At first glance, Offworld Trading Company seems like a friendly, relaxed RTS about plucky entrepreneurs harnessing the mineral wealth of Mars for the betterment of all mankind. Don’t be fooled. Profiteering, market manipulation and sabotage are just some of the predatory tactics you’ll have to use just to keep your company from being bought out from under you. Welcome to the corporate war zone.
Right from the start the race is on, as you frantically search the terrain for a good place to set up your HQ. Take too long searching, and your rivals may get a head start on you, claiming all the best resource tiles before you’ve made a decision. This is not a mindless click-a-thon, however; you can only claim a limited number of tiles before you need to upgrade your HQ, which while allowing more claims, will also increase the drain on resources such as food, water and oxygen.
All resources can be bought or sold on the fly, via the dynamic market. Any time a player buys a resource the market price rises, while selling makes the price drop. Randomly occurring shortages and surpluses also pop up from time to time, presenting a great opportunity to invest in cheap resources, or offload whatever you can spare for a massive profit. This reactionary market means that while it can be tempting to corner the market in a particular resource, frequently selling it to buy whatever else you need will result in diminishing returns until you’re basically just giving it away.
The type of HQ you choose to place also determines your initial strengths, and potential weaknesses. For example, the Robotic HQ runs on electronics instead of the usual life support resources – which means you can save all that food, water and oxygen for trade – but if your access to electronics gets interrupted, you’ll have to buy them from the market, an expensive prospect indeed. While these traits are important to consider, your choice of HQ doesn’t lock you into a particular strategy; with no guarantees about the type or quantity of resources you’ll find on any given map, you’ll need to be flexible to survive.
Of course, where things really get interesting is the Black Market. With enough cash, you can boost your empire with more tile claims and protective goon squads, or hamper your rivals by shutting down, blowing up, or nuking the ground beneath their buildings. Auctions frequently offer claims, patents and even pirates to the highest bidder, all of which can give you a serious edge over the competition.
One surprisingly thing about Offworld Trading Company is how quickly a game can escalate. You can think you’ve got the advantage over your rivals only to have one suddenly buy out all of your shares with their sneakily stockpiled money. Similarly, if life support prices get too high, the colonist population will decline, and if it runs out, everyone loses. In either case, this can make you suddenly need to sell everything you can to buy everyone else out before it’s too late. While this is certainly thrilling, often it means a game will be cut short just as you were getting into it.
The single player campaign is basically a series of skirmishes across various maps, each of which has a different mix of resource quantities, special rules and rewards for winning. This lets you choose your company’s path, weighing up one map with a great victory perk but no black market against one with high income for winning but very few resources. Even if you lose one or two early maps, you can still claw your way to the top if you play it smart.
As engaging as Offworld Trading Company is in single player, the experience doesn’t quite feel complete without the bile-drenched expletives of a friend wailing in your ears as you ruin his day. As OTC is still in Early Access, options for online opponents were slim, but we managed to churn out a few tense skirmishes. While it doesn’t have the same kind of explosive appeal as other multiplayer real-time strategy games, there’s an almost Mr Burns-ish delight in backing your friends into an economic corner, manipulating the market so the resources they’ve chosen to produce aren’t worth peanuts.
This multiplayer appeal is probably what will give OTC most of its replayability. As a single-player experience, it’s suited to quick procrastinatory sessions, but it’s the challenge of a long-standing rival that will keep you coming back. Perhaps if there were additional or alternate victory conditions to simply buying out the competition, that would add new layers of strategy to keep things fresh.
Offworld Trading Company is a clever concept well executed, which will hopefully be fleshed out a little more before full release. If you salivate at the idea of crushing your foes into dust but don’t want to get your shoes all dirty, this is the game for you. If you’re just looking to kick back and grow space corn, however, better give this one a miss.