Commander: Conquest of the Americas PC Review

From Worms Reloaded, to Commander: Conquest of the Americas. Though perhaps not the most obvious choice for a follow-up review, I have spent many an evening ceaselessly toiling away at such titles. This doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve played them well – or even that I’ve fully understood what they are about – but I’ve always derived a certain pleasure in blowing the bejesus out of mates’ fleets on Age of Empires 3.

This, in my mind, would be no different. Being the now obvious gaming chav that I am, I was very quickly put in my place by the follow-up to the ambitious-but-flawed East India Trading Company. This wasn’t a game I’d played or even heard of, and so after jauntily loading up a Single Player campaign was brought crashing back down to earth within minutes due to bankruptcy. Hmmm.

I was expecting a plethora of tutorials and all things windowed and helpful in time-honoured tradition. Not so here. The tutorial, if it can be called that, are directions from your Royal Advisor guiding you to land where you create a colony and thus begin your adventures. That’s where this ends, and you are more or less left to your own devices. Any further help is offered in a sort of join-the-dots style from your “advisors”, a collection of very haughty-looking men who you have to hideously smarm up to in order to avoid failure.

The four of them are individually concerned with royalty, religion, trade and war, which as society of all kinds has shown us, is a near impossible balancing act. They will tell you to build buildings and carry out certain tasks, while providing the reasons why these are good moves for your colonies. You don’t absolutely have to follow this advice to the letter – it is about striking a balance; somewhat realistically the advisors make requests that come off as self-serving, and it’s up to you to cut through the crap and build and do what is necessary, and not superfluous.

The backbone of the game is trade – building as many colonies as possible, plundering their natural resources, and establishing effective trade routes with squadrons of ships to and from your home port that ultimately make you very, very rich indeed. The squadrons are fully customisable, and are made up of any type and combination of ships you so wish. They are nearly always run by sea captains with absurdly camp portrait shots (the Holy Roman Empire has some hilarious ones), that are visible along your taskbar.

All of this gives you the juice to build a fearsome navy that can blow your opponents out of the water and thus bugger up their ability to compete with you. Such action does, of course, upset your Archbishop, but if you build enough churches and missions in your colonies it should even out his furrowed brow. It is all about compromise, and your ability to plan ahead and think logically. After my first few attempts I finally discovered this was the case and began to actually treat the game as a mental exercise.

While players of East India Trading Company will be well aware of this game play, it was a bit of a shock to the system for a naïve jock who likes mucking around on network Age of Empires games. This is not to decry that series at all, but those titles are of the ‘hands on’ variety; in which you get ready, and quickly, for war. Here, war is merely the very tip of the iceberg. It is made particularly apparent by the lack of land-based conflict – understandable given the nature of the game. When you do eventually square off with rival navies, you can either ride through the battle by choosing automatic resolution, or call the shots (literally) and ride into 3D warfare. This isn’t particularly exciting, and feels lacklustre even when sped up.

Arguably, this is where the game will suffer commercially. Speaking from the perspective of relative newcomer, the majority of cannon-wielding goons will not want to wait until 1520 and often much later (the game starts in 1500) to be able to build certain items of warfare to then go and pummel the opposition.

You can speed the game up by twice and four times normal speed, but I fear this will only result in your average Joe/Josephine becoming enraged by everything getting on top of them. And that can happen very quickly even in normal time, on the easiest mode. You have a lot to consider tactically, what to build when, which trade routes to take, the types of alliances you might want to strike, how and what you’ll use to strike them and to what end.

Even if you use an automated trade route (an excellent option of particular use when you have a number of colonies and squadrons at your disposal), you will still have to make constant subtle alterations to their courses and what it is that is being traded, between where, and how much of each resource is bought and sold.

I can only begin to imagine what it is like to juggle all this on hard mode. Nevertheless, I will find out. Because Commander: Conquest of the Americas is a game worth persevering with. It takes your eye as a standard real time strategy title, with pleasant enough visuals and a seemingly ordinary interface. What follows is a labyrinthine tactical exercise, and one that feels genuinely rewarding when (finally in my case) played successfully.

The lack of an idiots’ guide tutorial is not a great selling point, but plough through this confusing opening (on free campaign) and you will gradually learn and lose a surprising amount of time to what is a relatively unique and intellectually-solid title.

7 out of 10
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