East India Company Reviewed
Review - posted by Jason on Sat 15 August 2009, 22:23:39
East India Company Review
Developer: Nitro Games
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
This article will conclude my coverage of East India Company. After two previews I have now played the final version and will come to a verdict. I was initially really looking forward to this because for a long time it seemed to offer a blend of two of my all time favorites, namely Pirates! and Shogun Total War. But we will see how this turned out.
Everyone who has seen screenshots of East India Company, will probably more or less agree that the visual presentation is impressive. As far as small developers are concerned, this may be one of the most beautiful titles available today.
Acoustically the game is accompanied with the usual orchestral sound track and corny voice overs. While technically the sound is of a very high standard, I did not find it to be after my taste. The voice overs were annoying me right from the start and got switched off, and after some time I also got tired of the rather bombastic, schmaltzy background tracks. But it wouldn't be fair to say that the audio is bad, certainly it's not worse than comparable games.
While I found style and handling of the individual windows to be good, the user interface was making my life unnecessarily hard. The sequence of most actions is not well thought out, and a large share of the screens are plain redundant. The result is that every routine task is requiring an unnecessarily high number of clicks, and this sums up to be even more strenuous because of repetition, something we will have to talk about in more detail.
Choosing a Nation
East India Company sets out to put the player into the Age of Seafaring, when the European superpowers were struggling for world domination through control of the seas. There are four different campaigns. The rather unrestricted Free and Grand Campaign, and two more restricted campaigns with preset goals. At the beginning of every new campaign you get to select the usual knick-knacks like faction and difficulty. With four campaigns it may sound like there is a lot of variety, but in reality it's all very similar, with the only difference being starting date, money, import quotas and scripted events.
As compelling as the setting may appear at first, EIC really fails to make the most of it. Don't expect real historic events of the 17th century to happen, because there aren't any. This game is interpreting history in a completely generic fashion. Except for very minor details like ship and person names, all factions play almost the same, with a home port, the same 11 ship designs, etc. The only (possibly unintentional) distinction is that if you choose Portugal or Spain, you have a shorter route to India, something which will turn out to be of a big advantage in the long run. The choice of faction is now pretty meaningless, but could have been much more interesting with faction specific abilities and events.
I also noted that the campaign is rather scripted. For example, after some months all factions will be given a powerful invasion fleet. Obviously the developers felt that the player needs to acquire a port early in the game. What this leads to is a a sudden colony “rush”, with all factions getting one port for free, at exactly the same time, and it feels very canned. No matter why it was decided to interfere in the early game, I think these goals could have been better accomplished without such heavily scripted events.
Trips to India
The world map covers the area between Europe and India, with the coast of Africa around the Cape towards the Horn of Somalia, and extending somewhat into the Red Sea. But since it does not extend further east, it covers only about half of the possible area, because the operations of a real East India Company would have extended certainly into Indonesia, the Philippines, China and possibly also Japan. Unlike the world in Pirates!, the map is static, and does not change according to a time period. Cities are never in fog of war and there is nothing to do in terms if discovery. The world of EIC is made up solely of ports. I think gameplay would have benefited immensely from more interaction with the world, cities populated with real people and authorities, dangers like reefs, calms and storms. As it is, it resembles in many ways an Autobahn from Europe to India, with a junction to Arabia.
Buying and selling, how exciting
As I said, available actions in the world mode are very limited, but the game makes up for this by endless repetition. Your major concern is to select fleets and decide which ports to visit. The fleets will sail automatically to their destination, making routine stops to resupply along the way. As there is nothing else to do than clicking fleets and ports and scrolling left and right, setting routes is a ridiculously repetitive task. There is an auto trade option that frees up the player from this drudgery but will also turn him into a spectator. Another problem with this is that the auto trading behavior can't be customized, and AI doesn't optimize profits nearly the same way a human player would. So you will have a tough time to decide if you want to micromanage your fleets, or sit back and watch them play the game alone, which is what remains after you have activated auto trade.
