, grow your team, and invest in plenty of titanium oven mitts (+2 Power in battle).
Middle Manager of Justice is the work of Psychonauts and Costume Quest developer Double Fine, and is its first experiment with free-to-play games. Part Football Manager, part The Incredibles, Middle Manager sees you build up a superhero team, construct a fancy base and, importantly, take care of your overheads.
The game launched in December, but a patchy, early build briefly appeared for download a few months before (an accidental release that Double Fine quickly repurposed as a beta test). After several hours spent souping up my squad over the Christmas break, it's clear that there have been improvements.
The game's opening phase, when you hire your initial employees and watch them venture out on their first missions, was already well streamlined. You're quickly versed in the game's semi-turn-based fights and the subsequent recovery and training schedule. But the speed of the game now feels tightened, with players quickly adding more characters to team up with and keep occupied.
In the game's earlier form, mission rewards decreased over time - the longer you left them, the less they were worth. This made some jobs practically valueless, something which has now been tweaked. Completing missions (which usually comprise the duffing up of bad guys) now contributes to the overall morale of a neighbourhood, with financial rewards for keeping citizens happy.
Middle Manager offers a large town map of districts to work through, each with its own loose story arc and boss fight to beat. It's here that Double Fine fans will revel in the developer's trademark wit as your heroes exchange verbal blows with baddies before each battle. One early joke even pokes fun at the need to properly acquire trademarks (a nod to the studio's Trenched/Iron Brigade name-change).
Funds can be spent on hiring new superhero help, upgrading your base or on fancy items to use in battle (like those oven mitts). The game uses another form of currency, too - time. Training, recovering and inventing new items will all take up precious minutes, with each of your hero characters kept busy on a treadmill, sleeping or scratching their noodle while those processes go on.
And it's here that you can pay to move things along a bit quicker: by using in-game currency to buy items and limit grinding, or by boosting characters through time-consuming activities by using Superium, which you can acquire extra dollops of by parting with real-world cash.
But Middle Manager already feels generous with its rewards and can be easily enjoyed without paying a penny. It'll take you longer, sure, but the game feels tuned to this approach more than any pay-to-win scenario. I started with an extra hunk of Superium in the bank (a reward from Double Fine for playing the beta version). It was enough to buy a top-of-the-range hero straight away (his name's Hot Head and he rams people with his face, which he's set on fire), but he now feels overpowered.
Whether you spend money or not (and there's never a moment when I felt I was being forced to), Middle Manager feels worth any modest outlay. Setting up a business is tricky, but with Middle Manager of Justice, Double Fine has tuned its free-to-play experiment just about right.
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