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.