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Offworld Trading Company PC Review

It’s the end of my first game of Offworld Trading Company, I’ve just been handed a cheque for $848,000 – and it’s the worst thing that’s happened to me all night. In some games, failure comes in the form of bankruptcy – but in here, it comes as a whopping great payout.

It doesn’t matter that you’ve spent countless space-hours developing production chains, expanding factories and cutting savvy deals, but the moment one of your competitors buys up enough of your shares, it’s game over – and the hefty cheque you’re handed is good for little more than mopping up your digital tears.

Offworld Trading Company’s unique take on Martian hypercapitalism is ruthless, uncompromising and utterly unlike any real-time strategy game I’ve played before.

At its core, it’s all about base-building. As in so many other games, you’ll be laying down quarries, mines and factories around a central HQ: extracting resources, producing goods, selling them for a profit.

But Offworld Trading Company does a clever thing. Despite looking a lot like a traditional RTS, there are no offensive units of any kind: no soldiers, no tanks and certainly no Zerg rush. At first, then, it seems like there’s no combat – but you very quickly realise that the whole game is combat.

From squabbling for the best starting location to manipulating the market through resource hoarding and mass sell-offs, every move you make has to be geared towards improving your bottom line – or damaging your competitors’.

Game over: failure in Offworld Trading Company comes with a cash settlement

Game over: failure in Offworld Trading Company comes with a cash settlement

In form, Offworld Trading Company isn’t much of a business sim. Unlike, say, oldie-but-goodie Capitalism, it’s not focused on the nuts and bolts of running an actual business.

But despite its abstraction, Offworld Trading Company has the feeling of capitalism down to a tee – because ultimately, this is really a game about buying and selling.

In each game, you take control of one of a number of businesses serving a Martian colony. You fill your coffers by flogging resources and products to an abstracted ‘market’. – and eventually, once you’re rich enough, you can start snapping up shares in your competitors. Buy them all out, and you’re the winner – but naturally, they’re hoping to do the same to you.

Fittingly, the market is key to much of the game’s strategy. A product’s price is determined by supply and demand: the more that you and your competitors sell, the lower the price. Likewise, periods of scarcity cause the price to tick up. It’s often wise to sit on stockpiles of goods until the price is right – although with the ever-present risk of a competitor selling their haul first.

Keeping an eye on all of this is naturally quite demanding – but thankfully, the game’s interface is a masterpiece of clear and intelligible design. Rather than tucking graphs and figures away in some vast ledger, it actually manages to display all the relevant info within the game’s main UI.

There’s a huge array of ticking numbers, but the tutorial introduces them all gradually, and it’s pretty easy to understand how they work: offloading a bunch of steel, say, has an immediate and dramatic effect on the price. It’s instantly graspable, and a far cry from the inscrutable global economy of Victoria 2.

Initially, your construction options are limited – you'll need to choose wisely

Initially, your construction options are limited – you’ll need to choose wisely

But to get those precious resources, you’ll need to build. But in keeping with the game’s abstraction, you’ll never have much more than a couple of dozen buildings in any particular match. Initially, you’re only assigned a handful of ‘claims’, each of which allows you to build on one map hex. You’ll need to focus on the bare essentials first, eventually upgrading your HQ to bring in a few more claims.

With such limited options, you need to be hyper-efficient with your choice of buildings and their placement: the slightest advantage in natural resources can give you a crucial edge.

But that’s just one factor in your success – or lack of it. You’ll need to manipulate the market, decide when to invest in specialised buildings and how to direct the advantages they give you. And while there’s no direct combat, players do have access to an arsenal of dirty tricks from a ‘black market’ – featuring everything from electromagnetic pulses to adrenaline boosts for your own workers.

Tons of potentially nuanced strategies emerge from all this, but initially I found myself frantically improvising, wasting time and resources in a frantic and rather graceless scramble. Eventually, though, it all starts to make sense – and a razor-sharp and rather wonderful strategy game emerges.

There’s huge potential for experimentation: will you hire hackers to crash the price of food just as your main rival opens up a new farm, or will you jack up the price of electricity just before hitting his power stations with an EMP, forcing him to burn through his cash reserves?

If that sounds cruel, rest assured that the AI is similarly ruthless. Even the easier difficulty settings can give you a run for your money, and success in the ‘normal’ setting requires constant vigilance and careful planning.

You never feel as if you’re just ticking along, waiting for the numbers to go up – for a game with no directly-controlled units, it’s incredible just how active it feels. As rounds near their conclusion, cool deliberation goes out the window as you urgently offload stockpiles and snap up shares in your competitors – the endgame is both tense and frantic by turns.

As the game nears its conclusion, things get increasingly hectic

As the game nears its conclusion, things get increasingly hectic

As you can probably tell, I loved Offworld Trading Company. I’ve played a lot of economics-focused strategy games over the years, but none that have evoked the breakneck feeling of ruthless market capitalism quite so well.

Of course, it won’t be for everyone. For starters, in spite of some colourful tutorials and charming character designs it’s a largely story-free experience. If you like your strategy with a narrative edge – if you like to feel like you’re working towards something other than healthy corporate profits – then you won’t find it in Offworld Trading Company.

Also, while the tutorials do an excellent job of explaining the interface and basic gameplay, the campaign mode has its own nuances and complexities, and they’re not particularly well explained. This mode does add some welcome variety – although not a storyline – but ultimately, I found I preferred the ‘purer’ experience of the game’s excellent skirmish mode.

Finally, there’s the simple fact that this is an economic strategy game. As such, it’s automatically going to have a rather niche appeal – but I really do hope people give it a chance. This isn’t a dry and cerebral experience: there’s action, passion and nail-biting tension. Surprisingly accessible and deep as you like, Offworld Trading Company is a standout addition to what’s already been a fantastic year for strategy games.

9 out of 10