Reviews

Offworld Trading Company Review – Capitalism. Capitalism Never Changes.

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Platforms: PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Mohawk Games
Publisher: Stardock
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

Review code provided free of charge by the publisher.

Offworld Trading Company is the very first game from Mohawk Games. A company’s first attempt is always interesting because you’re seeing the birth of a potential new giant in the land of videogame development, or the inevitable sinking of yet another company doomed to fail. But of course many first attempts tend to be rough around the edges, perhaps showing signs of what the team is capable of years down the road but ultimately lacking in the here and now. Offworld Trading Company, though, is brilliant.

Offworld Trading Company is described by its developers as an economic RTS where you do battle with money rather than armies. It’s an apt description in some ways, but it’s probably much closer to a relatively fast-paced business sim, albeit without requiring anywhere near the same level of dedication as a full-blown simulator nor the capacity to stare at baffling screens full of even more baffling statistics.  Rather than tossing down buildings that produce troops you’ll construct factories that produce resources that you can sell, hopefully for a sizable profit. At the start of any given match you’re given the opportunity to scan the hex-based map for resources before deciding where to place your founding HQ, of which there’s a few different types that offer varying benefits. Your opponents are doing the same, so if you take too long looking for the ideal spot they could get a head start or find the optimal patch of ground for their chosen faction first.  The goal is to supply the local Mar’s colonies with all the materials they need while turning a profit and beating out your rivals in a bid to create a monopoly on the red planet. You aren’t seeking to destroy your opponents, you want to absorb them by buying shares in their business during the match, slowly but surely taking control until they become a subsidiary. Manage to do that to everyone else and you’ll be crowned CEO. It’s basically Capitalism: The Videogame.

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Producing goods isn’t free, though, as all the various factories and buildings require other resources to function . At the basic end of the scale a farm needs a fairly large amount of water to keep its bountiful food growing, and so you’ll need to toss down a water pump or two to keep them well fed. A Hydro Plant can produce the fuel needed for resources to be transported as well as 02, but like the farm it requires water as well. To pump out steel, which is a handy resource for construction and expansion, you’ll need a good supply of iron. As you move up things become more complex; a glass factory needs silicon and fuel, while electronics need silicon, carbon and aluminium, thus making it the most demanding of Offworld Trading Company’s goods.

The big catch is that you’ve got a limited about of claims on which you can actually put down buildings. This isn’t a standard RTS where expansion is limited purely by the size of territory your forces can hold. More claims can be gotten by upgrading your HQ and there are one or two other ways of gaining an extra claim or two, but even with a fully upgraded headquarters there’s a finite amount of space to play with, thus you have to carefully pick and choose what to invest in at any given time. Something like electronics looks tempting given the high sale value, but you’ve also got to account for how many claims will be used simply feeding the factories with the needed resources to produce said electronics. All of these things take power as well, plus the cost of fuel to transport it all to the headquarters, especially if the mines are built far away because no location ever has close access to everything.

The other option is to simply buy the resources needed to feed the factories and use the spare claims to do something else. The left side of the screen shows the current market and the prices are constantly fluctuating, and thus seemingly cheap resources can become increasingly expensive at a rapid rate, dropping profit margins through the floor, into the basement and then out the other side of the planet if you aren’t careful. You’ve always got to keep a careful eye on these prices and decide when it’s best to abandon production of certain things and try to refocus somewhere else. Success doesn’t stem from having a wide array of building producing multiple goods, but rather from concentrating on specific areas that can be exploited, just like real life. Advantage can swing wildly as surpluses and shortages of resources can send profits spiralling in either direction at a moments notice. It’s very, very common to be a high successful company one moment and splurge out on buying up a rival before the market suddenly shifts and your money reserves dwindle faster than a beer being drunk by a rugby player who was just part of the winning team.

This is where the player interaction comes from. At first the game can make you feel a little disconnected from everybody else; you’re sort of doing your own thing while the AI or human opponents go about their business as well, but as you play  and become more aware of how everything slots together you realise that you truly are always competing against each other, even if you’re aren’t using bombs and artillery to do it. Their actions and yours have a direct influence over the prices that things are bought and sold at. If you see someone building a chain of glass kilns you could dump a whole truckload that you’ve been keeping back and suddenly drop the market value of glass, for example, or if you control the only source of iron you could pump out the steel needed for other companies to expand their HQs and only trickle it onto the market to keep prices horribly high for them. If you’re holding the supply but aren’t selling it then prices will go through the roof and into space, but likewise if you flood the market then it becomes vastly less valuable. It’s fascinating because at first the temptation is to sell your produce as fast as possible to keep the money flowing, but you soon learn that sometimes its better to hold it back in order to undermine the opposition.

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A more direct approach can be taken through the use of the Black Market, a delectable selection of items that largely fall under the “being a dick” umbrella. This bar at the bottom of the screen offers simple stuff like an extra claim of land for some backhanded cash, but also grants access to such joyous things as underground nukes that are used to deplete resources in a single tile, EMP pulses that disable buildings, viruses that royally screw things up and even mutinies which result in buildings falling under your control for a brief time. Before long matches can become filled with people trying to sabotage each other in the most efficient ways possible, identifying the weakest point in the supply chain. Want to cripple a company’s steel production? Don’t target the steel factories themselves, muck up the iron mines instead so that they have to buy iron from the market for a short time. Better yet, time it nicely with an iron shortage you’ve manufactured and you’ll be giggling like a school girl in no time as they briefly have to purchase the needed resources at an inflated rate. If you just so happen to be holding a buttload of steel to flood the market with once they finally get those steel mills running smoothly again then that’s just all the better for you.

