Ah, capitalism. Why worry about anything else when there is a profit to be made? Even when venturing to the red planet, it isn’t about the joy of exploring Mars for scientific purposes. Instead, we explore and expand in order to make all the money. It sounds like a simple enough premise, but Offworld Trading Company offers some deep strategy with a familiarity that belies its alien setting.
Developed by Mohawk Games, Offworld Trading Company is made by the lead designer behind Civilization IV. And it certainly feels that way, with a nuanced strategy that is built around the power of resources and economy rather than guns. The gameplay (a combat-free, trading-centric RTS) is fairly straight forward at first glance – you put down a base, gather resources and strive to make the most profits out of the untapped Martian environment. You can play against a range of other players or AI, with the goal being able to buy out all your competitors and become the only super corporation, effectively owning the economy of Mars. Of course, there’s a lot more to it.
Players can choose to play as one of five types of leaders – you can even go fully automated (my personal favorite) and never need to worry about your workers consuming food or water, or follow in more scientific footsteps. Each leader then opens up a specific type of base, although players can opt to expand the types of bases available to them. Once you’ve put down your HQ, you”ll need to start pillaging the planet’s resources.
There are 13 different resources, and the game works on a market economy; if you put down a ton of wells for water and then sell it all off, you’ll probably flood the market and bring the price down to such a point that it’s not profitable to sell anymore. Some resources also require others to create; while you can just mine for silicon you’ll need to use that silicon, power and oxygen to make glass, making it an expensive resource to make. But the price might just be worth it.
Players can always buy and sell their resources, even opting to have their corporation go into debt in order to build or expand. In fact, for some play styles, this is encouraged. Like any real business, Martian companies know you have to spend money to make money.
Due to the variety of resources and the market economy, no one resource is a sure-fire path to victory. However, I found that some resources were consistently more valuable than others. I tended to bet on food, chemical and glass shortages, easily making money by producing and selling those. Plus, residents of the planet always need entertainment, so I loved building them pleasure domes and reaping the rewards. Players can also manipulate the black market, send pirates at their enemies or even blow up their factories – it’s not direct combat, but getting hit with a storm that knocks out all your ships or makes everyone at your power plant go on strike can feel even worse than a tank firing at your HQ.
Much like Civilization games, Offworld Trading Company is an intense timesink. Turns progress automatically, so it’s not even a matter of clicking for one more turn. Instead, the game just flows and before you know it the hours have melted away. Just playing through the tutorial missions and the campaign took me about 4 hours.
Unlike the skirmishes or multiplayer game, the single player campaign requires players to progress through a variety of mission types, helping the Martian colony to grow by purchasing habitats or workspaces for them. Competing against the other AI companies, players get benefits from winning such as more money to spend on their own labor workforce, as well as buffs and free buildings for the rest of the campaign.
I really enjoyed the campaign, although I found the difficulty ramping to be a bit uneven. I was able to follow a fairly similar strategy in all missions, taking easy victories throughout the campaign until the final mission which I ended up losing a couple of times before changing slightly and getting an easy win. I was glad that I needed to change my approach, but it just seemed like the AI went from being incredibly dumb to ridiculously profitable from one mission to the next. Upon the next campaign attempt on just a slightly harder difficulty, it seemed nothing I tried would work.
At the time of reviewing, the game was still in Early Access, so I struggled to find any open multiplayer games to play against other players. Besides, I never really play multiplayer with these types of games. So, I figured that I had pretty much finished – I beat the campaign, what more is there? But then I went looking at the achievements. With 124 achievements to hunt for, I feel like I’ve barely seen the tip of the Martian iceberg. And yet, the urge to play again hasn’t bitten me just yet. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy my hours with the game, I certainly did, but there’s something about it that’s lacking the addictive quality of other strategy games.
Perhaps it’s that it doesn’t feel like there’s an underlying narrative to it all. Sure, my company started performing better once I acquired a bunch of farms, or built my glass factories, but without something akin to Civ’s wonders or unique winning conditions, it ended up feeling a bit like a soulless pursuit of profit. Maybe that’s the point, though. I don’t know if that adds some kind of commentary to the gameplay, that simply following market forces and striving to make money is an ultimately hollow pursuit, but it ended up making the game feel a bit flat, despite its excellent mechanics and enjoyable gameplay.
I also found certain aspects to be a bit underwhelming. The visuals are pretty cool, and I really liked the varied maps with the resource distribution and in-depth strategic needs. However, the soundtrack did little to add to the experience and the minimal voice work actually put me off more than it made me engage with the experience.
Last Updated: April 28, 2016