While this left me underwhelmed, there is a fairly comprehensive number of trade items. The only vacancies are slaves and opium, which the developers opted not to include. Trade is probably the best realized part of EIC, with prices changing dynamically according to supply and demand. But after a short learning phase, it becomes predictable. For all you ever need to know is that price difference is calculated with a very schematic formula, which is based on distance and value. There is not much to learn once you have found that the most profitable items are always the most expensive ones, with spices offering around fifty percent profit, while other, not so expensive items, offering much less.
To make matters worse, the game doesn't allow you to make mistakes. For every item in the trading screen, the game always shows the exact profit in your home town, which is way too much hand holding for a normal player. Since the trading screen already shows you the results of your investments in advance, it is hardly possibly to ever misspend money, even if you're a complete beginner.
There are sometimes special events that increase prices in one port due to temporary demand, but it doesn't really create a big pressure to make use of such opportunities, because big profits can be made nearly everywhere. The developers put in a lot of similar, scripted events, including Fedex quest, but since these are random and unrelated to the game, they only serve as a way to make easy money. Moreover, the financial reward is usually very small, and chances are your fleets are already occupied elsewhere.
I also found trading prone to exploits. Diamonds and gold require no cargo space, so you can position an otherwise worthless small ship on the African coast and buy up diamond or gold whenever you have a lot of free cash. Thanks to instant money transfers, this can be done after you have sold imports at your home port and your fleets are on the way back to India. This cheap strategy will drastically increase profits, especially in the beginning, when you can't afford a lot of cargo space, and I found that it could mostly unbalance the game, especially in combination with certain commander skills.
Your main assets on the world map are your fleets. Every fleet has one commander and can hold up to five ships. For both ships and commanders the game generates names according to nationality, and the names are actually quite good. A commander's usefulness is determined by what skills they have. There has already been much hilarity about the active skills, like the one that makes your cannons fire over longer distance or cause more damage for a couple of seconds. Some of the passive skills make much more sense, but are maybe a bit unbalancing. The most useful passive abilities are: Haggler (-5% buying), Salesman (+5% sale), Organizer (+20% cargo space) and Navigator (+20% ship speed), since they have a huge impact on your profits. Commanders are randomly generated every time you create a new fleet, so it is very likely you will end up loading a savegame until a commander with the right combination of skills is available.
The intention behind this system is clear, but since both commanders and ships feel still very much lacking in identity, I think it would have been much better to choose the conventional approach and give them RPG stats (navigation, command, trading, ..), which have proven to work in similar games. To be really meaningful personalities they would also need to be a lot less anonymous, with individual biographies and without completely random appearances.
There are eleven ships types, which are very well done, although not really historically sound, as the ship designs range between the 16th and 19th century. Not all types are available from the start, others have to be unlocked by money. Even though there are some good ideas like ships having three different cannon types, there is absolutely no customization of the 11 designs, and I think EIC would have benefited very much from a tech tree.
When you have been trading away for a couple of years, the engine will trigger a random event and the AI will start molesting your ships. EIC allows to play the naval battles in a 3D mode. This tactical mode comes with very attractive graphics, typical RTS mechanics, and a hit point based damage model. Although the game offers a simulation mode, there are no simulation features like dynamic weather, morale or structural damage.
I think simulation of sail ships in computer games is not an easy task. Playing out a sea battle is time consuming, even with casual rules. And reactions to this will go both ways. Some people will find the gameplay too slow, while others find it too fast. It is important to understand that there seems to be no consensus whatsoever about what is the best way to implement this. The developers of EIC have gone the contemporary route of the arcade. The gameplay is very fast paced and offers much less control than my reference, Age of Sail 2: Privateer's Bounty. With ridiculously fast cannon reloading times, artillery is unbelievably deadly. So what could have been the most detailed simulation of renaissance naval warfare turns into rather mindless battles of material, with the inevitable result of most ships sunk or shot to pieces.
