Commander: Conquest of the Americas Review

31 Jul 2010  by   Paul Younger
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Commander: Conquest of the Americas (hereafter known as C:CotA) is two distinct game types in a not entirely happy union. The two game areas are individually impressive, but both have some personality quirks that become even more apparent when they’re together. It’s not a dysfunctional relationship by any means, more like one that’s in need of a bit more communication between the parties.

The premise is a strong one: control one of seven European powers hoping to exploit the hell out of America’s resources in the 16th century. Trade your way to superiority and defend your economic interests with the finest warships the continent has ever seen. Scraps of land from Hudson Bay to the northern shores of (what is now) Brazil are ripe for some good old fashioned European colonialism.

We’re talking top-down strategy here and, as this is title published by Paradox Interactive, you’d be correct in assuming it requires a reasonable amount of thought to play. The early part of the game’s main campaign (which stretches from 1500 to 1630 and will comfortably eat up 30 hours or more of your time) is dedicated to establishing a fledgling colony or two and transporting the first handful of resources back to your chosen nation’s home port. Colony management plays an important role, as without a few key buildings to keep up morale (such as Church, or Theatre) the people will become listless and apathetic about producing more goods for sale.

It’s necessary to keep transporting colonists from the home port to your American outposts as they never appear to reproduce. Nor, as far as I can tell, do they ever die. C:CotA’s population acts like a static commodity – if you need people somewhere, simply move them there as you would with any other resource like iron ore or cotton. Just as it’s necessary to construct buildings to aid with production chains (a gold smelter, for example, will turn gold ore into more profitable gold bars,) so the people need certain buildings to thrive. Morale is not really about happiness, but instead is tied directly to production.

That’s not entirely a criticism, it’s just an example of how C:CotA’s strategic focus is purely on resources – to the extent that even people are reduced to that status. It’s noticeable that the Native Americans are also presented in this way, with just two functions: aiding or hindering production. Stay friendly with them (through building certain structures) and they will contribute resources, ignore or anger them and they will likely raid your colony, costing resources and soldiers. It’s rather disappointing that, though the European powers are distinguished by their country of origin and receive unique cultural-historical traits, the distinct Native American tribes get no representation. They’re all just lumped in together as ‘natives.’

As the years tick by, four advisors (royal, economic, military and religious) will offer various missions that will keep you in favour if completed. These tasks are things like scouting more potential colony spots, exporting a certain amount of processed goods or keeping the number of taverns in your colonies in check. It’s not necessary to complete every single one of these missions (which is fortunate, as I found that a couple of them did not register as complete even when I had fulfilled the necessary criteria) but it’s wise to attempt the majority of them. To not do so would not only leave your empire in a rather sorry state, but also (eventually) result in you being out of a job.

By the 1530s or so, your colonial trade routes should be well established. There’s an extremely useful tool provided by the game which allows trade routes to be constructed and then automated, allowing the creation of complex routes with multiple destinations. This saves an awful lot of mouse clicking, but if over-used can leave the game looking a little bit like it’s just playing itself. Fortunately, it is still necessary to check in with automated routes at various points to ensure that supply and demand are being met.

In order to prevent players relaxing too much, the game gradually unlocks additional production buildings and vessels, requiring you to reassess trade routes and even replace entire squadrons of ships with newer, more able models. At around 1528, for example, a cigar factory unlocks, allowing harvested tobacco leaves to be turned into these much more profitable items. Larger colonies also begin to get needy, regularly requesting commodities such as tools or weapons that will result in a morale/production hit if they are not provided. For this reason it’s not a bad idea to have a ‘rapid reaction’ fleet always under player control, so needs can be met without disrupting established trade routes.

As mentioned, military vessels improve as the years roll by (from Caracks to Galleons to Ships of the Line) and you’ll inevitably get drawn into some kind of naval conflict. Even if you’re happy to remain on sound terms with the other European powers, pirates will still pose a periodic threat to shipping. As soon as a couple of ships bump hulls in anger on the overall strategic map, you’re shown a pop-up summary of the relative strengths of each fleet and offered both an auto-resolve option and the chance to fight the battle manually.

