While you’re playing Oil Rush, a naval themed RTS, you can press the “F” key and the camera will supposedly fly around and show you cool stuff. This isn’t a unique feature — Petroglyph’s RTSs do the action camera particularly well — but it gets at the heart of the main problem with Oil Rush. Namely, that you might as well watch ships, because there’s not much else to do.

After the jump, you go there

Speaking of not unique, Oil Rush’s basic gameplay is familiar if you’ve ever played a node-based game like Eufloria or Galcon Labs. The idea is that you don’t have to mess with units or maneuvering, because your interaction is limited to sending automatically spawned units to nodes, where they do their own thing, freeing you up to send other units to other nodes. It’s a sort of minimalist response to RTS bloat, and sometimes it works wonderfully. I cannot recommend the strangely relaxing Eufloria enough.

What Oil Rush brings to this small and often simple table is a fancy graphics engine. It’s a nice enough looking post-apocalyptic waterworld, but it’s lacking any personality. Some of the screenshots make it look like Anno 2070, but that doesn’t bear up when the game gets going. Anno 2070 is brimming with charm and activity, with gorgeous lighting and a sense of ecology. Oil Rush is mainly just static settings with ships and planes zipping about. Some of them blow up from time to time.

Not that the developers aren’t trying to give it personality. The single-player campaign has talking heads talking at each other and rickety zeppelins that only appear in the campaign. But it’s an RTS campaign at its worst, consisting of canned scenarios with the odds stacked against you and cutscenes that presume you care about a story. Compare this to Unstoppable Gorg, another recent indie strategy game with similarly fancy production values and an enormous amount of character. Oil Rush has all the lack of personality and soullessness of a AAA release from, say, Electronic Arts.

As a skirmish game against the AI or a multiplayer game, it fares a bit better. You don’t train or buy units. Your army is strictly a product of capturing platforms and letting them churn out their designated units until you hit your unit limit. By fighting with these units, you earn tech points to spend on a modest tech tree. You can capture resource nodes for money to build static defenses and use your tech tree powers. Repeat until you’ve won.

For the most part, Oil Rush is about managing traffic. You guys go here. You guys go there. You new guys catch up already and go here. You guys wait for a little bit. Okay, now you go. These stray guys back here go there. Everyone go here. It’s almost entirely played in the minimap, with oddly finicky options to select which units you’re sending, and whether you want to send all, half, or a quarter of them. Wait a minute, with all this mucking about to try to send a single jetski to take an undefended platform across the map, why can’t I just select and control my units like I do in a normal RTS? Isn’t the point of these node-based game avoiding this sort of persnickety stuff?

Oil Rush wants to have its cake and eat it too, suspended awkwardly between a full RTS and a pared-down node-based game, with a foot and a couple of fingers in either camp. For instance, it has a strangely conventional interplay of unit types and static defenses. A soft rock/paper/scissors system dictates which units and defenses beat which units or defenses, with values that can be tweaked using the tech tree. If you want to game this — and you should — you have to manually check enemy defenses by eyeballing them in the main view and then calculating which units you’ll send to counter them. For a game presumably based on sidestepping micromanagement, Oil Rush doesn’t do a very good job sidestepping micromanagement.

And on a larger level, it all comes down to one word: snowballing. Because units are strictly a function of how many platforms you own, this is a game that ends long before it ends. Some of the map layouts encourage different strategies or alternate victory conditions, like sending aircraft over barriers or accumulating a set amount of oil to win. You can get some nifty cat-and-mouse going when you’re playing against other humans, and the tech tree has a few superunits or abilities that feel oddly balanced. Why would I waste my resources nuking the enemy when I can instead use the resources to get powerful persistent new units in my army?

But for the most part, this is a game about running around for five minutes and then a long grind of the winner winning until he wins while the loser loses. Press “F” to watch.

2 stars