Thursday, July 30, 2009

East India Company Review

East India Company, developed by Nitro Games and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Straightforward strategic trade, tactical battles, several campaigns with primary and secondary goals and random side missions, mutiplayer ship warfare, visually pleasing
The Not So Good: Multiplayer limited to tactical battles, goods prices could be better organized, a couple of annoying interface shortcomings, inexact targeting and movement in tactical mode, boring once you set up enough trade routes, terribly repetitive voice acting
What say you? Ship combat and commerce economics combine effectively in this historical trading strategy game: 6/8

While most of the colonial attention is paid to the West Indies (I blame those stuck-up Americans), a significant theater of hot trading action (is there any other kind?) was towards the east in India. Sending ships to a land far, far away in search of precious commodities was a source of great riches, and also great peril (insert ominous music). Nations hired private companies to handle all of the details and bring these goods into the country so rich people could drink and/or wear them (a suit made out of tea was all the rage). East India Company is a game that simulates these competitive times, putting you in charge of a country-lead monopoly with one simple goal: bring in lots of cash. And some tea.

Overall, I was content with the graphics of East India Company. The 3-D game map you'll spend a significant amount of time staring at looks good, with detailed shorelines and features like trees and mountains. The game is devoid of subtle city and environmental animations outside of the ships moving around so it looks a bit static, but it looks quite fine when compared against any other map-based game. The sea battles have some very nicely detailed ships (complete with little sailors running around on deck), although damage effects aren't as dramatic as I would have hoped: there are rarely pieces of ship flying around, only the occasional (and canned) destroyed mast falling into the ocean. Watching cannon fire fly through the air is a treat, though. Speaking of, the ocean looks quite good as well, as East India Company tries its best to make a generally flat feature look interesting with undulating waves and distant coastlines. The seas never get too hazardous, however, and the ocean scenery doesn't approach the variety of a dedicated sailing simulation like Vehicle Simulator. The sound effects are a mixed bag, however: battles are pleasing to the ears, with disturbing yells for help and the crack of damaged ships, but commander voices are terrible with only a couple of phrases that are shared by all countries (apparently everyone in the 17th Century was British). The background music is fittingly dramatic, though. An average package in all.

In East India Company, you lead a country's trading corporation on the trail towards profit. There are four campaigns to choose from: the grand campaign that spans the entire time period from 1600 to 1750 (including a free variation), and two 50-year smaller bites. You can choose from any major player in Europe: Britain, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and personal favorite the Holy Roman Empire. There aren't any region-specific bonuses, though, so your specific choice makes absolutely no difference. Each campaign has primary (usually two) and secondary goals (a choice of two of four) that must be completed every fifteen years (for the grand campaign). They are always the same for each country and pretty easy to accomplish assuming you are doing fairly well in the game. Despite the disappointment that these main objectives are not random, you do get a flurry of optional and mandatory missions from the crown. These missions typically come with a cash prize and involve trading specific goods, attacking ports, fighting off pesky pirates, and other stuff I forgot to write down. East India Company also comes with random events, like port needs and storms that wipe out most of your fleet (that ruined about five years of progress). In addition to the campaigns, you can play the tactical battles by themselves, or go online for some multiplayer action. Unfortunately, you are limited to tactical battles only online because of an superfluous design decision by the developers I'll complain about in a bit. That said, the tactical aspect of East India Company is strong enough to make this a usable feature. Online play comes with several game modes inspired by first person shooters: one-on-one, last man floating (see, because they are boats! ha!), team deathmatch, and domination. They are pretty fun and are a nice distraction from the main crux of the game. Finally, East India Company contains a series of brief tutorials that touch on the extreme basics of the game. They aren't terribly comprehensive, but I found the game fairly easy to learn once you spend some time with it.

