Who doesn’t love a nice cup of tea, eh? Warm, refreshing and satisfying. But where does it come from? Until recently I, like you, I’m sure, assumed it came from the supermarket, you know, grown out the back or something. That was until I played East India Company. Now I know it’s grown in southern India, and shipped to Europe in huge wooden galleons commanded by spiffing chaps in very smart uniforms.
And that’s not all. Silk, porcelain, even spices! That’s right, without the majestic East India Company Pot Noodles would be nowhere near as tasty. Who’d want to buy ‘bland curry’ flavour?
At its heart, East India Company is a trading sim. Actually, what you’re getting here is little more than a crunchy trading sim. Now just ask anyone with a level 50 WoW character, there’s something we gamers find addictive about watching those little numbers ticking ever upwards, and that’s been the appeal of trading games ever since Elite in the 80s. But let’s take a moment to look back at Elite, the granddaddy of trading games. Aside from just buying low and selling high there were illegal goods to smuggle, piracy to engage in or to fight against, missions to take on, new ship upgrades to purchase, asteroids to mine, and fuel to harvest from the surface of gas giants. East India Company is basically about trading goods between India and your home port. Your ONE home port. If this sounds indescribably dull and limited to you, there’s nowhere near enough fluff to redeem it.
If, however, the thought of watching your fleet of galleons laden with gold, jewels and exotic animal skins from East Africa sail into port and your coffers overflow with cash makes you all starry-eyed, you can do a lot worse. There are plenty of different classes of vessel, that unlock slowly over time (in the ‘Grand Campaign’, at least), some of which can be used to transport marines to capture far-flung ports and thus increase your profit margins. The compulsory pirates are present and correct, and a little privateering can fill your treasure chest as well as empty it. Trade goods are evocative and imaginative, although you’ll have seen them all pretty early on in the game, and at the end of the day it’s the margin that’s pretty much all you’re interested in.
The game is split into two distinct sections, as is the norm these days: The strategic map (where you watch your ships sailing back and forth between India and Europe) and the battle view (where you watch your ships sail back and forth firing broadsides against some other poor sap). And you will do a lot of watching, in both modes. The whole game plays slower than it really ought to, and you’ll be a spectator for significant portions of the game. Pulling into port or engaging in battle requires a short wait and a pretty loading screen, and the frequency of these breaks in the already dubious action makes for a disjointed and limited experience.
The sea battles provide the only break in the trading (port conquests are really no more complex than turning up with enough troops and knocking on the door). There’s something appealing about watching huge sailing ships engaging in the slow dance of naval combat, cannons booming and crewmen hurrying to hoist the rigging and keelhaul the mizzenmasts, or whatever. These days, with games like Empire: Total War setting the bar, a game’s got to do something special to stand out, and I’m afraid East India Company brings nothing novel to the naval battle table. This is the only part of the game available multiplayer, as well – although to be quite honest it doesn’t really have the feel of a game that lends itself to multiplayer gaming anyway.
Putting aside this catalogue of shortcomings, if trading games are your thing East India Company is not completely devoid of merit. The diplomacy system between the European powers is robust and active, and visually the game works hard to capture the feel of the Age of Sail. There are side missions galore to keep you involved and to break up the trade-conveyor-belt – although my version of the game stopped giving me side missions pretty early on, I’m sure this will be addressed in an early patch. Hopefully. There are trade goods that are purchased in such small amounts, like jewellery, gold and diamonds, that they don’t take up any space in the hold (presumably your crew just arrive in port decked out like B.A. Baracus), which allow even the smallest ships to make profitable runs. Keeping an eye on fluctuating trade prices in order to maximise revenue is crucial in order to succeed. But just look at that sentence I just wrote. Is that really fun? If economic micromanagement appeals, then get in there – this game has it in spades.
Despite being a glorified spreadsheet about tea, the East India Company system requirements are surprisingly brutal. If you've managed to tolerate the jerkiness of other games on your creaky old PC, I wouldn't even bother going here - I'm not really sure why a strategic map should be such a system hog, but the slowdown on an aging machine will add significant delays to even the trading map - and as for the sea battles, you can forget it.
I suppose a conclusion that says “This game will appeal to people who like things that are like this game” or “People who buy this game and enjoy it might find that it’s a game they’ll like” are kind of pointless. However, it’s a trading game with a simple, bolted-on naval combat sim. If this sounds like your CUP OF TEA, then good luck to you. Now if you'll please excuse me, I can feel a game of Elite coming on...