Offworld Trading Company is a work of genius 33 years in the making

, | Game reviews

M.U.L.E. was Dani Bunten’s ingenious commodities-driven deathmatch bidding arena. I didn’t play it when it came out in 1983, because it wasn’t on the Apple II. I didn’t even know what it was back then. It wasn’t until many years later that I finally tried it with some friends. In the same room, of course. That’s how all games worked back then. I figured we’d try it, although I thought we were in for the strategy game equivalent of Pong. No one wants to play Pong ever again, just like no one wants to gin his own cotton, read Beowulf on a long flight, or hang up a poster of the Bayeux Tapestry in his living room. Pong is a musty relic with no modern relevance beyond its role in videogame history. That’s what I figured was going on with M.U.L.E.

But it turned out M.U.L.E. was (and still is) an amazing game. Sure, it’s ugly. Good graphics hadn’t been invented back in 1983. But Bunten managed a simple — not simplistic! — player-driven cutthroat economy based on real estate, commodities, and auctions. God, I’m making it sound boring, I know. But it’s really not. It’s really, really not. M.U.L.E. is freakishly before-its-time game design, as if someone had made the movie Casablanca at the moment the daguerreotype had been invented. The only reason you’re not playing M.U.L.E. today, in some form or another, is because the videogame industry — really, it was more of a scene at that point — was about to explode based on Doom’s appeal to adolescent male power fantasies learned from action movies. It would take a while before the rest of the world discovered what we were up to, and by that time, Sid Meier and Will Wright had carved out their own niche where Dani Bunten’s work would have been.

But M.U.L.E. is a nearly unrivaled work of game design genius that will hold up if you gather four friends around a single screen. Sure, some of it is dated. You play it with joysticks, for Pete’s sake. We don’t even have those anymore! But the design is timeless.

After the jump, if it kicks like a M.U.L.E…

Offworld Trading Company isn’t shy about its 30 year debt to Bunten and M.U.L.E. There’s an actual M.U.L.E. in here, and a reference to Bunten in the tutorial. But more significantly, this is an ingenious commodities-driven deathmatch bidding arena, the likes of which you haven’t seen since 1983. Or the last time you tried M.U.L.E.

There have been other strategy games about economies, with armies nowhere to be seen. Stardock’s Entrepreneur was among the better ones. All those resource management tycoon games come from this idea. Running a business in a videogame is nothing new. But what sets Offworld Trading Company apart, what connects it directly to the genius of M.U.L.E., is how it uses real time strategy as its gameplay foundation. The only reason M.U.L.E. wasn’t in the category of real time strategy games was because, like good graphics, they hadn’t been invented yet.

Calling Offworld Trading Company an RTS can be misleading, since it doesn’t use the aspects of RTSs that some people find daunting. There is no micromanagement. Your attention isn’t one of the resources. You will never need to worry about your APM, or even know what APM means. In fact, when you’re not playing online, Offworld Trading Company automatically pauses whenever you’re doing something that you might want to stop and think about. You choose a building to build, and time freezes while you consider where to put it. Nothing is going to happen when you’re not looking. And if it comes down to it, you can always just slap the spacebar. Everything will pause, but you’ll still be able to fully interact with the game. The real time aspect isn’t at all about multitasking or reflexes or the tension between thought and action.

Instead, what Offworld Trading Company takes from RTSs is everything but the stuff that scared off everyone who isn’t still playing Starcraft II. It’s about player conflict, consistent pacing, varied strategies, immediate and almost tactile interaction with the map, real time resource management, and ultimately one player (or team) winning completely, all within a short enough time span that you’ll want to go again as soon as you’re done. These were also things in M.U.L.E. These are all things you don’t get in other games about economies instead of armies.

Not to say Offworld Trading Company is a throwback. It positively glows with the care, attention, and production values you’ll find in a contemporary AAA game. The sharply defined, intricate, and informative graphics. Everything means something. Everything has some visual expression. The buttery — yes, buttery! — rich and smooth interface. Okay, it could use a few more hotkeys, but I’ve never met a game that couldn’t use a few more hotkeys. The unique dynamic single-player campaign, which stacks onto an already great game a great game framework. This is the most indepth and replayable RTS single-player campaign since Rise of Nations and its add-on. The tutorial for maximum information and accessibility. The manual. Oh, wait, there isn’t a manual. Which is as you’d expect from a contemporary AAA game. Like I said, it’s not a throwback. Even the soundtrack. Good lord, the soundtrack. Christopher Tin’s score belongs on my playlist alongside iconic sci-fi scores like Hans Zimmer’s for Interstellar, Clint Mansell’s for Moon, and Vangelis’ for Blade Runner.

I hope I haven’t made it sound boring. Some folks might get the impression it’s boring. A game about an economy in space? All those little buildings and numbers in those screenshots? You have to make oxygen from water? But it’s really not. It’s really, really not. It’s a freakishly smart game design, as if someone made M.U.L.E. back in 1983. It’s got a learning curve because it’s a very particular setting about people living on Mars, provided for by different types of companies (the four companies are as distinct as the factions in Starcraft). You have to understand how the pieces interact before you appreciate how this is so much more than a spreadsheet with pretty graphics in front. But it’s carefully built to get you to where everything clicks.

At which point, it is the exact opposite of boring. It is every bit as thrilling as something with constant explosions. It’s the sort of game you’ll be thinking about at work. It’s the sort of game you just might want to try online. It’s the sort of game with a campaign you can play and replay and replay some more. It’s the sort of game with so many settings and options and variables that you might never need another RTS. Okay, maybe you’ll occasionally need your fix of one of those less interesting RTSs with tanks or a MOBA with fireball spells or whatever. But Offworld Trading Company is the sort of game that isn’t going to let go of you for a long, long time. Maybe even 33 years.

  • Offworld Trading Company

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  • PC
  • Offworld Trading Company is a real-time strategy game in which money, not firepower, is the player's weapon. Players lead their developing companies in cutthroat economic warfare against other companies looking to become the dominant economic power on Mars. Loosely inspired by such classics as M.U.L.E., Offworld Trading Company forces players to make tough choices on what resources to acquire, what goods to build and sell, how to interact with the planet's thriving underworld, and when and what stocks to acquire.