Because I could not find out how to control the tactics, I now try to avoid the tactical engagements. Which means I effectively gave up on one half of the game altogether. This is a real pity because the 3d models of the ships are excellent and the environment is not bad either. There is no way to control the ships outside the battles, in a free sailing mode, but while this would have been a nice distraction, it's certainly not a big loss when it doesn't add to gameplay.
The Loading Port Issue
Although in similar games you typically manage everything from a global strategic layer, EIC lets you only interact with a port after you switch into 3D port view. There is no other way you can go through important routine options like buying and selling cargo, hiring crew, or ship repairs. This is very bad design, as the 3D port will have to be loaded and this takes much too long, every time. I don't know how this could pass a beta test. Within hours after release the official forum was filling with complaints, and the only major feature included in a release day patch was better options for disabling port mode.
Also, I think the port mode is a good example of how features can be more of a burden than a blessing. Although it offers next to nothing in terms of gameplay, it seems the developers fell in love with having a 3D view. And I actually suspect the reason not to offer a much larger map (which could have covered China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Japan), was the need to create additional 3D port objects. The game could do very much without the 3D view (most people will disable it anyway), but would benefit from a larger, more varied world.
There are more problems in port mode. While it is nice that you can have two windows open at the same time, it's confusing how a new window will replace an active one. Since windows can't be stickied, you will have to learn how to open them in the right order, which happens to be rather unintuitive.
If you read this far you probably know that it is not going to be very enthusiastic.
This isn't a bad game, and I had fun with it until I understood the simple mechanics. The problem is rather that it appears to be much more than it is. EIC is in fact not really a strategy game, but rather a manager sim with arcade battle mode. The rules are highly abstracted, very much like those of a board game, resulting in a game that is easy to pick up and learn, but not very challenging or rewarding. Because of its relative simplicity, it could be a lot of fun to play against your family or friends. But multiplayer is restricted to just quick battles. So EIC must be rated for its singleplayer qualities.
Before its release, East India Company mostly lived from excellent visuals, and in those respect it absolutely delivers. But as a strategy game, it's lacking in terms of gameplay, depth and long term appeal. From a fleeting look it seemed to fall in line with a certain type of games that offered almost unlimited replayability, namely Pirates!, Shogun Total War or Elite. Now, there is clearly something wrong if a game that would obviously like to play in this league becomes repetitive after one or two evenings. This is where some will say that you can't expect anything else from a trading game, and that it is just staying true to the genre. But I believe the developers approached the subject matter in the wrong way. Commercial expeditions in the 17th century should not feel like running a truck company. Did you know that the first insurance companies were created specifically for the East India Trade? The sea routes were still very dangerous and many voyages ended in failure, but the astronomic profits of successful expeditions more than made up for that. I think this element of risk and chance is completely missing here. It could have been very exciting to be challenged with various dangers, with sea voyages into unknown territories, the reward being to return safely and achieve commercial success, but failure always an option. But as you need not worry about much outside your balance sheet, EIC is much less fun than games like Pirates! which made everything feel like a big adventure.
I believe the developers had the best intentions, but got on the wrong track with the scope of the game. I also think they didn't play enough games themselves, or forgot to playtest their design when there was still time. Otherwise it would have become apparent that the gameplay is not nearly offering enough in terms of challenge or reward, and the workload quickly becomes a drudge. This is really sad, because most components are really good, and the gameplay elements could have been adopted from other, better games.
My verdict is that Nitro created many good parts but didn't manage to turn them into a very convincing game. At least the foundation is good, as everything is very solid and pretty. So I would not hesitate to try another game of this developer if it offers the depth and new approach to gameplay I have been talking about. In any case there is no reason not to try EIC if you can come to terms with its lack of long term appeal, and only want something to play in between.