In an era where twitch is king and thinking is optional, the market for deep and rich strategy games has become increasingly niche. The few developers who try to enter and expand this market usually end up sacrificing accessibility over complexity and alienating new players to the genre.
Historical strategy heavyweights Paradox Interactive have been the exception to this rule. Their extraordinarily deep and well made titles have pushed many to savouring each release, with popular series like Europa and Hearts of Iron captivating many a thinking gamer the world over.
Their most recent effort, East India Company, developed externally by Finnish bracket Nitro Games, looks to carry that success by introducing gamers to the world of sea-based trading. Does it sail broadly into the sun, or sink tragically into the depths?
For those not schooled in 16-17th century history, East India Company is centred around a period when the most advanced civilisations in Europe branched out and began to establish ties and trading routes with the recently discovered India. Unsurprisingly, this involved some of the most famous early naval developments in long term seafaring, as well as some of the very first private merchant conflicts.
As a result, East India Company sticks almost entirely to that particular era of history, placing you in charge of a merchant corporation, establishing and eventually dominating trade routes while dabbling in a bit of international diplomacy and naval skirmishes. The aim is to create as much wealth as possible for your corp, while meeting particular mission criteria and keeping your invisible partners happy.
There are various modes of play, but all of them generally focus on the same thing – play with mandated, compulsory objectives; without objectives; 50years through with a successful company, or 100 years through. You can chose one of eight 17th century nationalities to control, each with particular traits, and starting ports.
The game is essentially split into three different “views” of play; port, strategic and tactical, all of which require specific strategies and methods in order to ultimately work together. It’s highly recommended that you run through each system’s tutorial, if anything, it makes sense of what can look like a complicated and text/button heavy screen.
East India Company’s port view plays out in the trading posts and town halls of lore, where most of the wheeling and dealing is done. Building ships, fortifying your defences, loading your cargo with lucrative goods. The game keeps section strictly business – menus, pictures, buttons. Since all of the game’s ports operate the in same way, it’s simply a matter of setting things in motion (upgrading buildings, queuing ship builds) and waiting for the in-game time to move along.
The art of sea-based trade is relatively straightforward. Build a ship, add to a new fleet or an existing one, and hire a commander to run them. Leaving the port leads to to the screen where most of the action occurs – the aptly named strategic view. This is where you’ll set up trading routes, guide your ships, attack other merchants and capture ports.
This part of the game consists of an isometric 2D view, with an RTS style click and drag control system. In-game time flows only in this mode, thus it can be slowed or sped up at the bequest of the player. This allows for careful consideration to calculate your next move; which is imperative, particularly since your company generally isn’t forgiving of your mistakes, and the AI is smart enough to manipulate them.
If you attack or are challenged by another fleet, the game moves to the tactical (combat) view. There’s two ways to action conflict; the first being auto resolving, where the AI picks the most likely victor. I found this to be random at best, especially since numbers seem to make a difference, even when taking on powerful ships.
Selecting this mode also denies your ability to loot cargo, which in later stages of the game is essential due to limited resources and needing to meet your mission critical targets. The alternative is inherently more entertaining, being the RTS or DC (Direct Control) modes of play. Both modes have you sailing on the open seas, cannons at the ready, and embarking on what can only be described as very slow but very fun cannonball lobbing.
Your ships can only move as fast at the wind allows, so depending on how many ships are in your fleet, battles can either last for 2 minutes or 30. The key is to target the hull, sails or crew with specific (limited) ammo, sink the ship and take your bounty. This isn’t that easy. Significant planning of engagements is essential to stop smaller ships from flanking or ramming you, and using formations are essential to protect your larger, much slower ships from attack.
If you’re tricky enough, you can even board enemy ships, taking out their crews and capturing them. I generally avoided the option, since it leaves your ship open to attack and in the middle of larger engagements, losing control of ships is suicide. Naval combat is certainly the major highlight of the game, and you can noticeably see where a lot of the effort has been placed in regards to presentation.
Depending on your playstyle, naval combat can end up becoming a significant part of your game. Creating particular fleets with different sorts of ships is interesting, and I imagine, like myself, you will be saving and loading to experiment with different combinations and special abilities. These abilities are chosen by the player and granted to each fleet commander as they level up from battle victories.
Where East India Company succeeds is via easing you slowly into a routine while allowing a flexible system of time manipulation. The game doesn’t feel hard to play, and it’s not, even when you are simultaneously controlling diplomatic ties, capturing ports or working out the profit margin on your exports.
Controlling your assets is simple, building and developing fleets is straightforward, along with battle and trading. Thanks to a central management tab, one click allows access to objectives, diplomacy and overall progress. Your ships refill their own water and food, as well as fill ammo and completely repair at friendly docks.
Regardless of whether you are a passive or aggressive player, there is a path to success to suit. You can sit back, concentrate on meeting your targets peacefully through negotiating treaties and security pacts to protect the all important India route. Or, you can cause havoc, extorting money and goods out of your enemies, breaking security pacts; camping, attacking and looting cargo heavy ships.
The best part is that both of them work, and are fun to boot. While most players are unlikely to take either one of the extremes, its comforting to know that you aren’t penalised for taking the path the game is pushing. That said, focusing on your economic success is paramount, and eventually overrules almost every other aspect of the gameplay.
Spending too much on ships, bulk goods, salaries for your many fleet captains, dock maintenance and so forth can be a huge drain on your resources. What can be discouraging is how difficult it can be to keep track of your expenses. Capturing a port, for example, increases the amount you need to pay each month to keep it going.
In the end, like most games that focus on a bottom line, keeping track of where your cash is flowing is the key to your overall success. Everything costs money to do and keep, and earning it is a lot harder than spending it after the first 30 years or so. You can’t drop 100 large on a battleship and forget about the salary and maintenance costs.
But that ends up being the point. What separates EIC from its rivals is the focus on the typically ignored trading aspect of play. It’s capitalism at its vintage best, in where there are expensive risks, there are untold fortunes to be had. Thus, combat is accessible, but its usually discouraged unless there is something to be gained from it.
Strategy games don’t usually concentrate on making things look or sound all that great, but Nitro have put in the hard yards, particularly in regards to combat. Realistic looking water and wave effects, detailed ship models and some great lighting are the highlights. The sound is the usual melodic strategy score, along with some reasonably decent battle sound effects and unit responses.
The game isn’t without its foibles. Some of the interface can be a bit convoluted and important stats (like financial and trade values) need to be manually found. In addition, there are far too many loading screens when switching between views. Automating some trade routes and grouping ships under less commanders can help, but its likely you’ll still find yourself getting a bit offended, and frustrated by it.
This game definately isn’t for everyone. Some may be discouraged by the slower pace, micro management, and heavy emphasis on trading, but if you’re looking for some addictive economic strategy and cannonballs a plenty, East India Company will pick you up and refuse to let you go for countless hours.
Loading screens, interface quirks and a lack of micromanagement simplification are some unfortunate flaws in what is otherwise a capable engine.
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Thoughtfully entertaining and addictive strategy coupled with a cracking combat engine makes for a successful outing on the high seas.
The soundtrack, while reasonably unobtrusive, does nothing to add or detract from the overall experience.
Four methods of campaign play, multiplayer, moddable maps and units along with future DLC scenarios guarantee countless hours of entertainment.
East India Company offers everything it promises - an enthralling experience of power, greed and sunken ships.