There are other methods of manipulating the market to your advantage through the use of advanced buildings. The Hacker Array can spread disinformation about shortages and surpluses of goods in order to frustrate an opponent or make your own products more valuable for a short time, while the Optimization Centre is used to improve a buildings performance. The Pleasure Dome is a unique building in that you place it alongside the Mars Colony where it will produce money based on the amount of habitats on the area by supply citizens with various forms of amusement. Mind out the gutter, eh? The Patent Centre grants access to a bunch of useful things you can research, such as teleportation that means you can stop using ships to shuttle resources back and forth or Carbon Scrubbing which lets any building that needs carbon extract it from the atmosphere. These are powerful bonuses that come with an important caveat; only one company can hold any given patent. Finally you can even construct a platform for launching rockets full of goods to the outer belt for potentially huge profits.

All of these systems serve to produce a satisfying back and forth in the gameplay. Are your distant mines too vulnerable to an opponent who is constantly purchasing the help of a pirate’s turret to shoot down transports? Launch a mutiny on another player’s patent building and get to work on some teleportation to avoid the problem! Are you aiming to produce food but the opponent has decided to muscle in and is overrunning your smaller operation? Grab a patent that gives you resources back for demolishing buildings, sell of your food supplies, get rid of the farms use a hacker array to drop food prices, wreck his water production then use a virus so that his farms start buying up water at an inflated price for good measure. Nothing you can do can actually really ruin an enemy unless they seriously aren’t paying attention, but between the black market, fluctuating economy and advanced buildings Offworld Trading Company successfully brings in some fun player interaction into a game that could have otherwise been devoid of it.

Meanwhile the absurdly addictive campaign mode introduces a few new ideas into the mix. Rather than attempting to buy opponent’s shares during a match to win you’ll go up against numerous other companies in a battle for domination over Mars that spans multiple matches. Instead of having every piece of technology already available to you certain items will be locked away, forcing players to switch up  strategies and try to make a profit from whatever they’re capable of producing rather than simply going with whatever currently has the highest sale value. To unlock new stuff you’ll be given the chance to contract engineers between matches either on a weekly basis, meaning they’ll provide you with access to something for a single match, or permanently. You can even hire additional engineers for an existing technology to improve production and performance if you fancy trying to dominate specific sectors of the market. But where do you get the money to do that? During a match your goal is to build the local colony, adding new habitats, working areas and more. At the same time your opponents are building up their factories and expanding the colony as well, with each new upgrade for the Martian base becoming increasingly expensive. For every addition to the colony you make you’ll earn a chunk of profit from it that you can use you purchase new engineers, perks and bonuses between missions. If that wasn’t enough after every match the player with the lowest share value will be eliminated, so you’ve got to keep on top of things. Sometimes it may even be worth accepting second or third place during a game simply to save up a wad of cash with which to nab some better tech for next time. While some people may find themselves frustrated by being locked out of various technologies I personally found the campaign to be even more engaging than multiplayer or skirmish. There’s a nice sense of progression and satisfaction that stems from walking away from a mission with a good chunk of the profits that will keep flowing and investing that cash in opening up new opportunities. It’s just a shame you can’t invite friends into it or something as well.

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There are some other elements that pop up in the game, too, that are worth chatting. Auctions occur mid-match that can let you buy new claims of land or acquire helpful patents which can lead to some fun moments as the game pauses and people hammer away on the bid button, often becoming too caught up for their own good in nabbing something helpful but not worth that damn much ohmygodwhyamIspendingthisbloodymuchonachunkofland? And if it all becomes a bit too much then you can always abuse the pause button and take a breather. The game will also pause automatically whenever you go to place a building, which can be turned off if you find it annoying.

All of this takes place within matches that typically only take around 30-minutes. It’s a surprisingly frantic pace for a game that’s all about managing stats and achieving economic dominance. Usually games of that nature have a slow, leisurely pace where you have time to consider every possible option before committing to a plan. Offworld Trading Company, though, wants you to make choices right now. This need for economic speed helps keep the game feeling fun and interesting. There are small lulls in the action where the market settles down briefly and you simply watch factories churning away, pumping more and more produce into your storage, but for the most part you’re always clicking, analysing and deciding.

Online the handy pause feature vanishes so that you’re left having to make crappy choices on the fly against real people who must all seemingly must all be running their own equivalents of Microsoft or something. Yes, they are that good. That doesn’t dismiss the A.I, though, who have a raft of difficulty settings and can handily kick some ass. How much cheating might be involved is up for debate, but it never feels like the A.I. is pulling a fast one. In skirmish against the computer there’s a few options you can tweak to create a custom game such as turning off random events or auctions as well. You can also set it to use real maps from maps as a basis for the match, or for a match to last seven in-game day like the campaign matches do.

The genius of the game is how it takes the often convoluted and complex business sim and compacts it down into something simple yet immensely engaging before giving it an RTS spin for a faster pace. Despite its relative mechanical simplicity Offworld Trading Company does a lot with it. There’s palpable tension to be found within a close-fought match as you desperately sell off the last of your stock in a bid to purchase the final share needed for victory, all while your enemy does exactly the same. There’s satisfaction to be gained from taking advantage of the market or sabotaging the best laid plans of those who would do the same to you. And there’s great enjoyment to be had whether you win or lose.  Considering this is Mohawk Games first title they’ve done a truly impressive job. It might not look visually amazing or have a compelling story, but Offworld Trading Company has eaten up a lot of free time thanks to its compelling gameplay. A hearty and well-earned recommendation from me, then.

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