Oil Rush is not, as its sizzle line suggests, a “cross between RTS and Tower Defence”. Some time in the single-player campaign is set up in a Tower Defence fashion, but that description is an inaccurate way of building interest. Instead, think of Oil Rush as a decidedly simple RTS, akin to Eufloria or Galcon, in which you sent units on long attack routes and lose control of them until they’ve either captured their target base, or died trying.
This particular war takes place on a futuristic Earth whose oil-hungry factions have melted the ice caps, submerging societies and forcing the planet’s inhabitants to either fight, or live in such a pathetic existence as not to be noticed.
Think Waterworld, but... Good.
In addition to a strong political message and environmental warning against the ilk of George “Dubbya”, Oil Rush is a chance for Unigine to show off their new self-titled engine. Light bounces off the liquid battlefield nicely from your birds-eye naval commander position, and below the surface are the half-visible highways and skyscrapers of pre-apocalypse America. There’s no doubting it can conjure great water effects. We did wonder, however, whether the enforced low unit limit in battles was a game design decision, or a limitation of the engine itself.
Galcon became a repeating iOS title in the World Cyber Games, so there’s evidence this style of game has serious competitive merit. In such games, your objective is to conquer the many bases in the play area, each of which produces more units for further conquest. These units don’t cost resources - they are simply created, and remain in naval orbit around their factory until ordered to move to another.
But Oil Rush explores its subgenre further than its iOS roots in that the different bases you capture create different kinds of units. And rather than battles being a series of one-for-one unit trades, there’s a bit more to the tactics here than having at least one more unit than your opponent in an attack.
It’s not so much a counter system as a hierarchy, with machinegun jetskis at the bottom and veritable tank ships at the top. Although in the case of attack choppers - which do poorly against machine guns and great against armour - you’ll need to pay attention to what you send where.
This means - although maps are static - a base won’t hold the same strategic value every game. You can’t halt production of a factory, so if your opponent has both of the map’s tank ship factories, he won’t be able to stop building tank ships. If you can secure the attack chopper factories, the next few encounters will be dominated by you, until the flow of play changes yet again and factories further change hands.
In a game where you have no ability to micromanage battles, the unit AI and attack priorities become crucial, and here Unigine have dutifully nailed it. Within one move or attack command, units will veer off towards their target and align into formation, travelling as fast as the slowest unit. We never got frustrated by units attacking units they were useless against. By and large, units don’t need to pass through other bases on the way to their target, but if they encounter a fleet heading the opposing direction, they’ll pop off a few rounds before continuing on their merry way.
Static defences can be built on factories to fend off any one-boat ninja threats, and upgrading them will even secure them against small armies. These self-repairing towers won’t allow enemy units to capture the point until they’re dead, but they do require some of that black, liquid gold.
To that end, some of the bases you can capture in Oil Rush are purely for generating resources, and without the ability to build towers around them, these are the only bases you’ll have to spend some of your precious population cap to defend.
The benefit to capturing these vulnerable fuel pumpers is having the resources to cast ad-hoc “powers”, more of which are unlocked as the game goes on. Straightforward powers include a radar ability, revealing how many units or towers are at a potential target. Others are passive, such as increasing weapon strength. At the bottom of the tech tree lies a game-changing nuke.
These abilities - plus spending oil on surrounding your factories with towers - can disrupt the ever-flowing nature of Oil Rush in your favour. If your attack breaks through, while your towers (bolstered with an armour bonus power) survive your opponent’s attack, you’ve won the trade. It’s one more factory for you, and a slightly higher unit cap.
There’s an old RTS mantra that says “see time as a resource”. Part of that dictates that if you’ve spent the resources on a military unit, and said unit is idle for a 30 second period in the game, you’ve wasted those time resources. Ideally, all units should be always busy. If not outright fighting, then raiding, harassing, intimidating, or involved in some kind of diversionary ruse.
That’s a big part of Oil Rush, but here that plays Yin to the more concerning Yang of losing control. Your units are incapable of diverting to a new target mid-attack, although you can “undo” the attack if you’re quick enough. With quite a low population cap, you quickly reach a state where you’re not creating units anymore, and this creates an important tradeoff - should I make sure my units are always busy and factories always creating, or divert my units to crush that inevitable attack?
You’ll make this decision dozens of times before the game is over, and the threat of attack will force a vigilance out of you that keeps your eyes on the minimap as much as the main screen. But if you get the chance to sit back and enjoy a battle, one of Oil Rush’s best features is the battle camera. Flicking the “F” key warps you to a camera following the nearest unit doing the most important thing. That usually means fighting, so if you find 15 seconds to spare you can enjoy 15 seconds of fireworks.
A single-player campaign of completing basic objectives broken up with still images with voiceovers will likely be where you spend most of your time, unless you can get a few friends playing. As is too common with indie games over the $10-15 mark, there’s simply no one online. A damn shame, because the brief time we had in multiplayer matches were both functional and fun.
It’s just as well the campaign is very complete, if a little annoying. Aside from different words dressing up the objectives, every mission is a case of “capture that point over there”, and after all enemy bases are removed the AI will continue to send more units at you, magically conjured from outside the play area. It’s the type of AI that makes you furrow your brow and swear under your breath that it’s cheating, as it seemingly ignores fog of war to send ninja boats to the bases you’ve just left, and never fails to send units to those untended areas in the back of your territory.
Still, these are the type of things that only made us tire of the game about seven hours in, before we took it online. Up until that point, it steadily throws more units, enemies and powers at you, ramping up the difficulty as if Unigine had been making games for years.
For an engine company, Unigine has displayed some solid design with Oil Rush. It plays just as good as it looks, and offers a less micro-intensive strategy alternative. At its heart, it’s all about unit distribution, and gathering that critical mass of firepower to shift the momentum in your favour.
Try your luck with the online matchmaker, but if you can gather the friends or family to continue your naval battles with, you’ll have a much better experience. Just remember: oil and blood don’t mix.