Reviewed: September 19, 2006
Released: June 20, 2006
Every now and then, a game comes along that forces reviewers like me to ask the question: Why would anyone ever be interested in this? Big Oil is just such a game. Its tag line, "Turn CRUDE to CASH," feels basal and possibly even uncouth, embedding the idea that this game is about making money (and little else) in the gamer's mind from the very beginning.
Big Oil Features:
For such a simple idea, Big Oil is a fairly complex game. In fact, calling it a simulation probably does it more justice. Rather than making it easy to jump right in and see things happen, Big Oil starts out at the top of its difficulty curve, forcing potential players to spend a couple of hours learning the ins and outs of the game's extremely confusing UI. This sort of thing tends towards the status quo for simulations, but even for a sim, Big Oil is hard to get the hang of.
On my first attempt at playing, I let my advisor do a lot of the work. The advisor is a marginally helpful virtual CEO-type who makes recommendations to you and will automatically undertake certain menial tasks, like sending a team to test a potential oil field, with your permission. This is handy, since the rest of the user interface consists of nigh-endless picture buttons with no explanation text attached to them. Even when hovering over a button with the mouse, there is no accompanying text whatsoever.
This wouldn't be so bad if the game came with a hard-copy manual, but it does not. Everything is contained within the game CD-ROM, including instructions. While I understand that printing a paper manual is an expensive undertaking, and the decision to go with a virtual one instead was probably made to save money, the lack of any other sort of in-game help to speak of only makes the entire package more frustrating. Having to toggle between a virtual manual and a game is, simply put, annoying and time consuming.
In addition to the opaqueness of the button UI, Big Oil has awful camera controls. While trying to zoom in on my coastal drilling site in north Africa, I found myself overlooking the Caribbean Sea in a matter of seconds, unable to return without another frustrating three-minute study of the virtual manual. The apparent lack of a mini-map compounded the problem considerably.
When you finally get a basic grasp on how to make the game do what you want it to do, the sheer amount of things to keep track of steps in as a replacement for the "most frustrating feature" position. The game starts you off as an up-and-coming oil baron at the turn of the 20th century, and news reports (often based on historical events) play a big part in how well your business does. In addition, the usual sorts of things you might expect from a simulation--building structures for refining and exporting oil, managing employees and so on--are there in spades. Without any sort of ramp-up to the action, it's more than a bit overwhelming, doubly so considering that the game runs in active time, rather than on a turn-based system.
The final nail in Big Oil's coffin is the overarching problem that pretending to manage a business at this level of minute detail just isn't much fun. Sure, you drill for oil, sell it on the market and export it around the world. Sure, once you get the hang of things you can make some big virtual bucks. But that's it. It's hardly worth the hours-long bullriding session required to tame the game's interface and learn about all the different things that must be tended to and monitored.
The large number of historical scenarios offered in addition to the relative sandbox mode of the main game loom like chores instead of tempting like challenges. At it's core, this game just is not fun to play. Regardless of how detailed, how carefully reconstructed from real life, or how meticulously planned any of it is, there is little to no enjoyment to be had in playing it.
The graphics of Big Oil are passably decent; better than many simulation-type games, at any rate. All of your buildings and the world map are rendered in clear, if not terribly detailed, 3D. Terrain differences are clear and convincing (sand looks like sand, in other words), and everything can be zoomed in on quickly with an acceptable, though still noticeable, level of jaggies, even on an older system.
On the other hand, it's nothing special graphically. There are a thousand other PC games out there that run circles around it in terms of graphics. Big Oil is basically flat average in this department. I also feel that I should again mention the unhelpful UI buttons here, since adding some text--even a few abbreviated letters--to the icons could have made them much clearer and easier to understand.
Whatever. That's pretty much the verdict on Big Oil's sound set. Ambient music is forgettable and sound effects are sparse and generic. The main thing I like about the game's music and sound is that it's very easy to mute it all, allowing gamers to play while listening to their own music instead. More games--especially PC games--should offer this sort of easy mute, in lieu of a GTA-style custom soundtrack option, anyway.
I suppose if you were an aspiring oil tycoon (do those even exist outside of a few families?), and you could get past the hectic learning curve and subsequent extreme dullness that Big Oil throws your way, you might find the game to be endlessly fascinating.
Like any open-ended game, there are a large multitude of choices to be made that allow for a different gameplay experience each time. However, the high initial difficulty curve of the game, as well as the underwhelming experience of playing it after getting a handle on it, make Big Oil a game that will probably spend more time in the desk drawer gathering dust than in your CD drive.
Big Oil starts with a generally unappealing premise and goes downhill from there. Difficult controls and gameplay that somehow manages to be hectic and boring at the same time are packaged in an uninspiring shell of so-so graphics and sounds (which were so unremarkable that the developers had the good sense to include an option to mute them entirely).
Though the game isn't laugh-out-loud bad, it has few redeeming qualities, and it's tough and unforgiving to get the hang of. Some people say that everyone wants everything quick and easy these days. While I understand that some things are only learned and earned through hard work and patience, simply being able to play a video game shouldn't be one of them, especially not when the payoff is so... boring.