Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Oil Blue Review

The Oil Blue, developed and published by Vertigo Games.
The Good: Distinct drilling equipment, repairing minigames, informative tutorials
The Not So Good: Uneven attention distribution makes for chaotic gameplay, occasionally inefficient interface, high difficulty can't be changed
What say you? This click-management casual game has nice variety but lacks some balance: 6/8

I’m no geologist…actually, I am a geologist, so I put the blame for the Gulf oil spill (official name: “my bad”) directly on you, the consumer. Your insatiable need for oil, with your big SUVs and high-class wine, has driven the petroleum industry to drill deeper, harder, faster, longer. If only those damn hippies would let us drill into protected land in Alaska (those baby seals deserve it, plus they taste really good). Anyway, The Oil Blue simulates the exciting world of potentially damaging the planet through oil exploration as you find beautiful, exotic locations and build giant metallic structures on top of them. Isn’t technology wonderful?

After a rough introduction (poor visuals and voice acting), the presentation gets a lot better. The Oil Blue features semi-realistic interpretations of drilling equipment designed for a lot of clicking, reminiscent of the control panels found in a good submarine simulation. There are some small buttons for equipment options and the layout isn’t optimized: switching between equipment is done on the left side of the screen while most of the button are in the middle. The Oil Blue doesn’t feature keyboard shortcuts that I could find, making your command of the equipment less than efficient (especially for veterans of hotkey-laden strategy games). The place to click to switch between the surface and ocean is really small, although the transition does look nice. There are some nice subtle animations and the equipment does look like it might actually exist in real life, so The Oil Blue delivers on those counts. The game also offers fitting music for the oceanic adventures and appropriate acoustic warnings for in-game events. Overall, the game looks fine, although the interface could be laid out in a more intuitive manner.

The Oil Blue has you moving from island to island, restarting old equipment to fulfill the world’s renewed need for oil. Each island has the same objective: produce a number of barrels of oil in a set number of days. Each level lasts about ten to fifteen minutes (broken into two to three minute intervals), although the amount of interaction makes it feel a lot longer. Produced oil is sold on the world market, which features small price fluctuations; you can maximize your profit by waiting for price increases, but your attention is usually required elsewhere. Ranks are earned very quickly, unlocking new equipment or increasing the performance of current tools. Each new island offers a percentage chance of having each of the four types of oil drills, which does increase replay value by a slight amount. The Oil Blue also features some enlightening tutorials that explain each of the game’s unique tools well.

The Oil Blue features a unique suite of equipment you will need to control. Because each piece of equipment is controlled differently, the game is far more interesting than most click-management offerings that have you do the same exact thing each and every level. The easiest to control is the groundwell: you choose a drilling speed and designate batteries to power the process. Batteries not in use are recharged, so the groundwell requires only occasional input (just switching batteries over and tweaking the speed) and provides a good amount of oil. It also doesn’t require repairs, which makes the groundwell very easy to manage. Conversely, the most complex (and annoying) is the oil derrick: you must manually slow down the drill when you spot a pocket of oil (a filled-in box), move the drill over, and click to collect. The problem is that this requires constant supervision to catch all the oil, and you must also release pressure frequently, especially when you are collecting the oil. The oil derrick breaks easily and frankly doesn’t offer enough oil to make it worth the effort. The pumpjack has you select appropriate drill locations from a list every thirty seconds; while this makes this equipment easy to manage and allows you to concentrate on other areas, it also doesn’t offer near the amount of oil the other equipment does. The rig has you plotting drill points in a 2-D map to keep the drill over pockets of oil; this, like the oil derrick, requires a lot of attention to maximize your drilling.

All of the equipment, except for the groundwell, will need to be repaired. This involves playing any of a large number of minigames that are quite varied: Simon, moving levers, tracing a path, and more. This is a good break from drilling, but it takes too much time. Optimally, you’ll want to repair your broken tools early in the day before the market opens, but sometimes there is no time to do so. You simply don’t have enough time to do it while other drills are running, so if you have multiple broken equipment, you are in trouble. Some of the games (like the one with the lights) make no sense, and you can’t quit a sequence and start another.

The Oil Blue suffers from a lack of game balance. The oil derrick and rig require too much direct attention, which means you’ll be neglecting your other methods of crude production. I usually try to ignore the oil derricks completely and focus on the other methods, hopefully getting enough oil to fulfill the objective. Some players might be able to switch between five things going on simultaneously, but I can’t. Ironically, the game gets easier as each island level progresses due to automated upgrades that are applied to each tool as you use them. Granted, The Oil Blue does add more equipment and tougher objectives with more advanced maps, but the difficulty can still be insurmountable. The game is quite stressful and difficult and can’t be adjusted to make things easier. In a perfect world, you would spend equal amounts of time with each apparatus, deftly switching between each and maximizing your production and profit. Unfortunately, The Oil Blue does not meet this goal, instead favoring the more simplistic machines that provide the same amount (or a significantly better amount, if you use them enough and they become upgraded) of production over ones that require almost constant supervision with little benefit.

The Oil Blue has distinguished gameplay that separates itself from a lot of click-management titles. Each of the four pieces of drilling equipment you have access to behave differently, which provides a varied experience that takes a lot longer to get “old” and repetitive. Unfortunately, the equipment is not balanced well: you need to spend too much time with the oil derrick and rig. It’s simply easier to focus on the more automated equipment that provide just as much oil with a lot less work. I don't know who could possibly manage multiple pumps of various kinds, efficiently running all at the same time. The interface doesn’t make things much easier, requiring a lot of clicks across the screen and in small areas. I did find the tutorials to be well-written and informative, which makes learning the game easier. On top of simply running the equipment, you must devote more time to repair broken equipment, sometimes while you are trying to manage the functional pumps. The Oil Blue lacks difficulty settings to ease you into the process: I barely beat the second island, and you can’t slow down the processes. Equipment does get easier to manage with time, which actually makes later days easier than the starting ones, a reverse of typical game design. Each island features the same sort of objectives (a set number of barrels to collect) instead of introducing some variety here. You sell your oil on a fluctuating market, which would add another layer to the game, if you weren’t already concerned with actually running the pumps and could pay attention to the prices. I imagine that click-management veterans will have an easier time with The Oil Blue, but I found that the game divides attention too unevenly, making the gameplay border on unmanageable.