Review:East India Company (PC)

East India Company
Genre: Trading Sim
Developer: Nitro Games
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Release Date: 7/31/2009

People these days are wary of companies getting anywhere near a monopoly, and for good reason; they usually proceed to act like prats when they do achieve it. But of course, no company has managed to achieve the supreme epitome of the monopoly that the East India Companies of the 17th and 18th century achieved. Armed with the blessings of their monarch they proceeded to rape the East Indies (and China) of every valuable resource they had and grew large enough to have their own standing armies, navies and even printed their own currencies! Their influence makes the mafia that runs Lockheed Martin and Boeing seem like small potatoes in comparison.

Yet when was the last time anyone made a videogame about the East India Companies? Probably never, which is the main reason that East India Company is generating a lot of interest with strategy gamers. One part Total War and one part Patrician III. What’s not to like?

1. Story/Modes

The main component of the game is the Grand Campaign. You select a nation and you start out with some simple tutorial missions that get you a small ship and some money, and after that you have what is called “campaign goals” which include things like “sink x number of ships” or “import x number of spices” and so on until the year 1800 (though you can end the game earlier if you dominate your rival companies), and if you managed to complete all the goals you end up the winner.

You can, however, also have a “free campaign” that has no stated mission goals, where the only way to win is to dominate your rival companies. Different scenarios are also included, with differing starting dates and ports, such as starting from 1750 instead of 1600 and having only 50 years to turn your somewhat comfortable position into an indomitable one.

A good tutorial is included that explains the strategic, tactical and dock views, so you don’t really need to crack open the manual.

Multiplayer mode is for the tactical ship-to-ship combat mode only, so no grand campaigns with your friends, which is strange, as games like Civilization 4 and Hearts of Iron do it quite successfully.

All the basics are here, but why can’t I edit my own game like in Civilization? Why can’t I select my starting money, ships, time and tech? These are all very basic strategy game options that should be there, but are strangely absent.

Story/Modes rating: Decent

2. Graphics

Nitro games are a small Finnish developer and East India Company is their very first game. That fact alone makes the already impressive graphics seem even more impressive to look at.
I’m talking about the graphics during the ship-to-ship battle portions of the game (I’ll get to the other sections of the game in a bit). The ships are well modeled and look great; they come complete with sailors all over the deck and in the sails, carrying out their duties, and the prettiest thing to look at is your banners on the very top of your masts. Not only do they flutter beautifully in the breeze, but they give you a good indication of wind direction and speed. Even the masts appear to be hard long, and made of real wood.

The real star of the show is the water; the waves are smooth and the rippled reflections of your ship look great. The ships also bob up and down when a wave hits them (it actually effects gameplay and isn’t only for show).

I won’t lie; this isn’t the best looking age of sail game out right now. That title would go to Empire: Total War. I understand that Nitro games didn’t have a budget the size of Serbia’s GDP but it had to be mentioned. The big drawbacks of the graphics is that the sails seem overly stiff and don’t flutter in the wind, and the guns don’t seem to leave a lot of the characteristic smoke from the cannons.

The strategic view is strange, it’s not ugly or anything but it seems they made the map 3D for the sake of being 3D alone. Why couldn’t they make a stylized 2D map? As I said, it doesn’t look ugly, but it could definitely use a bit of a makeover and right now it just seems empty. Dock view also has that “good but not great” look, but with the patch applied you’re probably never going to bother and see it.

Graphics rating: Very Good

3. Sound

The main menu music is great and suits the game perfectly. It’s just a shame that the rest of the music isn’t as good. You get some generic Indian music when you enter an Indian port, some generic Arabic music when you enter Arab ports, and so on.

Voice acting is also quite sparse. There is only one VA in the entire game, and he voices every character in the game; whether they are German, Portuguese or French, they all speak English in exactly the same way.

Why would they do this? Why not just not have any voice actors so it wouldn’t highlight the almost nonexistent voice over budget? It’s completely counterproductive!

The good thing is that the sea sounds are good and the cannons really sound like they have some oomph in them.

Sound rating: Poor

4. Control/ Gameplay

East India Company has more in common with trading simulations such as The Patrician than war games such as the Total War series, so your main activity is going to be making money. This makes sense, as you are not an emperor, but a merchant who owns a trading company (your title of “governor general” sounds fancier than merchant though).

After assigning one or more ships to a fleet you can manually send them to a foreign port, buy goods, and send them back, but that would be far too time consuming, especially when you have many fleets later in the game. So the developers have put in an auto-trade system where you simply select a destination port and your ship will automatically sail there, buy goods, go back home, sell them and pick up some home goods to sell on the return trip, and it will keep on doing this until you give it new orders.

This makes the game move along much better and allows you to think of the greater strategic plan, which is more realistic as well; would a company president bother himself with the shipping details of every single cargo manifest? He should be more focused on wresting control of the Canary Islands from the French East India Company as it cripples your route to India.

It doesn’t mean you never get any action, as there are always pirates and rival companies to fight if you so wish, but most of the time you’re checking balance sheets or… just waiting.

That’s East India Company’s greatest flaw. You spend most of the game just waiting for your ships to sail back to home port to unload their goods to get you some more money, with the occasional diplomatic event or pirate attack in-between.

