Wot I Think: Oil Rush

By Alec Meer on February 8th, 2012 at 3:09 pm.

I started playing Unigine’s seabound strategy game Oil Rush a fortnight ago. Then I got distracted by a shard of light in the corner of the room, and before I knew it a fortnight had passed and I still hadn’t written up my thoughts on it. I’ve finally woken up again, and I am indeed ready to tell you what I think.

Tower defence meets Galcon would be the hard sell; intense mini-map based node-capturing strategy would be the softer one. With conventional RTS having a bit of a slumber in recent months (unless, of course, you’re deep in StarCraft II leaderboards), Oil Rush finds itself in a faintly privileged situation. Not too much sci-fi build’n’bash competition out there, so this quiet little contender potters into the ring and raises its fists. What to expect from this rank outsider?

Well, decent things. In some ways it feels like a concept that was bundled up and shoved inside a game before it had been entirely fleshed out, while in other ways it seems like a focused, even cocky exploration of how far its relatively simple mechanics can be taken.

The setting: the future, environmental difficulties, oil in short supply, warring naval factions, seabound-turrets, speedy gunboats and darting aeroplanes. You play an Australian commander of dubious acting ability and the remarkably non-heroic name of ‘Kevin’. Go forth, harvest, build, conquer. skip through all the tedious and unimpressive talking-head cutscenes.

Honestly though, don’t worry about the story, failings or not – it’s rapidly irrelevant to what really is a test of tactical thinking and frantic resource-juggling. The story of each level is not defeating whoever for whatever reason, but of your decision-making in the face of impressively intense scripted assaults. Oil Rush is two types of strategy game mushed up into, a Bubble’n’Squeak of quick-thinking and long-term planning.

There’s tower defence in there, in so much as you build towers to defend your holdings against invading waves of enemy ships and aircraft. As the titular oil – a precious rarity in the water-locked future-world the game’s set in – trickles in, you can buy more turrets and turret upgrades. You know the drill. But really, that element is just about secondary to something a little more a standard RTS but twisted towards the excellent Galcon’s auto-building, mass-movement take on it. From captured node points, each one of which can produce just one type of unit, planes and no trains and no automobiles but an awful lot of boats are spawned. Then, you can select a percentage of them – across one, some or all of your nodes – and send them sallying forth to whatever you’re trying to seize or defend. There’s no direct control – you can purely order groups from node to node.

So, it’s an act of gambling – will 25% percent of your force be enough to hold onto that oil rig? Can 50% possibly overcome all the enemy turrets and boats at that helicopter factory on the other side of the map? And if it is, how dangerously unprotected does it leave your own factories? Oil Rush rarely offers a break in the action, so you’re forever darting around between ushering hordes of boats all over the place, frantically building, upgrading and rebuilding your oft-smashed turrets and activating short-term buffs earned from levelling up. It’s exhausting, in a way that is entirely and gloriously satisfying when you ultimately pull through.

The most evident chink in Oil Rush’s largely impressive armour is that, well, you’ll very rarely look at it. All those exploding boats and pretty water effects? Yes, very nice, very nice. But the only times you’re likely to look at them is when they edge into your peripheral vision while you’re quick-fire building or upgrading a turret (props must go to the V button, which immediately jumps you to whichever node you’ve left least defended. The Idiot Button, I call it).

The rest of the time, you’ll be staring at the minimap. It takes up about, ooh, a sixteenth of the screen, it’s 2D with just a few uni-coloured icons, but that won’t stop you. Success in Oil Rush is predicated upon being able to see everything, all the time. Go ogle the action around one node, and you won’t spot whatever’s going on around another – and there will, almost certainly, be something going on around another. Or several others. Or all the others. Point being, if you can’t see the bigger picture, you’re dead. It’s got a little in common with the grand warfare of Supreme Commander, but none of the maximalist camera control. Just that one little window.

So it’s almost a shame that the entire game isn’t just a map. As it is, it’s almost a waste of fancy graphics. Just a big map would better emphasise the highly tactical, highly reactive nature of the game, but of course it would be a whole lot less commercially sensible. Even despite this internal conflict between being a whizzbangpretty game and a furrowed-brow masterplanning game, Oil Rush works remarkably well.

