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Merchant Empires
By: OMGN | Game Data | 10:44pm, November 10, 2004
Codemasters Generic UK Eshop Pop up
Often, I have difficulty saying 'No' to my friends. I usually have no trouble telling them 'I'd rather be cemented' or 'Get knotted', but it is with this particular word 'No' that I have a very curious dilemma.

"Hey, want to play this online game with me? It's called Merchant Empires?"

"I'd rather be cemented."

"LOL! So you'll play?"

It should be noted that this conversation took place online, so the use of the word 'LOL' is almost - but not quite - excusable.

"How long does it take?"

"Oh, depends whether you get hooked or not...I spend hours and hours..."

"Get knotted."

"Is that a yes?"

Perhaps my friend is too naive, or perhaps I am responsible for setting my own fate. Regardless of who is to blame, I feel justified in saying that it is entirely his fault.


Or, in my mind, seeing myself doomed to a world inhabited by Trekkies and people who know how Computers actually work: 'NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO-!'

I cannot in all honesty be sure, had I the opportunity to travel back and time and relive that moment, that I would be any more able to say 'No.' The evidence compels my judgment against myself: It is close to 9 months on and I a) Am still playing the ruddy game and b) have counted how many months since my beginnings.

I've had plenty of time then, between not saying 'No.', to explore the Merchant Empires world, or Universes, this past year and a half. And perhaps I would be remiss to refer to that domain merely as a 'world'; the game is much too complex to generalise in such a way, especially on a mere planetary scale. Indeed, someone I understand to be an Expert in such things reliably informed me that Merchant Empires' 'coding' was far more complicated than an online game should be, that it presents a product far more sophisticated than its Computer languages were intended to articulate. I could believe that.

You start the game as a Merchant. But you're not really, not truly a mere Merchant. You can be an evil or good Hunter, a Politician, an Entrepreneur (I myself 'started' a game newspaper and insurance firm), a Merchant, an Emperor or Alliance Leader, a spy, a thief, a loner, a team player, a Newspaper Reporter/Artist/Sub-Editor/ day, indeed, touching on the very spire of your potential, the Merchant Empires Community might actually accept you as a 'Person' but that's about as likely as me winning the lottery without actually entering. Already I digress, and somewhat cruelly, unjustly. When you begin, you are a Newbie.

For some the first choice to be made is whether or not you will join an Alliance. Alliances are groups, clans, packs if you will, which may well harbor any or all of the above examples of Players. Alliances vary from the brand new, the fledgling, the 'Aww look, they're so easy to kill...' naive teams of one, two or more Players to the huge sprawling ancient gatherings which have existed since their leaders hit puberty - a very long time ago indeed. Some of these Alliances will focus purely on hunting, or trading, or politics, or base busting, or spying, or lobbying Admins, or something. The rest will dabble in all of these. Note that none will admit to it.

These Alliances can be neutral, be at peace, be allied military affiliates or be at war with each other. In all the Merchant Empires seasons that I have experienced, the Universe has become very entrenched, very quickly. Some will fight in defense of trade, others will fight at offence from what they see as cheating, and others will fight in defense of allies. Very few will fight in defense of themselves. Alliances will tax your earnings from trade and possibly other activities, in return providing protection, purpose, resources and friendship. In some cases they will also provide game training. Despite the comfort zone that can exist within an Alliance, inter-Alliance politics is a cutthroat battlefield. Alliance Leaders must be evil or wary of evil to survive. However, the concept itself is a positive one, and is implemented effectively.

For most Players, especially at the beginning of a season, their induction consists of days or weeks running simple or sprawling trade routes. For some, this is the boring downside to the game that threatens to repel new players. For others it is the main addictive thrust. For me it is both depending on repetition, mood and wind direction. Your Player, often referred to as a Merchant - appropriately in this case - carries goods from one planet to another either to satisfy the populaces inexplicable desire for cheap, cold, light-years out of date hamburgers or to satisfy its industries' requirements to upgrade themselves to another good. These goods can either enhance your ship, enhance your space defenses, enhance your bank balance or touch another of the game's concepts: Base Construction.

I confess to having some wonderful adventures in the world of base construction but there is no room to go into these now. Needless to say, while it is generally a good idea to build your base in the safest area of space you can find, it is definitely not advisable if that safest area happens to be your enemies HQ. The debris from my first twenty ships would seem to back me up here. The debris from the next twenty in no way contests the point. From your bases you can build defenses, research facilities for weapons and sundries, restock ships, sleep for the night and even trade using an 'online base market' thingery.

