Review: Turmoil14 Mar 2017 4
Released 22 Feb 2017
Psychological experiments suggest that people will work harder for an uncertain reward than they will for a fixed one. In other words if you only get the goodies some of the time, you'll be more motivated to try. This insight underpins pretty much the entirety of computer game design, but it applies more to some titles than others. It certainly explains a hell of a lot about Turmoil.
You're a prospector, combing the land for liquid gold (Turm-oil, gettit?). First, you've got to buy a plot of land in an auction against three over AI-controlled investors. Then it's drilling time: dispatch a dowser to find a well, drill into the earth and buy wagons to transport your oil to market. Then watch as the dollars roll in. Simple!
Except, of course, it's not. Dowsers are not wholly accurate and the earth does not readily yield its secrets. As you guide your drill down with your finger, there's always an element of uncertainty. It might be right underneath, but you don't know how far. It could be a little to the left, or to the right. Each misplaced pipe costs both time and money and you only have a limited pot of both. Failing to get your well established can stymie your progress for the entire dig.
There's more. You have a choice of two markets to sell anything you extract, but prices fluctuate constantly. Sometimes they get so low it's better to store your oil, but storage costs money and fills up fast. And if you don't keep drawing the oil off your wells, you'll not only lose precious crude but get hit with a spillage fine. Only the RNG knows where the prices are going to go and when. So you're not only factoring in guesswork to your calculations but there's an element of real-time skill involved.
It's absurdly addictive. All the little things that can go wrong - bad markets, spillage, missed reserves - give you feedback for your next attempt. Next time, you'll do it better. You'll get the carts in time to avoid spills, watch the markets to maximise your profits. Except, of course, you won't. Your fingers will fail around as you curse, watching as oil spoils and you forgetfully push cartloads of oil for sale at rock bottom rates.
Add in the upgrades and you're in trouble. Between each dig you can spend to improve your operations. Stuff like wider pipes for faster extraction. stronger horses for quicker hauls to the sale, bigger storage tanks for the lean times. There are even silly things like hiring moles to randomly dig out patches of earth and uncover diamonds you're lucky enough to find. This technology is expensive. So much so you'll need to consider whether the cost is worth the payoff before investing. With the lure of all this on top, the game can hook-in players like a fish.
And it does, at least for a while. Because although Turmoil has a great recipe for success and is fun to play, it has some inexplicable shortcomings.
It's a port from PC, for starters. At first, moving to touchscreen feels like the most natural thing in the world. The controls are mostly about guiding pipes down into the earth, and it works fine with the fingers. There's even a little close-up bubble to help you. Yet there are still some niggles. The build menu is so close to the top of the screen it's easy to pull down the system options there instead, wasting your dig time as you clear them. It's hard to deselect stuff. Most frustrating of all, it's almost impossible to guide pipes into wells right at the bottom of the screen.
Most inexplicable of all, though, is the AI modelling. Only in auctions for land and, later, stock options, do you compete against these digital folk directly. After a dig you get your profits and they get theirs, as if by magic. I have no idea what routines generate these sums but they're far too low. Once you've got the game down, it's not hard to generate twice the income of your nearest competitor. And as the cash piles up, interest begins to wane. There's an expert difficulty level for additional challenge but you don't get it until you've beaten the normal level.
Yet beneath the slight bumps in the surface, those hooks are still there, sharp and baited with delicious uncertainty. Every time I walked away after almost bankrupting my opposition, I came back. And every time I came back, I had fun. Turmoil might not be the most demanding game on the block but it is one of the most tempting.