In the early game, there’s a certain period of doldrum as it repeats itself for several levels running, dowling out its small hand of unit and turret types at a speed comparable to Rupert Murdoch answering phone hacking questions at a parliamentary committee, but later on it experiments with the different types of challenge it can create from its two essential concepts. It does them well, and it does them brutally: after a certain point, I started to hit some brick walls of difficulty. I ultimately overcame them, and they’re not too hard, but Oil Rush uses scripted attacks to create some truly devious variations upon its simple mechanics.

As a singleplayer game though, you may well want to skip straight to skirmish. The acting’s annoying, the plot’s inconsequential and it takes a long time to grant you the full toybox. I haven’t tried more than a token multiplayer match, because I know full well I’ll be quashed, thumped, maimed, gutted, destroyed, eradicated, annihilated, humiliated and generally made to feel very, very small. But that too is not a criticism: despite a certain crudity, it’s exactly the kind of game where the mentally mighty can calculate build and travel times to precise degrees. It’s perhaps too small in its variety of units and maps – that’s a risk you run if you choose waterworld as your setting – to lure conquer fanatics who are tiring of Starcraft II, but it’s really onto something.

In these suprisingly roleplaying-heavy times, something as laser-focused strategic as this is entirely welcome. It’s a proper, honest-to-god RTS – but, delightfully uncommonly, it doesn’t bow slavishly to the C&C or Total War thrones. Were my thumbs not too bust helping to type these very words, I would certainly hold at least one of them aloft.

Oil Rush is out now.

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30 Comments »

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  1. Jnx says:

    What is it with strategy games thinking it’s a good campaign to deny the players all the tools for 95% of the campaign length…

    • Xocrates says:

      Same reason you usually don’t start an FPS campaign with all your guns. So that you get to know all the tools and their use instead of just using the couple really good tools for the entirety of the game.

      Of course, the problem is usually one of implementation, not concept. SC2 was really good at this since most missions were designed to take advantage of the unit unlocked on that level, many other games just give you one more unit you can build on that mission.

    • Jnx says:

      One shouldn’t make that comparison. Shooters don’t require you to use multiple guns at the same time, that’s what strategy games are about.

    • Moraven says:

      The unit unlocked was part of the story and essential for a part of completing the mission. If it was an upgrade or ability, the mission is typically designed to use that upgrade to its full potential.

    • Xocrates says:

      @Jnx: Both FPS and RTS are about using the right tools at the right time. Being limited to one type of infantry unit and one tank in an early mission isn’t different from being limited to a pistol and a SMG in an early level.

      The comparison is valid.

    • Siimon says:

      Sometimes it works well, introducing new skills or units through story in a sort of extended-tutorial and/
      or increasing difficulty (why use pistols when there is a BFG available?). But other times, its just an annoying limitation.. I guess its all about the pacing.

    • Jimbo says:

      That was the main reason I didn’t enjoy the SC2 campaign. It was mostly just a case of spamming whatever unit they just gave you. It was all tutorial.

      As for only using the ‘best’ tools for the duration of the game if you’re given them early – there shouldn’t really be ‘best’ tools. Ideally they should be appropriate for different situations and should all remain useful from the time you get them to the end of the game.

      This doesn’t really apply to most modern FPS though, because you usually just have Gun 1 and Gun 2 and then a stack of rockets lying around the place if you have to fight a helicopter or something. ‘Tool/Weapon management’ isn’t really something you need to worry about in FPS anymore.

    • Siimon says:

      Jimbo, you really said it well, but “should all remain useful from the time you get them to the end of the game.” I don’t quite agree completely with. I believe its good if most of them remain useful from start to end, but not necessarily all of them. I think all of them remaining useful start->end is MUCH less important than “there shouldn’t really be ‘best’ tools”.

      One non-FPS game that comes to mind is Driver: San Francisco; the first part of the game was much more fun – where skipping between buses, trucks, cars made sense. In the second 1/2 of the game, there were 50+ cars I’d never driven because why would I drive car X or Y or Z when I have a Lamborghini and a turbo-charged Porsche at my disposal..?

