Ports of Call has long been one my default zen games. I love just kicking back, managing a company, and bringing in BOATloads of money. However, the series hasn’t had a modern incarnation in quite some time. I am glad that Transocean stepped up to fill that void, though it doesn’t quite nail the right feel.
Like Ports of Call, TransOcean is an economics simulator revolving around shipping. You play as a fresh new competitor in the field of international shipping, hoping to strike it rich by moving containers to and from. There is a free play mode to work your way up as you please, but also a sizable story campaign.
In this story your business venture is funded by the shrewd businesswoman Lydia Blythe-Smith. She starts you off with some capital to buy your first ship, but quickly proves herself to be a menace by signing contracts on your behalf and taking home enormous cuts off your profit. Sadly she has a firm grip on your company, so you’ll have to jump through countless hoops before buying her out can even become an option.
The core gameplay will feel familiar to people who have played Ports of Call. You buy and maintain ships, take on contracts in whatever port they are currently located, then deliver the goods to their intended destinations. Sometimes there are extra factors like tight deadlines to consider or you’ll have to deal with hazards like storms or pirates on your way. When you arrive or depart from a port, there is also the option to play a mini-game where you “park” your boats at the dock. This saves you money that would otherwise be paid to the tugboat-operators, but comes with the risk of damaging your ship.
TransOcean retains some of the improvements from Haven Tycoon (Ports of Call XXL) and dresses this up in an interface that is far more integrated into the game’s visual style. Among these improvements, the ability to take on multiple charters to different locations at once is particularly appreciated. Getting to pick up multiple contracts to the same destination feels good. Plotting a course to one location while efficiently delivering goods to other stops along the way feels GREAT. It really makes you feel like a savvy businessman.
The game does ditch the stock market side-gig you could do in Haven Tycoon and also scraps the other 3D boating games like navigating reefs and ice fields. However, it compensates for this with a new system called Company Contracts. These are effectively commitments where you agree to ship a vast supply of goods between two locations within a set amount of time. These can take a long time to complete and failing to do within the allotted time results in hefty fines.
All of the above is either better than it was in Ports of Call or at least as good. The 3D segments where you control you boat directly are especially great. They control well and the various ports are wonderfully designed, with lots of landmarks and other boats making these locations feel alive. The visuals in general are a big step up, especially in the UI. Yet, in spite of all of that, I’d still sooner replay Haven Tycoon than go for another campaign of this.
My key issue with the game is its progression. When starting the game, you are only allowed to buy the super cheap Feeder-class ships and your home base has to be in Europe. In fact, the very “world”-map itself is restricted to just Europe for the first few hours of play. You have to grind out fame points—gained by completing contracts, playing mini-games, and reacting to random events—in order to rise in rank and unlock the rest of the content. This makes each session feel rigid, as you’re never allowed to start somewhere new and can never splurge on a good ship early. It’s all pre-determined when you can make the next step. Yes, this applies even to the “Free Play” mode.
The requirements for advancing in rank also force you to play in very specific ways; limiting your freedom as the player. You HAVE to buy at least X amount of boats, you HAVE to complete X amount of company contracts, and you HAVE to establish X amount of subsidiary companies. This comes on top of mandatory story missions, usually involving delivering a variety of items from all over the world to one set location. Except here, it’s complete RNG whether or not the items you are asked to deliver will exist at any one time. You could waste away weeks anchored in a port, just hoping that the game will randomly decide to put in a contract that you need.
TransOcean also hits a performance wall towards the late game. The UI begins to lag and jitter as the game struggles to track more than a dozen ships moving at once, all in different directions and at different speeds. At the same time, the game becomes sluggish to play because a boat will arrive in a port almost every few seconds. You get prompted to play the mini-game so incredibly often that it completely kills the flow of the game.
As a modernized follow-up to Ports of Call, I admit that TransOcean has a lot going for it. It’s pretty-looking and controls well, with some clever innovation added in on top. However, the slow progression through the game and constant interruption make it a management sim that gets less fun the more you grow. Hopefully, its sequel will present an opportunity to correct these problems.