Most of your time will be spent in the strategic level game, which takes place on a map of Europe, Africa, and India (all all points in between). This is where trading is conducted, as you send ships to foreign ports, purchase goods, and then sell them back home for a profit. By far the worst aspect of East India Company is sadly easily fixable: entering ports requires a load screen and a completely separate interface. It's annoying because it's completely unnecessary: you could have had the same exact options in a window along the right hand side of the main map interface. I'm a huge fan of keeping all of the information on the main screen, and with increased screen resolutions on computers these days this should be a feature included in each and every game. This is also what prevents multiplayer strategic level games, as the game pauses while you are navigating (and loading) the port menu; if the developers had simply put all of the information on the main map (there is plenty of room to do so), we could have a full-featured and less irritating game to play. Anyway, enough ranting. In each port, you can manage your fleets by resupplying ships and assigning commanders, purchase new ships, store goods to maximize profit, and upgrade structures like the trading post (which gives a discount to purchased goods) and fort. Trading is almost straightforward: each good shows the amount of profit to be gained in your home port per ton, but the overall goods list cannot be sorted by price: this needs to be better organized since trade is a significant aspect of the game. Most of your ships will be filled with main trade items like tea and silk, but you can also fill them with export items from your home city to make a small amount of profit and basic trade items if room allows. The game has a simple economic model to prevent infinite trading of a single resource: prices will drop as supply increases, so you must diversify and import several resources in order to maximize your profits. Once you set up your routes, though, you can simply accelerate time and watch the money roll in. There is a fine line between automation and tedium, and East India Company doesn't quite find the sweet spot.

Those goods can't transport themselves, so you must construct fleets of up to five ships to transport them and attack neutral and enemy fleets and ports. The eleven ships (including galleons, flytes, brigs, and the infamous ship-of-the-line) roughly divide into trading and military vessels, although most powerful ships come with ample cargo space for goods (although it will be typically reserved for marines used in boarding actions and port attacks) so they can serve multiple roles. Each ship is rated in cargo space, hit points, sail strength, speed, firepower, crew, and marine capacity; it is important to keep ships of similar speeds together, and fleets will traverse the ocean at the pace of the slowest vessel. Each fleet has a commander; commanders level up with experience and gain new skills that mostly affect tactical battles, like a temporary increase in accuracy or reduction in enemy morale, and you can choose their skills to fit the role of their fleet. There are several orders you can give fleets: move, patrol, trade automatically (useful if you have a large navy), and attack a port. You must maintain at least one powerful fleet (five galleons filled with marines seems to be the minimum) in order to take ports, as one failed port attack can ruin your game, since you usually lose a couple of ships in the process. Behavior can also be set, from avoiding everyone to attacking everyone except for allies (useful for aggressive players like myself). The commander portrait has a colored outline that indicates their current order (green for move, purple for trade), although an additional audio indication of a newly idle fleet would be nice. Typically, I have mostly trading fleets and a couple of military fleets designed for taking ports and hunting down vulnerable competition. Combat is a great way to get free cargo, although it tends to make your opponents a bit angry. You might also get attacked by pirates, but I found them to be quite disappointing as they rarely (if ever) even attempted to attack my fleets. Unlocking new ships costs money (for research, I guess), and you are charged for the cost of ships up front instead of when construction starts, so having more than one in the queue is wasting money that could be spent on trade goods. Crews earn experience through battle and sailing time that makes them move effective. Fleets on long voyages must resupply along the way at friendly and neutral ports, which makes intermediate ports valuable to own as you can lock out enemy companies from reaching the most profitable locations.

You are given basic diplomatic actions in East India Company: pacts to refuel at ports and alliances to access ports for trade. You can also declare war (though you are free to attack any enemy at any time) and trading goods for cash. Typically, opposing companies need to be bribed into accepting alliances and pacts by using goods stored at your main warehouse, and the game gives a clear indication of how likely they are to accept a proposal. As with most games that involve multiple nations, being at war with only one enemy at a time and keeping one ally seems to be a viable strategy for victory. The AI will not attack unless they are provoked; I've never seen an enemy company attack one of my fleets or ports without me attacking them first. The AI does do a good job maintaining trade routes and maximizing profit, though, providing a nice challenge on normal difficulty levels. The game speed can be accelerated once you establish your trade routes, which makes the 150-year scenario length a bit more digestible. Victory is gained by having the most money at the end of the time frame, eliminating all enemy companies, or controlling all of the ports in India. The strategic aspect of East India Company is quite addictive and the multiple layers of planning make for an entertaining game: which goods to choose, how to design your fleets, where to attack, who to attack. You are also rarely just sitting there waiting for things to happen, as the almost constant stream of side missions keep you busy.

