Oil Rush is a counter-argument to the idea that real-time strategy games don’t have enough strategy. It attempts to simplify the style by slightly relaxing player control and adding in tower defense components. Combined with an interesting premise – a water-flooded future earth has factions squabbling over oil – and delightful graphics for an indie game, it has a lot to recommend it at first glance. But it has problems, too, largely resulting from over-simplification. By only trying to simplify some of the tactics used in the game without balancing other components, Oil Rush consigns itself to be known as an interesting, only mildly successful experiment.
Most real-time strategy games, including Oil Rush, are focused on military conquest, which makes military theory a somewhat surprisingly useful method to see why they do what they do. Military historians and theorists often divide modern warfare into four generations. The first generation involves lines of troops fighting pitched battles, such as in the Napoleonic era. Third generation involves speed of movement and collapsing supply lines – the blitzkreig of World War II is the best model. Fourth generation is asymmetrical warfare, such as the Vietnam War.
Real-time strategy games, like Starcraft or Oil Rush, are built around the concept of the second generation of warfare. Second generation involves defensive superiority over attackers, huge armies and equivalent casualties, and victory achieved by overwhelming an opponent. Victory in these wars – specifically World War I, but also to some extent the American Civil War and World War II – hinged largely on economic dominance. The side that was able to muster more soldiers and more, better equipment won the war, although tactical superiority could hasten or slow down the inevitable. (Part of the reason this strategic form is so popular in games is that, as can be seen in the “Powell Doctrine,” it’s a favored form of the United States military.)
In most of these real-time strategy games, then, the goal becomes to build up economic dominance, so that you can apply overwhelming force at the proper time to cripple an opponent’s economy, or destroy them altogether. Top Starcraft players are said to make up to five clicks per second. For something that’s nominally a “strategy” game, having to use that much manual skill can be off-putting. Most of that clicking, however, involves the straightforward economic development aspect of a game – building factories, troops, and defenses, as well as collecting the resources necessary to continue that expansion.
Much of that is done on a sort of gamer auto-pilot, or force of habit. A player who’s well-acquainted with the game will have a very specific pattern of building and recruiting that they follow. Those clicks are less decisions than they are maintenance. There are only a few major decisions to be made, generally described as “When and where do I attack?”
Therefore, a strategy game like Oil Rush, which eliminates much of the micromanagement of real-time strategy, has a distinct appeal. In Oil Rush, your factories produce new units automatically. Your units can only be moved to specific nodes on a map, and there are only minor ways to affect battles that have started. In theory, by significantly decreasing player energy spent on production and tactics, the more important decision of when and where to attack strategically becomes the most important component of the game.
That’s not the case with Oil Rush, though, which is the game’s biggest flaw. The component of the game whose importance increases is not strategy, but time. Too much of the game is spent waiting for units to be produced automatically, or moving them from node to node.
There are times when Oil Rush moves out of the second-generation form of overwhelming force, and becomes a war of maneuver. This is when the game is at its best. In one storyline mission, you start with a small set of units, and have to decide the most effective way to move through enemy territory while being pursued by a much larger force. By limiting the amount of time spent waiting for new units, or for defenses to be built or upgraded, Oil Rush maintains a high level of tension. This is rare in most other modes of the game, except in occasional moments when flying units crossing obstacles causes a brief scramble.
While the campaign mode does have some interesting, varied level design, it’s also one of the most frustrating aspects of Oil Rush. The post-apocalyptic, Waterworld-style premise has promise that goes almost completely unfulfilled. The plot, involving a young leader named Kevin serving a ruthless, oil-crazy “Commander,” doesn’t just hit the expected clichés; it acts like they’re new and meaningful. Kevin’s inevitable change of heart literally involves him talking about how no blood should be spilled for oil. To make it worse, this is done in defense of pure-hearted, ethnic villagers who live in harmony with nature, in one of the least self-aware usages of the “noble savage” myth I’ve seen in gaming in years. And if the subtext doesn’t annoy you, the text may, as the voice acting is usually disjointed, and often doesn’t match what’s happening on-screen.
One would have to hope that Oil Rush would be best in multiplayer, when the unpredictability of human opponents and allies could help the game achieve its potential. Unfortunately, actually finding people for matches is nearly impossible, meaning that you likely have to plan ahead with friends for any multiplayer.
It’s hard not to see Oil Rush as a missed opportunity. It’s a great game to look at, and its premise is remarkably appealing, both in terms of gameplay and setting. Yet it never seems to understand why those things are appealing, which prevents it from reaching its full potential. There’s enjoyment to be had here, but not as much as there could have been.
Rowan Kaiser is a fashionably underemployed freelance writer living the San Francisco Bay Area, and has been published in The A.V. Club, Salon, The Escapist, Joystiq, and more. He tweets often @rowankaiser and blogs rarely at renaissancegamer.blogspot.com.