Monday, August 16, 2010

Commander: Conquest of the Americas Review

Commander: Conquest of the Americas, developed by Nitro Games and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Advisors give intermediate missions, lots of buildings and production chains, automated trade works well, nice graphics
The Not So Good: Significant waiting for profits to accumulate, can’t sort goods by most profitable, no loot from auto-resolved battles, no loans means debt is permanent, baffling removal of multiplayer
What say you? Some new features in this second sea-faring trading game, but slow pacing and other issues remain: 5/8

East India Company was a game that had some neat ideas but got increasingly more boring as a game progressed, due to simply not having that much to do. The half-assed expansion didn’t do much to sweeten the pot. I dare say it’s time for a full-fledged sequel, and that’s what Commander: Conquest of the Americas attempts to do, switching the focus to conquest of the Americas (see how I can read the title of the game?). I certainly like the idea of a trade-based grand strategy game, so how does it fare the second time around?

Commander: Conquest of the Americas is a nice looking strategy game. The map of North and Northern South America looks great, with detailed ground textures and exaggerated topography (large rivers, tall mountains) that illustrate the wild territory you are attempting to tame. The ocean waves are also impressive, always a good thing in a title that emphasizes oceanic warfare. During tactical battles, the ships are also a pleasure to look at, with crew running around and smoke filling the air. The damage effects are a bit sudden, triggered when certain injury thresholds are met, rather than being gradual, but this is a minor complaint. The sound design is eerily similar to East India Company, with the same battle sounds (the distinctive crunching of wood vs. cannonball tipped me off) and similar average voice acting of the previous title. The sound notifications are improved (more frequent), and the game offers similar (if not exactly the same) period-appropriate music that works well. I was pleased with what Commander: Conquest of the Americas brings to the table in terms of graphics and sound.

In Commander: Conquest of the Americas, you are a commander attempting to conquest the Americas. Weird, I know! The campaign (there is also a “free” version with no advisors) starts in 1500 and ends in 1650, obviously commemorating the Battle of Dunbar. You can adjust the difficulty and battle realism and choose your nation from the seven possible selections, each of which has minor bonuses like faster ships or cheaper iron. A tutorial is integrated into the campaign using pop-up messages with a lot of reading, and the occasional message from an advisor that explains things you might have already done (or known about, if playing for a second time). The game also features single tactical battles if you are a more confrontational person. Instead of adding campaign-based online play, Commander: Conquest of the Americas actually removes the multiplayer that was present in East India Company. I have no explanation for that, as the tactical battles are essentially identical.

Conquest is furthered through your colonies. Unlike in East India Company where every potential trading post was already established, in Commander: Conquest of the Americas you get to make your own…sort of. There are a limited number of suitable locations to choose from, so it’s a false sense of freedom. Most colonies start out with only one good to trade, and expand that number (all the way to two!) as they grow in population. Goods are exchanged in the trading post and advanced colonies can build their own ships. You can also charge taxes (on tea, perhaps?) which negatively affects morale but positive affects your bank account. In addition, nearby natives might give extra resources if you build an Indian Affairs office. Or they could kill you.

There is a significant number of buildings to construct in your colonies, from production buildings like gold smelters and sugarcane mills to more secular buildings like taverns and forts. The game makes suggestions as to the best ones to build based on your current situation, which is extremely helpful. There are some multi-tiered production chains in the game, where you can take basic goods and turn them into something extra spicy. The problem is that most of these “advanced” trade goods don’t offer a significantly larger increase in profit margin, especially given how much the buildings cost to build and maintain. But the thought is nice. Commander: Conquest of the Americas also features fourteen of ships to command, evenly divided between trade ships with large cargo holds and combat-oriented vessels with tons of firepower…literally (because, you see, the cannons are heavy, so, you know, tons, oh never mind). They are unlocked to every nation simultaneously, which makes things a little less interesting. Ships can be granted upgrades during construction for added expense, like bigger cargo holds, faster speed, or better hulls. Ships are grouped into squadrons and lead by a commander, who has special abilities that can be used on the strategic map or during tactical battles. In addition, specific crew members can be brought on board for additional bonuses. You are given a nice number of options to customize your fleet as you see fit.