The auto trade system is also somewhat flawed, as your fleets don’t work together to maximize profits. Far too often I’d have something like a measly 100 pounds in my bank account. A ship would sail into my home port and sell 30,000 quid worth of goods! I’d smile because then my ship on the other side of the world in India is about to reach port, and now has enough money to buy some expensive spices, but then the first ship buys 30,000 quid of export materials, leaving no money for the India-bound ship, and that idiot doesn’t wait for any money, he just buys some useless stuff I have no need of and goes all the way back to Europe pretty much empty handed!

A good feature, though, is the ship range system. Ships don’t sail non-stop to India, they have to stop at ports along the way to replenish food and water (they do this automatically and for free) so control of certain ports like the West African ports can cripple the trade lanes of rival companies. But don’t expect them to take it lying down.

The opposing AI in EIC is very good. If you try to hold some critical ports it WILL declare war on you to remove your threat, and is generally very good at making large amounts of money. Diplomacy is also very good, as the AI will remember any previous wars or betrayals you’ve committed against it, which is more than I can say for the AI of bigger games like Empire: Total War.

The ship battles are well done, but if you’re one of those who derided Empire’s use of “hit points” on its ship combat as “unrealistic”, then East India Company won’t satiate your desire for extremely realistic age of sail ship combat. It too uses 3 HP bars, one for hull, one for sail and and one for the crew. You use chain shot for taking out sails, round shot for the hull and grape shot for the crew, which is pretty standard stuff.

Still, the game has three levels of realism, “Arcade”, “Normal” and “Simulation”. The difference being that the higher you set the realism, the more the wind effects ship movement, and ships don’t sink as fast. At Simulation level, the combat is more realistic than in Total War, as the wind is far more brutal and less forgiving if you go against it and ships take a lot of punishment (it’s very hard to sink something made of wood). You can skip past these battles if you so wish, however, and simply auto-resolve.

Gameplay rating: Good

5. Replayability

None of the factions in the game are different from one another, with the sole exception of starting location (Portugal’s is the best) but they aren’t too significant to the game, and you’ll end up doing the exact same things whatever company you choose. Trying out the different scenarios does add longevity to the game, and the multiplayer is decent, but since you can’t edit your starting parameters and the multiplayer is ship battles only instead of campaign mode it’s nothing special.

So you’re literally stuck playing the same map over and over again with a slightly different starting location. It would be easy to overlook this if you had more things to do on said map, like in games such as The Patrician III where you’re always busy with something instead of just waiting for the game to move along and get some money, but this is not the case.

Replayability rating: Poor

6. Balance
Since all the factions are nearly alike and have access to the same amount of ships, none of them have a large advantage over the others in any way, either on the strategic map or in the tactical battle portion of the game.

A big sore point is the lack of some commodity ports. Coffee, Ivory and Porcelain all have only 2 ports each which produce them, making them very easy to monopolize and use to force a war. This is especially prominent with Porcelain, as only 2 Indonesian ports stock it. Where’s China? That should be in the game, as the British East Indian Company had a huge hand in the Opium trade (and subsequent wars) to China, and this would have meant less choke holds on certain resources.

Balance rating: Good

7. Originality

As I’ve mentioned before, no one has ever tried to make a game about the historical East India Companies that changed the future of the entire Indian Subcontinent, and probably China as well. I guess it’s because everyone is too busy wanking over the Caribbean, thanks to pirates and the fact that it’s geographically close to the United States.

However, the fact that this comes out so close to the date the Total War series introduced naval warfare in a 17th century setting means comparisons were inevitable when people saw the game. When trading, the game always gets compared to the Patrician series of games. In essence, none of what East India Company does is revolutionary in a gameplay sense.

Originality rating: Mediocre

8. Addictiveness

Large, overarching strategy games like this are always addictive by nature, and while you’re not building an empire in EIC, rather, you are building up a rather sizable fortune by exploiting the economies of under-developed nations for your own self interest. So it’s almost as good.

The lack of options, however, hurts the game, and since sometimes being without anything to do can dampen your enthusiasm for playing, this hurts the addictiveness a bit.

Addictiveness rating: Decent

9. Appeal Factor

How many of your friends know about the East India Companies? Hell, do YOU know what an East India Company is? I think the fact that there hasn’t been a game about them is due to the fact that no one knows what the hell an East India Company is. Trading sims aren’t going to give FPS games a run for their money either.

Still, now that Nitro games have teamed up with Paradox Interactive, who at least have a solid fanbase, it should be able to get some exposure.

Appeal Factor rating: Below Average

10. Miscellaneous
Two annoying things were fixed with a release day patch. One was that whenever you went to Port View you HAD to wait for a loading screen to take you there. This was tedious, as you went there often to build new ships and upgrade your port, and the patch removes this loading time.

Secondly, going to look at the game info screen to check statistics and finances paused the game. This is weird, considering the lack of things to do might make you look at some stats to pass the time while your ships were sailing around. The game fixes this too.

They KNEW they dropped the ball, and while I’m miffed they let these things slide, it’s good that they released a patch on release day to fix these issues.

Miscellaneous rating: Good

The Scores

Story/modes: Decent
Graphics: Very Good
Sound: Poor
Control and Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Poor
Balance: Good
Originality: Mediocre
Addictiveness: Decent
Appeal Factor: Below Average
Miscellaneous: Good

FINAL SCORE: Decent Game

Short Attention Span Summary

While East India Company’s strategic gameplay is somewhat flawed, it is still enjoyable. The ship battles, however, are well done and show off some impressive graphics by a small independent studio. It might not be as “hardcore” or “realistic” as some people crave, but it’s still quite fun.



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