    • dontnormally says:

      Better design would be to have all the tools available around the golden-mean climax point, then start taking away individual or small batches of tools for creative layouts.

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      Lamb Chop says:

      In terms of the SCII campaign, if you try going back through and playing in a different order, you can do levels entirely differently based on what order you choose to unlock units. Which offers a neat aspect of replayability that other RTS campaigns could very well think about integrating.

      Of course, the campaign is 100% meant to be played before you’re familiar with multiplayer. If you already know how to squeeze the most out of your units and economy management, it’s kind of redundant. And the story. The story could make a crocodile weep with pity.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Heck, Dune 2 did it. As did C&C1, the RTS good enough to spawn a thousand clones.

      It’s because it gives a fun sense of progression and defers it from being all overwhelmingly up-front. But C&C1’s singleplayer is actually pretty varied, and gives you most of the strategic elements by halfway.

    • DocSeuss says:

      @Jimbo: While you don’t really need to worry about weapon management in games like Half-Life 2’s Episodes (Valve and Blizzard both employ this bizarre philosophy that the only way to design a game is to drip-feed you items, effectively making them, as you pointed out, tutorial–it has to do with their emphasis on utilizing psychology to manipulate players rather than focusing on great gameplay. Want to fight a boss in the HL2 games? Here’s a rocket launcher with infinite ammo!) or Call of Duty (they give you plenty of bodies to blow up, and these bodies all have guns, so things are never in short supply), but other games, like Gears of War and Halo absolutely rely on weapon management. Halo particularly has certain weapons that are more beneficial against one type of enemy than another, and has this wonderful variety of enemy types that encourages the player to constantly vary their loadout in order to take on enemies effectively. Gears of War does this to a slightly lesser extent, due to slightly inferior weapon design, but it’s still there. Serious Sam 3’s another game that does this well–so are the STALKER games.

      Meanwhile, in older shooters I’ve been playing, like Half-Life, Marathon, and so forth, weapon management isn’t really as pronounced as one might think. Use the heavy-damage weapon against the big guys, assault rifles at long range, and shotguns at close range. The end.

      Don’t get me wrong–I absolutely love ‘em, but honestly, I think I’ve had to think more about weapon management in newer games than older ones.

    • LintMan says:

      The unit/gun unlock progression would be nice if we didn’t have to do it in each and every god damn game that came out since Wolfenstein 3D and Dune 2. Seriously, I don’t need an entire game level to learn to use the shotgun or basic tank unit. Really. I’ve used the rocket launcher and the anti-air unit before and don’t need a training level for them for the 100th time. Really REALLY. Especially when you don’t get to use the good stuff until the game is very nearly over. It’s a hackneyed cliche at this point. Game developers just stop it. Come up with some new ideas. If it wasn’t, this should have been on RPS’s list of developer DON’Ts

      Seriously, how many frelling RTS games don’t let you use the top units or abilities until the last SP level? Most of them. Hell, in the Warcraft 3 Night Elf campaign, you NEVER get to use their top unit. Gee, thanks. I’m just sick of the attitude that “the SP is just a training ground for multiplayer, so who cares if you can’t use the cool units in SP?”. When the SP campaign ends, the game is over for me since I don’t do multiplayer. Saving the special weapon for the last level basically means I get to see it ONCE.

  2. mouton says:

    Sounds like constant juggling of resources and units – the exact thing I dislike in RTSes. The exact thing many people love, of course.

    • Siimon says:

      Not really, the only real juggling is choosing to build/upgrade towers or to upgrade passive & active skills and it all uses the one resource: oil.
      Units build themselves (and towers repair themselves).

  3. Moraven says:

    I would not even call it just a “RTS”. You do not have free movement to any point on the map. Think of it like Galcon, a point-to-point RTS. Of course Oil Rush includes various units along with turrets which have their strengths and weaknesses. You also have your passive and active upgrades. And it looks pretty. Sometimes you get a chance to hit “F” cinematic view and watch it but when it gets bustling its more as the wut described.