New in Commander: Conquest of the Americas are four advisors who provide the occasional mission. Comply with their demands and you receive a shiny gold prize, but fail and suffer the ire of lowered relations. You can have one advisor hate your guts, but must maintain positive relations with the entire court or it’s game over. I like that the advisors give some direction and purpose to your expanding colonial empire above pure profit. Speaking of profit, the economic aspects of Commander: Conquest of the Americas are better but still more tedious than necessary. You can set up automated trade routes to ferry goods between your colonies and homeland, and the process is straightforward. The game provides global price charts for each individual good, but you still can’t sort a list of all goods by the most profitable product. There are fewer price fluctuations this time around (profits in East India Company drastically decreased about a couple of shipments of a single item), which is good since you usually only have access to a couple of goods at first. Of course, this means you’ll be trading similar goods every trip: once you set up your automated route, you can ignore it until you unlock the next production level by purchasing buildings: not exactly stimulating gameplay. Because you must purchase all of your goods and sell them at your home port to make money, you must be very careful to avoid going broke. There are no loans in Commander: Conquest of the Americas, so once you go below zero, you can’t get back because you can’t afford to purchase anything to make more money. Time for a reload! Insignificant profits and low starting funds makes for a very slow and very boring beginning game. Couple this with a high cost of colony management and you have a lot of waiting on your hands. At least you can accelerate time, but even this results in not enough interaction. There's a reason the campaign features 150 years of time: it takes a while for things to develop.

You’ll eventually have to deal with your rivals, and Commander: Conquest of the Americas features some very simple diplomatic options: non-aggression pacts, alliances, and war. You can trade goods between nations, but only items that are sitting in your home port warehouse and the least amount of money you can trade for is 10,000, which makes getting an even trade essentially impossible. The AI does offer up some reasonable trades and plays the game well, putting up a nice challenge. It’s usually just easier to take goods by force, though, but you’ll have to do it manually, as auto-resolved battles still don’t give you any goods. The tactical battles can be good, but I would rather skip a tedious unbalanced fight and still reap the economic benefits. The tactical battles are identical to those in East India Company: I could not spot any differences in any of the options, so just go back and read what I wrote about them previously. In short, they are exercises in movement, a ballet of slowly pointing your guns towards the enemy. You can take direct command of any ships to fine tune their movement, and use the commanders’ abilities to turn the tide of war. The tactical battles can be fun, but as I stated, we’ve seen it all before.

Commander: Conquest of the Americas is better than East India Company, but not by much. The game’s excruciatingly slow pace remains: you must accelerate time because so little profit is earned early on, due to the high cost of maintaining colonies and having access to only a few items to sell. Because of the lack of loans, you have to be really, really careful never to carry a negative balance, as there is no way to rebound (since you must spend money to get goods to trade). It can be quite easy to "break" the game by going in to debt (you can be one building away if you plan poorly), relegating you to an old autosave or restart. The automated trade means the game will play itself while you wait for profits to slowly increase, constantly shuttling goods from your handful of colonies to the home port. It’s impossible to see a list of all goods in order of price, a really distressing limitation that still not fixed. Your advisors will give you some goals along the way, which is a nice way of providing guidance to new players, although their requests are similar each time you play. Once you do earn enough cash, there are lots of buildings to construct that will produce advanced goods that earn slightly more income. Ships can be given upgrades when they are built: a nice touch. The limited diplomatic options are disappointing. The AI is typically hostile, but it does provide an efficient challenge. The tactical battles are the same, except for the odd removal of multiplayer, but you do get some nice graphics. I would still like to be able to get goods from enemy ships when auto-resolving conflict; why have the option if you are at a disadvantage by using it? I am being harder on Commander: Conquest of the Americas because of my familiarity with East India Company, but I think that's fair for a $40 semi-sequel. It's a better game overall, but with sequels come higher expectations. Things are more interesting when international tension is involved, but Commander: Conquest of the Americas would have fit better as an expansion based on the totality of changes contained herein.