Oil Magnate has a lot going for it. For a start, it’s one of painfully, worryingly few indie (or mainstream, for that matter) management/strategy sims on the Xbox 360.
The premise is pretty straightforward. You are an aspiring oil baron who must assess different prospective drill sites, buy the land and then fill your drums with black liquid gold, all while three rivals do the same and try to outdo you by fair means or foul. If that sounds exciting, this game is for you. If not, it might still be for you as long you don’t fall asleep during the tutorial. Although there’s still the matter of… No, I don’t want to mention that.
At the outset you can choose from four ‘missions’, which are basically definitions of the victory conditions. In one you must invest a specified amount of money over time, in another you must drive all your competitors out of business, and so on. The details of these missions can be tweaked, allowing you to make the game is easy or as difficult as you choose. You can adjust how much money you start with, how long you have to achieve the objective, and just how high the target figure is.
So far, so good. It’s all very professional. You can even choose the appearance of your office from a few options. This attention to detail is reminiscent of the classic management sims, the Sim City and Civilization series.
Traditionally, sim-type games don’t fit very well with consoles thanks to the clunkiness of navigating menus and maps with a controller. Playing Sim City 2000 on the Super Nintendo was like trying to eat noodles by gripping one strand at a time between a pair of fresh haddock. I’m not a fan of controlling games using a mouse and keyboard, but strategy/management games and MMORPGs are the exceptions. Here, though, it all controls quite well with the Xbox pad. The menus are simple groups of buttons that are easily negotiated with the left stick or d-pad, while the minigames that arise during certain tasks arguably handle better here than they would with PC controls.
These minigames are among the most notable features of Oil Magnate, serving to prevent the game becoming a boring stat-fest. Most commonly you will have to hold a twitching dot in the centre of a circle while drilling for oil, to represent keeping the drill on course. Should one of your wells catch fire, either by chance or thanks to sabotage, you have to run around the area using dynamite to kill the flames before too much damage is done. There’s also another minigame, but I don’t want to talk about it. No really, I’d rather not. Leave me in blissful denial for a while longer.
You’ll notice I mentioned sabotage. This is a nice feature that adds a bit of mischief to proceedings. Tired of buying, selling and drilling like a good little millionaire? Feeling pressured by your superhumanly astute business rivals? Go all Donald Trump on their asses and hire a terrorist to burn down their rigs and storage tanks, or deflate oil prices in their chosen market to cut down their profits. Oil is a dirty business, and don’t think for a moment that your rivals will be able to control their own barbaric fiscal impulses. On the other hand, you run a very serious risk of having your wells confiscated if you’re found out, so maybe you’d be better off sticking to the straight and narrow after all. The price of endorsing terrorism is being made slightly less rich. Who says indie games can’t be realistic?
Oh alright. Alright. I’ll tell you about the other minigame. I suppose I have no choice.
The third minigame is demonstrated in the game’s tutorial video, which makes it look simple. Unfortunately, as with everything else it shows you, the tutorial video is being slightly less honest than an East End market trader enticing you with his ‘nearly new’ plasma TVs.
I was all set to award Oil Magnate a 4 out of 5, maybe even leaning towards a 5 out of 5 depending on its longevity and replay value. The third minigame made me, in my darker moments, want to give it a 1 out of 5 and tell it to be grateful for my merciful nature. If I could punch a collection of digital information in the face, I would swing a haymaker at Oil Magnate with careless disregard for the state of my knuckles every single time I see the word ‘pipeline’.
I’m getting angry just thinking about it. This minigame is simple in principle, but ferociously difficult in practice. Sometimes when you try to sell your oil stocks, a message will appear telling you that your workers need help laying a pipeline. Presumably this is how they transport the oil to the buyer, though frankly, constructing mile after mile of entirely new pipe every time you make a sale doesn’t seem like efficient retail practice. When I order a new game online, I don’t find Amazon or Gamestation building a monorail to my doorstep.
For reasons we will never understand, this is how your oil is moved in the confused world of Oil Magnate, and like any good corporate fat cat you done your scruffiest trousers and wade in to help the plebs yourself when they’re shorthanded. You must connect the end of a pipe in the bottom right of the screen to another pipe-end in the top left. You extend the pipeline in any of four directions by pressing the corresponding face buttons, making sure you weave around hillocks and the corpses of other oil barons who did this once too often. Probably.
Simple, right? The problem is that you’re racing against an opponent who is trying to connect the other two corners for his own nefarious oil-retail purposes. Still doesn’t sound too bad; a bit of healthy competition to keep you on your toes. But your opponent is flawless; it will lay its pipe without hesitation in the perfect route, without the slightest error or pause to draw breath. You must avoid any sort of delay, since even half a second will cost you the ability to sell your oil this month.
Add to this the fact that some of the obstacles don’t seem to be obstacles at all, looking instead like just part of the ground. Further add to this the fun quirk of control that has pipes extending forward before turning; if you press X to extend left, it will go forward then left, resulting in running into obstacles that you thought you should be clear of.
I’ve played Oil Magnate for somewhere around six or seven hours so far, and out of the dozens of times the pipeline minigame has arisen, I’ve succeeded once.
You might think I’m over-emphasising one small problem, but this is very nearly a game-ruining flaw. You see, if you fail at the pipeline game and can’t sell oil that month, you haemorrhage money. Only this afternoon, one single pipeline game moved me from almost pole position to a miserable near-ruined mess in one month. I managed to slowly get out of the red (though still very much trailing behind the competition) over the course of the next few months, only to be hit by another two pipeline games in a row, utterly finishing off my oil business and costing me the game.
This has happened more than once. A lot more than once.
Compared to the pipeline fiasco, my other complaints – no save game facility and an unhelpful tutorial – are mere niggles. Oil Magnate had been a 4, maybe even a 5. Now it’s a 3, holding on by the skin of its teeth thanks solely to everything else about it being well executed.
As I said, Oil Magnate has a lot going for it. Mostly I quite enjoy it, and maybe you will too. It has enough management sim aspects to appease an anally retentive streak, but is simple enough to be reasonably accessible to management dunces such as I. The vampire of statistical tedium is warded off by the garlic of minigame diversions. Though the tutorial misses out most of the important stuff, and the inability to save your game if you realise your dinner is burning detracts from the experience, they’re just inconveniences.
The ill-conceived pipeline minigame, though, almost derails the whole thing. It can drop you from triumphant front runner to abject game-over in a matter of seconds, not because it demands skill but because it tricks you with poor visual design, confounds you with bizarre movement control, and demands computer-like perfection to defeat the eternally flawless CPU opponent. As someone who has been playing video games on a regular basis for 25 years, I have skills. But I can’t beat the pipeline problem, and sadly Oil Magnate itself can’t quite overcome it either. A fun game, but every moment is a countdown to inevitable disaster.
Maybe it really is going for realism.