A brief word on the auto-resolve here, as it’s (unusually for titles like this) pretty good. Strategy titles will often punish players who don’t want to play out manual battles by heavily balancing the auto-resolve towards the AI, but C:CotA seems relatively fair in its outcomes. If you’re reasonable at the manual battles, you’re still better off playing them – but it’s safe to auto-resolve seemingly innocuous skirmishes against weak pirates that in other games might cost you several units for no reason. There is one glaring exception to this, which I will come to later.
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Manual battles are played out in real-time strategy style (albeit, a slower-paced one) and many people’s inevitable comparison here will be the sea battles in Empire: Total War, or those in Nitro Games’ previous title East India Company. As in both of those games, factors like wind direction and speed play an important role, because the era is one of sail-based propulsion. Tactics are based on predicting enemy movements and ensuring that as many of your vessels as possible are sideways on to their foes (as all cannons are positioned there) when the time is right. It’s possible to deploy differing ammo types (chain, solid, grape shot) in order to cripple certain aspects of a ship like it’s sails or the hapless crew. Morale also plays a part, as ships that have taken too much damage and feel all is lost will simply surrender. In this way, and through direct boarding, additional ships can be picked up and added to your fleet.

Direct command of ships is also possible through the click of a button, restricting the player’s viewpoint but offering greater control over a specific unit. This command is great for dipping in and out of the action when a crucial broadside seems necessary, but not so hot for larger battles where you’ll want to keep a closer eye on what all your boats are doing. To add yet more options to the mix, individual captains have special skills that can be utilised (and expanded, as they upgrade with experience) to swing the battle in your favour. Traits like “unsinkable,” which reduce all damage by 20% are, obviously, rather handy.

The AI in these battles is competent rather than outstanding, as I managed to sneak a victory against most evenly-matched forces without much of an idea of advanced naval tactics. And while I did spend most of my time with the battles set to “Fast-paced” (rather than “Normal” or “Simulation” which increase the influence of things like wind to a greater degree,) when testing these settings in stand-alone battles the AI still didn’t seem too cunning. Speaking of wind, it seems that the dramatic waves from East India Company have been entirely removed. This is a real shame, as it leaves ocean encounters looking (a few ripples aside) a lot more flat than they should. There is, though, the addition of small land masses and (when fighting an enemy port) coast-lines, which all add some extra tactical spice.

During the course of the campaign, players will find that they get drawn into rather too many battles where the odds are in their favour and the enemy simply flees. It’s possible to give chase with fast enough ships, but even with the invaluable 4x speed up button this can get highly tedious. Unfortunately, auto-resolve is not so useful here as it simply assumes the ships have fled and escaped, denying you the chance to capture or destroy them.

Indeed, a full-scale war is where the cracks in C:CotA really start to show. Playing as France, I opted to launch aggressive actions against Portugal (for no particular reason, other than they gave the world Cristiano Ronaldo.) Before too long, I had crippled the Portuguese navy and felt it was time to attack one of their colonies. Except I couldn’t.

It seems a manual battle at a colony can only happen when the colony in question has either a couple of ships or a fort (or both) present. If, as I found, the colony has nothing but a few troops hanging around, it is seemingly impossible to capture. The auto-resolve option goes nuts in this situation, refusing to even offer relative power bars for both sides – and if you choose to auto-resolve, it simply kills all of your ships. Yes, my mighty fleet was apparently obliterated by five hundred soldiers stood shuffling their feet on a shoreline. Later, the same colony did get around to building a fort, but this simply prevents a realistic chance of attack until later in the campaign when better ships are available, as Flutes and Cutters don’t really stand a huge chance against such a strong structure.

At this point, Portugal signed an alliance with Holland. Despite this, Holland showed no interest whatsoever in my vendetta and did nothing to prevent my ships continuing to blockade every single Portuguese port. With AI like this, it’s no surprise that the rival nations appear to get a little “boost” from the game every so often. There’s no way the player could survive the kind of port blockade I inflicted on Portugal for so long, and although it’s necessary to have 5,000 total colonists before a third colony can be built I’ve seen AI powers found three colonies before they could possibly have surpassed this restriction.

Diplomatic trade options also seem a touch wonky at times, as although it’s possible to house resources in the home port warehouse and offer them to other nations, the paltry sums it’s possible to haggle for don’t really make it worthwhile. In contrast, the other nations seemed all too keen to offer me handfuls of coffee for utterly absurd prices on a regular basis.

So while the trade aspect of the game is strategically rewarding and naval warfare provides a degree of tactical challenge, the game is let down by the AI performance of the rival European nations. When players begin to engage in large-scale warfare the unity of the two game areas begins to unravel as the AI seems unprepared to deal properly with aggression, while issues with attacking ‘empty’ ports can bring the conflict to an unsatisfying stalemate. These curious occurrences can be worked around to some extent (mostly by ignoring conflict except when absolutely necessary,) but the cumulative result of too many small frustrations is that C:CotA proves to be a somewhat inconsistent experience.

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