I cannot continue to walk the reader through each feature of Merchant Empires. The Game Administration seems compelled to forever improve and build upon what's there already. Perhaps it is a common perfectionist flaw in their personalities. Whatever the case, their 'freeze on new features' last season did not last long at all. I cannot describe the innumerable features of this game to the satisfaction of either Reader or Admin. The Reader does not have the time, and the Admin before I finish this paragraph will have already written a new feature that he feels, by lack of its inclusion undermines this whole review. As if to prove my point, WizardOne has just coded a new Auction feature. I have provided a skeleton summary. From now on, I will look at game 'essentials'.

1) Variety

Of this there is an infinite supply. I truly believe that you can bring the talents God has given you and profit from them in this game. As a new Player to this game I should have, by rights, been blasted out of the stars. My 3-person alliance could not out-trade or out-fight the 50-person Alliances that surrounded it. We ended up using our skills in English and Psychology to write and talk our way out of various situations using the game Newspaper and IRC chat channels. I have over-simplified for the purposes of this example; the game allows for a very great deal of resourcefulness. Whether this was deliberate or incidental to design, it has a very balancing effect on the game dynamics. You really, really are in command of your own destiny in this game. And you can be anything.

Mark: 9/10

2) Community

Of course, those who created the game can't do very much about this one. They can neither be praised nor blamed.

It is widely believed that the Merchant Empires Community is the worst aspect of the game. It is widely believed that the community died and reports on who killed it vary depending on whom you ask; a dead community being a spiteful and malicious thing in which prejudice and hatred and other meaningless things run wild. Some say it was brought about by manufactured Alliances, by the vocal minority who whine about every little thing. Others point to the community of last season and ask when the world will wake up and realise that only Osama Bin Laden could have conceived such a frightful torture. It's all exaggerated, but not by much.

The community in Second Generation (the second season of Merchant Empires) was fantastic, conducive to good gaming. It was a Utopia, it was an idyllic village retreat set on the banks of Loch Lomond. In Third Generation it was horrible. The Admins would punish cheats, the cheats would lobby the Admins until their ears popped, the Admins would be less eager to punish cheats so severley in the future. (Bear with me, there's a light at the end of the tunnel.) So there was cheating, there was whining, there was loud malicious hypocritical denials of both and the whole thing was a terrible nightmare, one I came very close to waking up from on several occasions.

We have in that, the difference between awe-inspiring and awful. In Fourth Generation, what we have (so far, I must insist) lies somewhere between the two. It is...ok. Its alright, its just there. You don't worry about it. It doesn't matter. It doesn't distract from or help the game in any way.

I would dare to say that this seasons so far short history suggests that the quality of community within which you reside depends on which Alliance you join. Its internal community can be Dysfunctional, acceptable, friendly, positive or a pure delight. In the negative cases, you wonder why people stay in the Alliance, what they play for - but it is there choice whether or not they wish to leave. They can always join a better Alliance or start one of their own.

Facilities are provided for new players; there are many 'training Alliances', and help facilities both on the game's chat IRC server and forum. Called, interestingly enough, the 'phorum'.

I've been putting off mentioning the game Newspaper, because I actually run it. It reports news of events within or pertaining to the game, it features regular and irregular Editorials, prose, humorous articles, a comic strip and a list of all major events that day as well as a full archive of previous articles. Many of its articles have won awards for literary merit, to the point that the Editor wonders if it might not be time for him to get a real, paid job. The vast majority of people that read the paper seem to enjoy it; even in the horror that was Second Generation 99% of readers gave feedback along the lines of 'The Universe Weekly [Newspaper] is the best thing about this game, it's something that sets it apart and which no other game has, and it is why I continue to play and enjoy playing.' The remaining 1% were along the lines of 'I hate you Forge'. Warning: The Editor is Scottish and as such prone to fits of 'righteous anger' in which praise for your Alliance can quickly change to Galactic Condemnation. I jest.

Mark: 5/10

3) Fairness

Controversial game issue here. One I won't go into in any great detail. The fact of the matter is that the main core body of original Admins are not corrupt, and go out of their way to enrich the game experience with a maddening amount of determination. They do, in all honesty, make every effort to balance the game. Everyone is given a fair say - too fair a say if you ask me - and decisions on game concepts are not generally unjust.

