The East India Companies were perhaps the closest thing to Eve Online but-on-earth that history has to show for. They were vast nefarious organizations exploiting and backstabbing each other and whole native populations while cutting a profit. These things destroyed nations. They shaped whole continents in ways still felt today. So why on earth is East India Company so damned boring? I think the simple fact is, Nitro has managed to capture the basic mechanics of early-modern capitalism without embracing its soul.
You start off in 1600, with naught but a paltry £50,000 to your name and the blessings of the court. You build a ship, and dispatch it off to the east looking for high value goods. It’s good ol’ buy low sell high stuff folks! It quickly becomes apparent how static things are however. You only have one location where the high value goods can be sold – London in my case, though each company of course has its own capital. So you visit an Indian (or African/Arabian) port, pick up a few goods, and go back a few times until the price back home goes down, in which case you pick a new item of value. And again. And again. You slowly build up a fleet of ships, doing much the same. That’s just about the full extent of its economic model. You can seize ports, which ultimately allows you to build up monopolies to restrict competing companies, and lowers the price of goods you buy there, but there’s not much else to it.
Dealing with other competitors is the focus of challenge, but even here I found myself bored by lack of opportunities. Strategically, holding certain ports can prevent others from reaching the rich east – the West coast of Africa and the Canaries are a particular linchpin – and prevents all but allies from using your ports. Diplomatically, you’ve only got a very basic array of options; non-aggression pacts and alliances are the only arrangements; while gold, settlements and trade goods are the bargaining chips. But honestly, there’s no real reason to engage in diplomacy to any real extent. Enemy factions break alliances for no real reason, while during times of war they don’t seem to be any assistance anyway. The total lack of native factions (see below) further curtails the point of diplomacy.
I never like to judge games based on what I think they should be, instead by whether what they are is entertaining; but with EIC I can’t help but feel it’s hamstrung simply through lack of depth and features. “Command the most powerful companies in history” it proudly boasts in its intro. Powerful? How? All EIC really presents is the opportunity to make more virtual pennies and pounds. It’s devoid of any sort of interaction with the ports/countries you trade with. Historically, India was a politically vibrant and dangerous world of shifting alliances: Initially during 1600 under the almost total control of the Mughal Empire, while its collapse facilitated European intrigue. In EIC it doesn’t exist. At all. Persia is blessed for all its historical importance with a single rarely visited port. Nader Shah would be spinning in his grave. Admittedly, the period where the EICs gained true political control of India is omitted, but you can’t help but wonder why that is in the first place. It’s by far the most interesting period in the company history. I’d have relished the opportunity to go all Warren Hastings on it and shake the Pagoda tree dry.
What little interaction you do have with the regions you visit and can control is operated via a 3D representation of the port, covering things like shipbuilding, ship cargo or port upgrades. The problem is, the 3D element is entirely superfluous. There’s no interactivity whatsoever. Given sometimes you spend perhaps 10-15 seconds requisitioning a ship, or micromanaging a cargo-load, the loading screen you have to go through to get to it becomes particularly grating. I found myself repeatedly passing up opportunities for profit just to avoid sitting through a load screen. It would have been far simpler to have the relevant screens on the main strategic map and done away with the utterly useless 3D ports. On the matter of interface in general, EIC repeatedly steers against the wind. There’s no simple way to compare resources/profit opportunities in the main trading screen. You have to open up a second one, and keep checking back against it. Context sensitive tool-tips would have cut away a lot of the interface bloat and streamlined things immensely.
So with the strategic map and trade screens dead in the water, we turn at last to sea battles. To sum them up, I eventually found myself auto-resolving them all. They truly infuriate, despite some nice stylistic touches. When I previewed EIC a few months back, I noted how well it handles the motions of the oceans. This stands true now, and taking direct control of one of your fleet’s ships can be genuinely involving – I certainly wish other games adopted this aspect. But overall tactical control has none of the finesse of its better known competitors, and strategy on the whole more or less revolves around bringing one of the bigger ships to the battle. Or losing. It’s perhaps the way hits are indicated by floating numbers, or maybe the totally random spread of cannon balls, but the battles never feel particularly satisfying. The only time I could really be bothered with them was when it was essential to strategic level profits; and in those cases I tended to flee rather than bother trying to kill or capture enemy ships.
All this in mind means EIC is essentially 8 competing spreadsheets all trying to gain financial supremacy. There’s no opportunity for grand tales of deception and intrigue, or epic hard fought battles. It lacks character, and fails to embrace what made 17th/18th century trade such an influential and exciting period in human history. It’s got none of the glorious exaggerated pomp and carnage of Empire: Total War, nor the depth, complexity or sheer scale of EUIII. When they’re asking £35 for it, there’s just no way I can recommend it. Unless you really, really like making virtual money, maybe.
Tread the plank, ye scurvy curr!
Nitro have released a patch adding the ability to disable the 3D port. A good move, no doubt. But not enough to entice me back into the game.