Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Nitro Games
Release Date: July 28, 2009
At the meeting point of corporate enterprise, global trade and political power, the exploits of the East India Company in the 17th century onward is really prime material for the subject of a PC real-time trading and strategy game. In fact, if you're a fan of the genre or even slightly curious about the history of seafaring traders and naval warfare, you're probably wondering why developer Nitro Games didn't make a game like this sooner.
As the newly appointed CEO, director and supreme head honcho in charge of one of the European East India Companies, your job is to make obscene amounts of money by profiting off the trade in goods between Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. On top of legitimate trade activities, you can also capture Indian port cities, and attempt to take down the boats and ports of other European powers that compete with you for a limited pool of resources. While the trading part of the game holds some limited interest, East India Company ends up treading a lot of the same territory as other games from the same genre but unfortunately doesn't live up to the depth of those games; it also fails to innovate enough to make itself stand out from the company it keeps.
The single-player campaign forms the bulk of the game's content and comes with four different modes covering the heyday of corporate colonialism from 1600 to 1750. You can play as any of the leading European nations of the time, but it's a shame that it's not really clear if any one nation has a distinct advantage over the other so the choice ends up being more up to personal preference. The online multiplayer mode is limited to only naval battles and not the strategic trading and building part of gameplay, which is a missed opportunity.
The majority of your time will be spent in the overhead strategic map, which will be an instantly familiar view to fans of both the Civilization and Total War series. East India Company owes a lot to both of these games but doesn't quite live up to either, and a lot of the time, aspects of its presentation make it feel like a much older game. From the overhead map, you can order your ships around, directing them to trade with or attack foreign ports. Automated trade is a blessing and reduces your need to micromanage every trading vessel in your ownership. The list of tradable items is quite extensive, but I always like my historical simulation games to be a tangential learning opportunity where I can, if I choose, access some tasty historical nuggets and factoids about the period I'm reliving. It would have been nice to have a historical encyclopedia to nose through, or, at a minimum, some trivia-bearing pop-up tool tips.
If you play the main grand campaign, your experience will be structured through a series of objectives given to you by the stern board of directors. You'll have to accomplish these assigned missions within a certain time period in order to keep the faith of the directors and your job. These objectives are mostly fairly mundane, such as having to import 300 tons of ivory, but there are some more exciting options, such as capturing Indian port cities or sinking a set number of rival ships. As each stage passes, the difficulty of achieving the objectives ramps up nicely, requiring you to build up your fleet with large and expensive cargo-bearing ships. If you just want to forge your own path through history, you can play the objective-less Free Campaign. In any case, victory is yours if you can capture and hold onto all of the Indian cities or drive your competitors out of business. It's no small feat and will certainly offer the patient, dedicated gamer many hours of play.
Diplomatic negotiations are accomplished through an interface that again borrows heavily from the Civilization series. Unfortunately, they lack the animation and personality of that game's interactions. Your meetings with foreign dignitaries take place on static windows and are mainly limited to requesting that they declare war on your neighbors or make a pact with you. You can offer money and request foreign ports, but the overall impression is so lackluster and apparently lacking in consequence that I ended up neglecting most diplomatic strategy and didn't seem much the worse off for it.
Where diplomacy fails, war is always a great alternative solution, and East India Company offers you the ability to sort out your differences at sea in full 3-D real-time naval battles. The usual naval warfare bells and whistles laid down by previous games are all here, including the ability to switch your shot type; ships also take visible damage to their sails and hull as the battle wears on. You have the ability to control the action in traditional RTS mode, but if you really want to get down with your men and feel the heat of cannonballs whistling by your head, you can enter the Direct Command mode, which puts you in charge of one ship and allows you to micromanage the sailing and shot-firing. It's an interesting option, but you always end up feeling that the other ships in your fleet are getting nailed in the hull while you play captain.
The battle interface has just enough buttons and information to not overwhelm, and it's quite manageable, but they are all on the visually microscopic side. Each cannon shot that successfully hits a ship brings up an info pop-up that tells you how much damage was inflicted, which is a nice way of keeping you informed of the tide of the battle. In RTS mode, when ordering your ships to attack, they tend to do it with intelligence and coordination, using formations and circling to isolate enemies.
