East India Company is more than just a game with an ill-advised name. It’s both more interesting than it appears to be and less engrossing than you would expect it to be. It treats its highly sensitive subject matter apathetically. It is a game that invites comparison to many other titles but feels like none of them. In short, it’s anything but a focused, deep simulation. If anything, it’s a dabbler, unwilling to explore any of its skin-deep fascinations, and thus an ultimately unsatisfying title.
The title of the game is all you really need to know starting out. You control one of many European nations’ trading companies. While not all of these groups are the East India Trading Company, their spirit is the same. From African nations to Indian ports, your goal is to travel to foreign lands and economically exploit them.
Of course, this is only the beginning of your company’s dreams. As the game progresses, you’re encouraged to expand your influence and power through three methods: trade, the sacking and occupying of African and Asian nations, and the destruction of other European interests. It goes without saying that to tell this story and depict these actions with any degree of taste or historical accuracy, Paradox Interactive needs to tread an extremely fine line. It also goes without saying that they cross that line during the game’s opening cinematic.
From the grandly campy Imperialistic opening movie to the flat, urbanely violent tutorial to the game’s omnipresent stuffy “English” narrator and guide, this is a game ironically and blatantly unaware of the historical significance of its subject matter. It’s not as if the rape and pillaging of Indian ports (not to mention the equally violent history of “trading companies” in different African kingdoms and states) is depicted with leering savagery or exultant glee. Instead, the game aims for a bored, just-good-enough recreation of the ports and lands that you will visit. The game makes combat, trade, and violence into minor, uninteresting activities.
In many ways, the game fares just as badly as the unselfconscious Colonization. They both reduce the centuries-long destruction and wanton disrespect of entire cultures and populations to bored, statistics-heavy exercises in management. It’s an incredibly insulting, naïve approach to game-making and storytelling, and apparently, it’s acceptable to gamers and developers alike.
Behind East India Company’s boorish plot and setting, there lies an almost complex management and trading sim along with a shallow naval combat simulation. Most of the strategy comes from spending your money on ships and then deciding what to do with those ships. Most of the game is spent from the strategic, global perspective. From here, you can order ships to travel to a destination, create regular trading routes, survey enemy strengths and production capabilities, and buy better buildings in the ports that you maintain.
It’s fortunate that most of the game can be controlled from the strategic map because ship combat isn’t terribly deep. You can view your ships from two vantage points: close up and far away. When controlling your ships from a distance, you can spin the camera, issue commands to your fleet, alter various attributes onboard (from cannon shot type to furling of the sails), and order assaults on enemy ships. In this mode, the attacks are automatic. Once given the go-ahead, ships will fire volley after volley, though you must turn them back and forth if you want them to fire both sets of cannons.
From the close up, “commander’s” view, you control your flagship directly. Still, your only new ability is a more sensitive set of turning controls. You can now fire manually, but you must still turn the ship to offer up your fresh, loaded guns for the second volley. It’s more engaging than the tactical mode, but it leaves your other ships to their own devices. They may not be dumb, but they won’t take advantage of all openings like you might. All ship combat boils down to two outcomes: you can either board the ship or sink it. If you want to board it, you’ll sweep the decks with grape shot (before which you’d send chain shot into its rigging) and then move in for the kill. Sinking a ship is straightforward enough: blow it to pieces.
Despite all of these options (along with a slightly confusing diplomacy interface), East India Company is not a game with legs. Once you play a campaign or two, you realize that automatic trading routes (with a large, safe convoy) are the best way to go. You may miss out on an extra thousand or so, but the micro-management that you avoid is well worth the price. Combat is a diverting if ultimately forgettable affair, and eventually, you’ll come to hate the sight of an impending assault.
East India Company is a competent game, to be sure, but it’s also quite happy to be a middling game at best. Of course, that’s before you take into account the game’s objectionable, blatant insensitivity and bias. If you’re on the lookout for a somewhat entertaining management/combat sim, this could be the title for you, but there are many other games more deserving of your time, games that choose not to insult your intelligence and good taste.