    Campaign is about 5-6 hours. Some variety in the missions with a escort and a couple tower defense missions. Tower defense missions took a couple retries for me. I streamed my playthroughs if want an idea what campaign might bring firsthand. Youtube and twitch.tv, tag suftv oil rush

  4. Siimon says:

    A few gripes:
    You can build & upgrade towers all around a base, yet they’re almost certain to all be destroyed by any group of ships that pass by who’s number is higher than 3.
    Bases can be taken over while towers are being upgraded.
    Repairs of towers is so slow that they don’t even heal 1/2 up before the next scripted event.
    I brought together every single unit I had and it still wasn’t enough to destroy an enemy’s base which was protected by a few towers and about 2/3’s of their army.
    I can’t build towers around certain bases.
    Campaign blows, especially while being chased.

    Overall it promises to be so much fun – a game that immediately made me interested in it, but it ends up being frustrating and boring through the campaign.

    As Alec said, Skirmish is where its at.

    • Lokai says:

      All of your gripes could be solved by using abilities, which I’m sure you did use but they help with all of that. Towers especially get very strong by the end when you have them all level 3 tech and all level 3 upgraded.

  5. Khemm says:

    Having watched the “WTF is…” video by TotalBiscuit, I share his sentiment that this game would be infinitely better if it played like a proper RTS with base building, units you can micro etc.

    The last “water-related” RTS was… Submarine Titans, I believe? Though it dealt with underwater warfare.

    • DerRidda says:

      Meh, as an owner of this game I can only say that this wasn’t exactly a quality WTF is…

      He hardly showed anything, barely past the tutorial he neither finished an SP mission nor a skirmish match overall rendering the game plain and simply wrong. He omitted both qualities of the title as well as some actual downsides. This here WIT reflects it way better.

      My biggest gripe was that he did judge the game on something that it didn’t want to be and this is something he usually never does and any game- and media-opinion–provider-person should also never do. Panda, Y U no Giraffe?

      Maybe it was the WTF is.. format falling flat on it’s nose, which it has a high risk of doing.

      So, citizen reader! if you were interested in the game but that WTF is… changed that, disregard the video go back to where you were before and use this here WIT as a much more accurate reference.
      Or any review for that matter.

  6. boywithumbrella says:

    Still waiting on the Mac version on Steam. They’ve been promising to have it up “next week” for some time now, but still no sign of it.

    EDIT: ok, it appeared today, so YAY *gonna wait for the next sale*

    • mixvio says:

      If you buy the Windows version, the Mac one appears to be enabled. I discovered that by accident earlier since I didn’t realise it was Steamplay, but it was in my list of Mac games.

  7. Joshua Northey says:

    “So it’s almost a shame that the entire game isn’t just a map. As it is, it’s almost a waste of fancy graphics. Just a big map would better emphasise the highly tactical, highly reactive nature of the game, but of course it would be a whole lot less commercially sensible. ”

    Its not a waste to the developers because it probably doubles or quadruples the game’s price point. Gamers (in aggregate) really like their shinys. They like them so much in fact many would rather play bad/buggy/incomplete games with nice shinys than good well balanced games without shinys.

    I used to be pretty deep into the Galcon scene and it was tremendous, but it was also very small community. I have no doubt with the same gameplay and triple the graphics it would have sold infinitely better.

    The game development world is so frustrating with so much purchasing driven by form over substance, and then so much complaining about the lack substance by the purchasers after the fact.

    • aerozol says:

      “of course it would be a whole lot less commercially sensible”

    • DerRidda says:

      Much simpler reason: Unigine is mainly a developer of the Unigine engine, which runs on Windows/Linux/Mac and even that PS3 thingy. So they want all the pretties in there, it’s essentially self-promotion.

  8. Fartango says:

    You play “Kevin”, perhaps as in Kevin Costner a.k.a. “The Mariner” from Waterworld?

  9. mixvio says:

    The game itself is pretty much just a tech demo for their engine, Unigine. It looks interesting, and very pretty, but it shouldn’t be considered an actual game.

    • kemryl says:

      I don’t see why it isn’t a game just because it was made to demonstrate their engine’s capabilities. What matters is the end result, not the intention, right?

  10. vivlo says:

    Honest-to-God ? That’s quite a gap !