Somehow, despite all of the requisite details being there, I quickly tired of the sea wars. They ended up being dull battles of attrition where the boats took pot shots at each other until one met its watery demise. If I tried any types of out-maneuvering strategies; it seems like I lost the opportunity to fire on the enemy while they maintained their barrage. The safest tactic, therefore, seemed to be to simply right-click to target the enemy and sit back and hope that the stats work in my favor. In the end, the game seemed to encourage minimal interaction and maximum observation. Of course, you can always bypass the battles altogether and auto-resolve a conflict at sea, but the odds tend to go against you if you opt for this "easy way out." In a big omission, there is no way to resolve land battles in real time 3-D. Instead, these default to an auto resolve option, which is extremely unsatisfying from a strategic gaming point of view.
The visuals are fairly polished and mostly stand up to a healthy comparison with the recently released Empire: Total War game, especially in the naval battles. The sea is reproduced with nauseating fidelity, and load screens are filled with beautiful hand-drawn water color-style portraits. The city screens are presented in a pleasing 3-D view, but the short load time that is required to render this scene is hopelessly annoying, and you'll quickly find yourself switching to the static and uninspiring 2-D option. The overhead map interface works well for sorting out your fleets and tracking their progress. Unfortunately, in places, it is also intimidating and unintuitive. Screens tend to be filled with static windows littered with miniature icons, tiny meters and a wealth of unsortable data. You're never really sure if something is an interactive button or not, and the tool tips can be useful at times and totally lacking the information you need at other times.
There is an abundance of stats screens, but it's not necessarily organized in a way that allows you immediate unfettered access to the important stuff. In a game where trading is the central focus, I didn't feel like I had quick and easy access to the information I needed to make informed decisions about the buying and selling of available commodities at the different ports, and how much profit or loss I'm making, or stand to make, by buying and selling each of these goods. I found automating all the trade was the best practice and allowed me to build up a steady income stream. However, this was also the least interactive option, and at times it felt like I was watching a very slow movie unfold instead of playing a game.
The stats screens allow you to find out which foreign ports are trading and offering the best prices for trade items, but they don't let you jump navigate to these ports so you'll have to find them manually on the global map, which either requires a prodigious knowledge of world geography or a lot of patience. Small, nagging issues like this add up to a sometimes frustrating experience with East India Company.
The music is appropriately majestic and grandiose. Somber and noble trumpet peals mix with staccato snares, ominous bass drums beats and stirring strings to create a soundtrack that matches the period and themes. The music takes a turn for the exotic when you enter an Indian port, with Tablas and sitars taking over from the stately rhythms of the English fanfare. On the downside, the VO is horribly sparse, with one dry English gent being your lone repetitive vocal companion for the entire game. The ship battles are filled with the roar of cannons and the splintering of ship hulls, but there is no distance-based sound moderation so the battles end up sounding loud no matter how far away or close you are to the action.
It's a glaring but perhaps understandable omission that you cannot trade in the more controversial goods, like opium or slaves. All aspects of controversy are conveniently sidestepped in this whitewashed version of history where the foreigners you deal with get no diplomatic representation and will continue trading amiably with you regardless of whether you just ruthlessly pillaged their neighboring city. News events, such as reports of disease on board your fleet, can sometimes affect your progress, and these succeed in lending some historical and narrative context to the otherwise linear gameplay.
Despite its flaws, East India Company still manages to provide a relatively compelling experience, which may be due to its well-balanced difficulty and feeling of appropriate challenge that puts victory just out of reach and allows you to clearly see the holes in your present trading strategy, thereby allowing you to fix it the next time around.
One of East India Company's load screens is a striking picture of a pile of money splashed with blood. It's a neat metaphor and an interesting aspect of this part of history, where corporate power assumed a political legitimacy and engaged in some questionable nation-building practices, so compelling and full of potential. Unfortunately, none of this subject matter is explored or questioned. It is ultimately this lack of personality, engagement and in-depth contextualization that makes East India Company just another run-of-the-mill trading game that doesn't really live up to the allure of the greatest historical simulation games that can actually transport you back and let you loose in another time and place.Score: 6.4/10
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