East India Company

Asking players to fight for Nazi Germany might have raised eyebrows a few years ago, but a series of Axis-friendly World War II games have made this conceit old hat. East India Company takes another shameful chapter of Western history—the European colonial era—and likewise rehabilitates it through gameplay. Dodging the cloudy morality of its subject matter, Company presents Africa and India as wonderlands ripe for your plucking, engorged with spices and jewels. (But not slaves—heavens, no.)

This bowdlerized version of the 17th century ought to be the perfect setting for a high-seas strategy game, and marshaling your trade fleets to squeeze other colonial powers out of the action does have some intrigue. Rivalries develop, and profits have to be balanced against diplomacy. Yet Company’s Indian Ocean has all the grandeur of a bathtub. There are too few destinations, and the tactics are too limited. The majority of the main campaign, especially in the initial stages, is spent shuttling schooners and sloops back and forth with various riches (deemed “Main Trade Items” in Company’s flavorless lexicon). This supposedly untamed frontier never conveys a sense of mystery as you dutifully pull into port and ponder whether to sell your goods now or warehouse them for later. The warehouse question is among the most gripping decisions you face in the early going; another is whether a fleet commander’s suit should be red or blue.

Company could still have worked, though, with lowered expectations. With the light, period-piece trading elements alone, it would be a fine way to spend an afternoon. It’s all the tedium surrounding the trade that sinks this ship. Military power gains importance as the game progresses, forcing you into hours of battle mode, where you watch ships bob on the waves as they make imperceptible progress toward the enemy. Occasionally, your crews fire off a shot, but only half as often as they could, as if they’re trying to stretch out the “suspense.” Smaller missteps also mar the game, like a dated interface, constant loading screens, and typo-riddled prose. (The game was developed in Finland, and appears untouched by native English speakers.) If the fleets of the original East India Company had been this sloppy, they would have sunk a few miles out of port.

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