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Offworld Trading Company Early Access Review

The wolf of Mars Street.


GameSpot's early access reviews evaluate unfinished games that are nonetheless available for purchase by the public. While the games in question are not considered finished by their creators, you may still devote money, time, and bandwidth for the privilege of playing them before they are complete. The review below critiques a work in progress, and represents a snapshot of the game at the time of the review's publication.

Perhaps life in Texas’s oil country has left me jaded, but I've come to believe that our first earnest forays onto other planets will begin only when we've stripped our own of most of the valuable resources underground. Cynical, perhaps, but it's a vision that Offworld Trading Company seems to share. Even better, OTC takes this bleak concept and builds an entertaining strategy game around it--one that shines even on Steam's Early Access. But you'll find no marching soldiers and rumbling tanks here. At heart, this is cutthroat strategy as mining accountants see it, where the world turns according to who has the highest numbers.

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The world here is Mars, although, aside from OTC's red-hued maps and the looming graphic of the Red Planet on the title screen, it doesn't assert its presence much. Mars is a fascinating choice, as it's both realistic and (if you'll pardon this use of the term) a tad mundane. Not only do Mars’s crimson vistas lack the exotic appeal of a Pandora or even a Hoth, but for the most part they conceal little more besides old terrain friends like aluminum, carbon, silicon, and iron. This may be science fiction, but it's the kind that could become fact if given enough decades.

Familiarity, of course, isn't necessarily a bad thing, and that's especially true when it's used to ease players into navigating the strategic map. As with so many other strategy games, each match begins with a probe working its way through the darkness beyond the home base, uncovering, as it goes, nodes for metals and resources like water on hexagonal spaces.

This is cutthroat strategy as mining accountants see it, where the world turns according to who has the highest numbers.

Once your claims are used up, you have to rely on your cash-making skills to expand.
Once your claims are used up, you have to rely on your cash-making skills to expand.

And that's where both the fun and the differences begin. From there it's all about staking claims--slapping down a hydro plant for your workers here; placing an iron mine over an iron node there--to the point where you simply run out of claims. Aside from using the four to five new claims that appear each time you level your base, from here on out it's all about buying and selling. If you've played your claims right, you've got plenty of surplus resources that you can sell to pay off debt or buy new claims that go up for auction every now and then. (But watch it! You can oversaturate the market by unloading too many goods.) You start buying stock from other players, making sure they don't buy you out completely in the process. And at last, when things get really dirty, you call up the Black Market to do nasty things like freeze a competitor's water sources, trigger bombs, or instigate worker strikes.

Victory comes when you're still standing after all of this and you've bought out all your opponents. It comes quickly, too. The longest match I've ever sat through lasted for about half an hour; the shortest lasted about the span of a commercial break. (And no, alas, I wasn't the lucky entrepreneur.) At times, indeed, it suffers from the suddenness of such victories, as it's difficult to keep tabs on how your rivals are doing aside from watching their stock prices. One second you're converting iron to steel as usual, or looking for a plot for a new wind-power generator, and then, bam, you're slapped with a notice that you've been bought out. It's a little less brutal in the campaign mode--a comparatively rudimentary affair based on meeting certain conditions with limitations on buildings and resources--but I admit I never fully found my footing in the multiplayer. That's the true game here, and OTC's greatest chance for longevity; at this stage of development and in the absence of any real story, the campaign seems an extended form of the tutorial at best.

There's no real story yet, but the campaign mode provides challenges sculpted around very specific conditions.
There's no real story yet, but the campaign mode provides challenges sculpted around very specific conditions.

If there's any one problem about all of this, it's that OTC in its current state still seems to struggle with merging its number-crunching and visual-strategic elements. The opening seconds may hinge on finding nodes and smartly placing buildings, but once they're all in place and claims are all down, Offworld Trading Company almost entirely confines its action to the column taking up the left quarter of the screen, where the interface compiles all the data about the resources going in and out of your operation. The actual visual design of this element is a little rough, but its implementation is intuition itself. Toggles let you sell or buy resources with a click, and in the same glance you can find information on how much cash you have and how much you owe.

All this really hammers down the perception that this is an interplanetary comptroller's game, as the action (often limited to watching transport vehicles shuttling resources to and fro) usually goes on without your input, save in those precious moments when more claims become available. Unless you dabble in the Black Market and rain doom upon your peers, it's almost possible to forget that there's anything happening on the map at all. More features will no doubt come in future patches, but right now it seems like a bit of a waste. There's no need to clutter all this up with the manual assignment of convoy movements or the like, as in a traditional strategy game, but Offworld Trading Company often lacks even the SimCity-style interaction of seeing your hard work go to crap while you struggle to fix it on the map itself.

Womp, womp.
Womp, womp.

But does it matter? Offworld Trading Company already works so well as it is that it could easily pass for a completed game, and a good one at that. The main challenge now seems to be how to spread out its numerical information more evenly without sacrificing convenience, which will hopefully happen around the same time that developer Mohawk Games replaces some of the god-awful placeholder voice work. Most of the other issues pertain to quibbles with balance, which hopefully will vanish by the time OTC reaches its stated 2016 release date. With almost every patch, the fortunes of the four different types of headquarters (Scavenger, Scientific, Robotic, and Expansive) seem to shift, which is hardly surprising considering how vastly their respective abilities can alter the starter game. Robotics-focused headquarters, for instance, don't need to worry about all that food and oxygen junk, but they rely heavily on electronics. Scientific headquarters, on the other hand, can develop new patents faster, thus giving them a significant edge over the competition. Get them to all play fairly together, and everything else is basically a matter of polish.

If all this sounds fascinating, you'll be happy to know that this is one Early Access product where the buyer doesn't have to beware. Before jumping in, however, just make sure that you're the kind of person who's as turned on (or more) by the thought of balancing a checkbook as commanding armies on battlefields. The great achievement of Offworld Trading Company is that you can still find fun here even if this isn’t the case, but you should never lose sight of the fact that this is a game where the Littlefingers and Cyril Figgises of the world can truly shine.

What's There?

A whole new barren world full of minerals to exploit for iPhones and Coke cans back home, and a ledger to keep it all in check. Multiplayer and single-player campaigns both available.

What's to Come?

Additional balance work, some visual refinement, and interface cleanup.

What Does it Cost?

$39.99 on Steam. A tad steep, but you're essentially getting a full game.

When Will it be Finished?

Sometime in 2016.

What's the Verdict?

Offworld Trading Company is a unique, fast-paced strategy game that trades the battles associated with the genre with equally vicious squabbles over numbers. It's fun, it's intense, and it's one of the most complete games available through Early Access.

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