Thursday, January 26, 2012

Oil Rush Review

Oil Rush, developed and published by Unigine Corp.
The Good: Easy control of forces, strategic base capturing with automated unit production, good interface, research tree supports varied tactics, challenging campaign, multiplatform, nice graphics
The Not So Good: Few units and defensive towers
What say you? This fast-paced streamlined real time strategy game features little micromanagement, focusing on larger tactical decisions: 7/8

As a precious limited natural resource, oil is constantly being fought over around the globe. Whether through peaceful diplomatic means or more hostile methods, he who controls the oil controls the world, at least until alternative energy sources become more profitable. Oil Rush is a real-time strategy game that centers on naval battles for black gold, as ships and planes fight over oil platforms scattered throughout the ocean. This game hopes to differentiate itself through more streamlined controls and strategy centered on capturing the aforementioned oil platforms to produce defenses and new units. Does this novel approach still provide strategic depth?

The graphics of Oil Rush are impressive. Being a naval title, you would expect the maritime graphics to be pretty good, and Oil Rush delivers with choppy waves and translucent water where you can see the drowned land below. The few areas that are still above sea level are also quite detailed, with varied environments (desert, arctic) poking out of the water. Bases are animated, with little workers shuttling boxes back and forth for no discernable reason, and the units have a good level of detail when you are zoomed in close. Battle effects are decent enough, although the same death explosion animations are used every time. The sound design is less remarkable: while the combat effects are good, the forced voice acting and occasionally annoying music selections aren’t so stellar. Still, the beautiful graphics carry the high-quality presentation of Oil Rush.

In the future, the Earth is drowned and everyone is fighting over oil. I blame Al Gore. The single player campaign consists of around twenty missions; usually these involve a generic “capture everything” objective, but some time-based defensive or alternative objectives are sporadically offered. The campaign missions can be quite challenging: it occasionally took me a couple of tries before I formulated a successful strategy, thanks to some unbalanced starting conditions and a competent AI opponent. The tutorial is integrated into the campaign, explaining a couple of new units, bases, and abilities with each new mission. Beyond the campaign lies a skirmish mode against the AI: fifteen maps supporting two to four players. You can also play those maps online, using the game’s browser to search for opponents. Finally, it should be noted that Oil Rush works on Windows, Macintosh, and Linux operating systems, so all PC users can enjoy the unbridled mayhem.

One of the most important aspects of any strategy game is the interface, and Oil Rush mostly delivers on this count. The technology tree and researched abilities are easy to access, and purchasing and upgrading towers is accomplished by double-clicking on a base. You can send all of your units, a percentage of the available forces, or specific units to an enemy (or friendly) base. Most of the game is actually played from the minimap (where units are moved), and while this method is straightforward, I’d like the minimap to be a bit larger and have icons for different unit types (triangles for planes, squares for heavy ships, et cetera). Because units can only be ordered to other bases, it can be impossible to intercept enemy units, but you can guess where they are headed as units will always travel in a straight line. Oil Rush also features a good number of hotkeys, where you can select your weakest platform or all platforms to send a massive attack. Overall, while there is some small room for improvement, the interface for Oil Rush is solid and implemented well.

Units are automatically produced at your bases, removing one tedious aspect of strategy games (you’re going to build as many units as you can anyway, right?). There are only five types of units in the game: light, medium, and heavy naval units, and light and heavy air units. While this limited variety doesn’t compete with other strategy games that feature more units with nuanced differences, researched upgrades can expand your tactical options. The population cap is determined by the number of bases you have captured, so the side with the most platforms will produce the most units. Units can only be ordered to move to other bases; while some might argue this reduces tactical flexibility, it works well within the confines of the game’s fast-paced, streamlined mechanics. Those bases produce the variety of units, and while it takes some time to capture an enemy or neutral base, a single unit can do it (assuming there are no defenses constructed), so devious tacticians have some choices. Each base should be surrounded by turrets for defense, since you’ll never have enough forces to cover all of your bases and still assault the enemy. The options here are even more limited than the unit selection: one tower for light units, one tower for medium and heavy units, and one tower for air units. However, you can upgrade existing towers to increase damage output and engage more varied units. Towers are constructed using oil, collected at oil platforms that offer no defenses and must be covered by military units alone. Oil can also be spent using special abilities, which are researched using points earned from attacking the enemy. There are several branches on the technology tree you can unlock, including unit and tower upgrades, increased or decreased damage, speeding up production, raising population cap, radar, mine fields, and nukes. Some upgrades have several levels that multiply the effects of the ability. The abilities help to break the mid-game stalemates that are so common in RTS games, and are a welcome addition that offer more strategic options.

Oil Rush features fast-paced, Galcon-style gameplay where bases swap quickly and units die swiftly. The simple unit and turret balance makes it easy (potentially) to counter the enemy: machine guns beat jet skis, and SAMs beat helicopters. Of course, it takes some time to construct these defenses, but you can see the types of bases the enemy owns and then make an educated guess at which units they will use. It is almost impossible to defend everything, which makes the games more interesting overall, as there is almost always a place you can attack your enemy, giving those who are trailing a chance to come back if they attack where their opponents are not defending (especially on larger maps with lengthy transit times). The streamlined nature of Oil Rush makes maneuvering and constructing defenses important, with the use of the right ability at the right time able to tip the balance. The AI opponent is usually quite good: they will routinely attack vulnerable bases where you forgot (or could not afford) to construct bases, crippling your production. There are some oddities when units are attack (running into each other or not engaging enemies immediately), but units do organize and move in formation automatically.

You would think that automating production and individual unit movement would lead to a boring game, but the fast pace of Oil Rush means you’re always busy doing something. You will need to constantly shuttle forces between your bases, engaging incoming threats and taking new objectives. Panic is common in the game because of the ease at which undefended bases can be captured by only a couple of units. This can lead to a cascading effect where the enemy will prevent you from producing new units for a counter-attack by easily capturing undefended unit-producing bases. Towers must be constructed at each newly acquired base, since the enemy could sneak around your heavily fortified front lines and attack from the rear. These towers require oil, and since oil platforms cannot be defended with towers, the most intense conflicts usually involve these structures. The bases you hold produce a variety of units automatically: light, medium, and heavy naval units, plus a couple of flying units. These isn’t much variety here (same with the towers), but it does follow the simplified nature of the game. Units can only be ordered to move to other bases, which greatly reduces confusion during the hectic skirmishes. Researched abilities break stalemates, reducing mid-game tedium and quickening the overall pace of the game. The AI opponent is very competent, repeatedly going after vulnerable bases, and the interface allows you to manage your forces efficiently. The campaign is tough, and skirmish and multiplayer games extend replay value. Finally, Oil Rush looks nice, which is always a final selling point. Oil Rush takes the ideas of real time strategy games, cuts out the fluff, and produces an intriguing streamlined title.