With all the rugged, reliable charm of an FJ Holden, the classroom BBC Micro was my gateway to the trading simulator. The bulletproof glass, Silent Running aesthetic and arsenal of edutainment set me on very this spiral. And while my classmates wiled away the mornings on Granny’s Garden, I became fascinated with The Tycoon Itch. Little evidence of it, or its Australian developer remain, but it remains irrepressibly formative and a specific thirst poorly slaked thereafter. Modern maritime merchants are left with coastal clots in any number of Tycoon games, emphasising their land-based networks with far greater enthusiasm. Sloops or starships otherwise.
The original TransOcean game was a decent first step, saddled with a few quirks and a wholly unnecessary arcade docking and departure mini game. I was hoping the dock-dithering cruft was going to be pruned in the sequel, space cleared for some more important elements like crew management and greater port development.
Instead, TransOcean 2: Rivals defouls for an emphasis on lightning multiplayer; a skullduggerous supertanker shunt that isn’t all that bad, but is in desperate need of heavier cargo and some balancing. And that ruddy arcade skippering element is still in, with all the charm of a bathtub on caster-wheels.
Not much has changed since the original. Like many trader sims, you pick a home port, snag a freighter or tanker, then set to work plying lucrative routes. Rivals offers a gentle tutorial that’s a touch too speaky for my tastes, but can be suppressed with a click to allow you to sail forth from Anchorage with one eye on the fuel line, the other on lucrative contracts.
Smaller ships like feeders and light tankers can enter most locations, with deep water harbours the only port of call for the larger vessels. Once in port, players can select any number of applicable contracts, stipulated by tonnage and cargo type. After call, LPG is a hard thing to stow aboard a grain hauler. Once contracts are locked in, players leave port — with any luck, automatically, though random events like a tug strike can put the departure in the player’s hands — for their destination. It’s merely a case of clicking on the corresponding port and waiting for the ship to trundle along its route. Speed can be accelerated, and there’s even an automated docking and departure method that is costly, but necessary once you’ve a number of ships in the fleet.
Tanker vessels are the key to a quick victory. Perhaps this will be ameliorated by a balance patch, but for the time being there’s little impetus to steam about in anything other than a liquid or gas hauler. The contract prices for solid cargo are simply too low, or the tanker gear too high, to make much of a choice in the early game, and trivial in the late game. Intercontinental contracts for solid cargo can measure in the millions, but when gas or oil can pay triple for the same outlay in fuel and docking fees, I feel a touch sad for the trampers and feeders left on the shelf. As a fellow who grew up in Australia’s island state, small bulk carriers and tankers are kinda my bag, if such a bag exists. Having regional operations with mixed commodities shouldn’t feel like the nautical equivalent of a hobby farm.
Consistently servicing a regional port nets a player points to buy and operate facilities. These could be wharves, tug services or factories. It’s a nice idea, and one that worked very well in Koei’s Aerobiz series. Much like purchasing businesses in the airline management sim, each facility boosts overall income with every visitor. It’s a slow crawl to ownership, but pays dividends if purchased at the right port. Bigger ports naturally turn a bigger profit, so the race to buy TransOcean 2: Rival’s equivalent of a hotel on Pall Mall is a crucial part of gameplay. It improves a company’s prestige and plays hell with the accountants of others. As was the case in the original TransOcean, stats and charts give you ample understanding of where you stand against your seaborne adversaries, and the basic port customisation offers an interesting twist, if not wholly capitalised on.
The multiplayer itself is a big part of why you’d snap up TransOcean 2: Rivals, though without a dedicated circle of salty dogs to call upon, who knows how long the public pool will last before it crunches permanently into population dry-dock. In the game’s favour, an online battle doesn’t drag. Multiplayer magnates roam about, earning and burning fuel, quietly forming alliances in a Neptune’s Pride-esque frisson of business backstabbery.
The big twist, and one admittedly far less dynamic in single player skirmish, is the use of event cards. You can play them anonymously against rivals, freezing their capital or calling an impromptu customs inspection on their vessels. It’s a breezy little mechanic, but feels like it could have gone far deeper and much more dastardly. More events to trigger, both positive and negative. Bigger effects on markets, rather than just ships and holdings. As it stands, TransOcean 2: Rivals is an efficient and brisk bit of business multiplayer, but in a world where something like Offworld Trading Company exists, a little more complexity would not go astray.
TransOcean 2: Rivals rides a little too high above the waterline, lacking a deeper strategic ballast for a game that purports to be about the cutthroat world of shipping. But for all its shortcomings, I can’t fault the base game. It’s all there and it works. Production values are good, there’s an awkward but endearing sense of personality in the single player campaign missions, and as an entry-level business management game, it doesn’t let the spreadsheet element overpower a svelte interface. It just needs a lot more variety in events and ways to effect and influence opponents.
Not a huge departure from the first, the snappy, tapered multiplayer and ease of use saves TransOcean 2: Rivals from being just a casual commercial castaway. A cautious thumbs up.