The Admins record for game discipline is generally good however there are many 'blips'. These generally centre around non-routine crimes. In these, the Admins do often appear unwilling to deal out the really heavy sanctions or fiercely effective punishments. They are not quick enough to use the full force of their powers for the good of game justice and game community. If assaults happened every day in Merchant Empires, then these would be dealt with justly. If, once in a blue moon, someone was killed, then the villain would probably get away with murder.

Mark: 5/10

4) Combat

Good, good, good, good, good. And getting better.

Combat has always been a central part of Merchant Empires. Some Players will try to tell you that the game, by its very name, has an emphasis on trading. I do not agree. The game allows you to be anything in equal amounts, and at some point in whatever career you choose you are likely to encounter a combat situation.

Hunters! Fleet battles! 'Base Busts'! Raids! Minefields! Classic.

Great efforts are made to make the combat system fair and enjoyable. A good balance between luck, strategy and skill has been and is being developed throughout the seasons. You will not automatically return fire when attacked, but through weapon recharge attempts have been made to insure that Players with faster connections do not dominate the game.

There is a wide variety of add-ons and upgrades you can make to both your ship (provided you do not overload its power generators)and base to enhance its performance in combat. You can add Active Screens as an additional defense field to your vessel, Plasma Boosters to enhance performance of guns, tracking devices, tractor beams, coffee me, there is a very long and exciting list. The same applies to bases; you can research base enhancements and new weapons.

With regards to the ships and weapons in the game, one can either go with whatever and try, perhaps successfully to make a lucky kill, or they can make tactical trade-offs between weapon recharge rates, use of ship technology and accuracy vs. power. Combat is excellent.

If the powers that be intend to continue on the current trend of developing the depth of combat they should look into how they might use the concept of indirect damage.

Mark: 8/10

5) Trading

Some love it, some hate it. It does have a tendency to bore others to tears.

It can be done for profit, experience points, future planning or provision of necessary resources and self-sufficiency - or indeed, a healthy compromise between each. It is well written, and there are opportunities to involve different racial styles of trading: a Paragon might be expected to make use of their ability to jump Millennium Falcon style between distant ports while a (K.E.A) may be more suited to hauling huge cargos between planets, for huge profit. You can also use your base's communication facilities to trade with other space outposts.

It's good. It's very well written. And those who sometimes find it boring, like myself, can either make their career in something else or should probably have heeded the game's title. There's a lot to it, and necessarily so for those in the game that enjoy trading. It is tempting to suggest that the Admins should work to prevent long drawn out, boring trade routes however if they did so it would probably annoy those Players that enjoy the current set-up.

A great system.

Mark: 8/10

6) Interface/Gameplay

The interface is a bit dark for my liking. On my display, no doubt due to my pre-cathode Monitor, there are many things that don't show up well. However, it is very stylised, and appeals to the vast majority of Players that use it. To those who are new however, it can be more than a bit perplexing and should be simplified.

You should have a fair idea of gameplay so far. This is a deeply rewarding, all-round good game. I'm sure it's not just my big leather chair that makes me feel like Captain Kirk when I log out. I'm sure it's not my thick eyebrows that make me feel like Captain Picard when I get 'podded' or killed. It seems a strange thing to say, but if you're willing then you will enjoy this game. If you can get into it then you'll find your own style, and you'll enjoy it. Pokemon, but less so.

7) Overall Evaluation

It isn't a perfect game, you might argue that no game is. But it's a well-realised, sophisticated, occasionally convincing attempt at one. It's good, good enough to hold even the most seasoned online Gamer, and with enough depth to hold people of almost any background or gameplay style. Dare I say, enough depth to addict them.

If it is within the Admins power to abolish or nurture the community, they should do that. If it is not, then they should act with a firmer hand.

While the game has 'universal variety', it does not have 'universal appeal'. Yes, you can do so much within the game concepts but when you start off I'm afraid if you don't like trading then you may well be bored to tears. This, coupled with the initially perplexing interface, makes for a treacherous learning curve which I have found proves too steep for a fair number of my recruits. That said, there are 'training missions' apparently on the horizon which will correct this.

This game is a very long way above average, but it does have flaws. It is a role-playing game in the truest sense. I have, in the opening stages of this article, played a role of cynicism, but in reality, I should be glad that in that moment I didn't say 'No'.

Mark: 8/10 or Outstanding.


This review is credited to an OMGN reader, Darth David. He can be reached at Thanks, David!

7.6 Gameplay 888 8
Replayability 101010 10
Interface 666 6
Community 555 5
Reviewer's Tilt 999 9
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