Which particular attributes are responsible for elevating a strategy game to stratospheric success?
Certainly not the eye candy. This is good news for Nitro Games, as their latest foray into the muddy waters of international trade relations is about to be released, and it's not exactly out to stretch your hardware.
East India Company manages to position itself between the whimsical trade-or-die clickfest that is the Anno series, and the militaristic strategy of the rather excellent Total War franchise. And yet, it's vastly different to both, preferring to concentrate on the concept of an autonomous trader out to fleece the wealth of entire nations, primarily through clever hoarding of resources and beneficial barter between budding economies.
Indeed, the ability to sail the high seas with a proud standard baring the outline of a vacuum cleaner wouldn't be an entirely inappropriate inclusion for this trading sim.
Your time in the game appears to be (initially) largely devoted towards managing your fleet of barnacle-encrusted 17th century trading vessels, captained by somewhat dubious personalities equipped with various skills, not one of which involves the ability to talk like a pirate. After all, this is a serious title for serious armchair strategy proponents. You can align yourself with one of several nations - British, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch etc, and you'll receive a corresponding home port in your capital city. This forms the hub of your commercial activity, and comes equipped with fully-upgraded buildings in order to facilitate your efforts of world economic domination.
The interface is functional, and largely logical - code provided to us failed to include any sort of instructions, but within half an hour our confidence was such that we could load and offload items between ports with relative ease. Just as well, as without this, your economy will founder in short order.
Much like every other trading title out there stretching back to the days of Elite, your balance sheet is kept in the black by buying something on the cheap, then reselling it for the highest possible price you're likely to get away with. A simple concept often used by suburban dairy owners, it's the cornerstone of both wealth creation, and daylight robbery. The more goods you can purchase and ship to your citizens, the more profit you can make, and the more likely it is that you can flood the market with a particular item in order to ruin your competitors, who may have been slightly slower off the mark.
On the off-chance someone takes objection to your capitalistic machinations, East India Company features a robust combat mechanic that allows you to experience naval combat first hand. You can issue orders to your fleet to attack a hapless victim, and then take control of an individual ship to add your own personal contribution to the battle. Or, you can simply sit back and let it auto-resolve, whatever floats your boat.
Speaking of which, there's a comprehensive selection of period-accurate vessels available for purchase, each requiring the necessary funds and a short build duration prior to setting sail. With the likes of a Frigate taking nine in-game months to build, you won't have to worry about getting rushed. Once you stack a set of cannon-touting ships together you'll see where your money and time have gone however, as it's immensely satisfying watching the enemy take a quick trip to Davy Jones' Locker.
It's not just ships that can be attacked either - various vaguely defined native factions occupy a smattering of ports around the map, and if you think your fleet is up to it, you can attack them and try to secure the real estate for yourself.
As previously mentioned, the level of graphical complexity isn't about to induce a nose bleed, but that isn't the point. From the quirky in-game video clips to the impressionistic loading screens, the entire package doesn't pretend to be a tech demo. It's just a shame that the loading times between the world and port overviews are a little on the high side - or indeed, exist at all. Perhaps this will change with the final release.
East India Company has potential, however like all such trading titles the end-game conditions are immensely important to the success, and ultimately the longevity of the game. The beta code we were provided with only showed around a quarter of one campaign, so it's too soon to call this one a winner, but we will be eagerly awaiting final code to see if Nitro can avoid any game-breaking mistakes. Watch out for it in July - in the meantime, here's the E3 2009 trailer.