The tactical aspect of East India Company is less interesting but still a solid gaming experience. If you are not in to hot ship-on-ship action you can auto-resolve the outcome, although this never results in capturing enemy ships and subsequently their cargo. Tactical play comes in two flavors: real time strategy and direct command. In the RTS mode, you can give basic orders like move, stop, hold fire, board, join formation, flee, and surrender (if you win you keep the ship; cheaper than having to build a new one). You can also use specific ammo types: solid (for hulls), chain (for sails), and grape (for crew). The RTS mode doesn't come with the precision I was expecting, as ships don't attack as regularly as I would expect and have a difficult time moving to points that are close to their current location. Plus, giving an attack order will overwrite any movement orders; I would like to be able to designate a target and still tweak their movement to take advantage of the wind conditions. You will most likely have to switch to direct command mode when things get more hectic, as you can specify speed (through the sail setting) and direction using the WASD keys. You can also fire cannons using the Q and E keys and change the spread of your cannon fire, which partially determines who are are aiming at (thankfully, a firing cone on the minimap shows likely targets). Direct command mode is almost required to move close enough to an enemy ship in order to board it, which you need to do if you want their cargo (stuff doesn't float!). Getting close enough to board can be exceedingly difficult in the larger, slower ships; finishing a battle you've already won involves a lot of wasted time chasing down wounded ships. Not surprisingly, whoever has the better ships usually wins, although the quick ships can usually flee before bigger ships come into range. The AI is decent enough in this part of the game: although they lack surprising, advanced tactics, they will engage your ships effectively and use the wind direction for maximum closing speed. The tactical game of East India Company isn't any better than the host of other period-specific naval combat games because of the imprecise nature of the RTS mode, but it's fairly enjoyable nonetheless.

East India Company is fun. What, you want more details than that? You are so needy! The four campaigns that cover the time period provide some replay value despite the fact that the primary and secondary objectives remain the same every time thanks to the numerous optional and mandatory side missions. I would like a little more variety in starting conditions; something like Europa Univeralis III's pick-any-date feature (although here any year would have been specific enough) would be a nice feature. Multiplayer, despite featuring a number of modes, is sadly limited to the tactical battles because of an annoying and completely unnecessary interface limitation: entering ports. Maybe I am blowing this out of proportion, but I find having to wait for ports to load in order to complete actions that could have been done from the main map screen is frustrating. This is a shortcoming in an otherwise initially addicting strategic level game with numerous interesting decisions to make regarding fleet composition, trade routes, and diplomacy with rival factions. The game truly has that “one more turn” feeling as you expand your company throughout India. However, once you get things set up after the first fifty years or so, the game runs everything for you. You could manually trade, but the loading screens would make this option way too tedious for the large navy you'll typically have at this point. The tactical game is no more sophisticated as any other naval combat game set in the same period, as you must use the wind and your ship strengths to your advantage. You are given some basic orders and ships will fire automatically, which cuts down on micromanagement. The RTS mode lacks the precision I expect, as targeting enemy ships and moving to specific points is a hit-or-miss affair. You can enter direct command mode and specify orders yourself (useful for the typically powerful flagship) and commanders have abilities that can grant temporary bonuses for more varied combat. The AI is passable in both aspects of the game; computer companies aren't aggressive enough if you are at peace, though they are adept at getting the economics running well. If the premise of a combat trading game sounds appealing, then East India Company fits the bill.