World domination through cola: That's the focus of The Corporate Machine, a real-time strategy game from Stardock Entertainment that expands upon themes first presented in the company's cult hit from 1997, Entrepreneur. Like the earlier effort, the sequel turns economic competition into a form of warfare that looks and plays a lot like Risk. Imagine swapping traveling sales reps for infantry units and marketing campaigns for cannons, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what lies in store for you in The Corporate Machine.
Another noteworthy aspect that The Corporate Machine shares with the classic board game is in how addictive it is. Anyone who fondly remembers spending untold summer evenings battling the other kids on the block for control of Kamchatka will be right at home here. Playing The Corporate Machine is a spectacularly compelling experience that can practically take over your life. Easy-to-learn basic elements draw you in, and cunning computer opponents and constantly shifting economic terrain keep you returning for more. Mastery always seems just out of your grasp, so you continually learn from your mistakes and adopt new tactics in an eternal attempt to "get it right." Of course, in a game such as this, the beauty of the design is that there is no such thing as getting it exactly right--meaning that you will be playing for a very long time.
The beginnings are rather humble. You start your climb up the corporate ladder by choosing a name for your fledgling enterprise, a product to represent, and a business specialty (laboring skill, marketing, or engineering). From a small head office located in a randomly chosen territory, you're expected to build a global empire and amass enough sales to become the undisputed market leader in your field of expertise. Opposing you are up to seven computer-controlled businesses aiming for the same goals as you are, so don't expect the road to victory to be an easy one. Sales executives serve as shock troops that can be sent across continents to pitch wares to new regions. All of the elements that go into real-world corporate marketing can be found here. This includes the hiring and firing of employees, opening sales offices to boost the company's image in disparate areas, building training centers and recreational facilities to increase worker productivity, researching new and improved products, and even developing marketing campaigns to boost your wares or to undermine a rival's efforts.
Cola, cars, aircraft, and computers make up the merchandise available. There are few differences to the way in which each is designed, marketed, and sold, however. Basic selling principles remain the same whether you're shilling for the latest in gas-guzzling SUVs or a hip soda laced with caffeine. Furthermore, the names of computer opponents remain identical no matter what they're trafficking in. So don't be too surprised to witness IDM take over the cola market or Mitrosoft dominate the automotive industry. Still, what you choose to sell does dramatically affect the character of each individual game. Researching and building a safer car might not be that different in the nuts and bolts of gameplay from developing more hygienic ways to produce a soft drink, but it does have a significant affect on how you approach everything. There are also some unique frills--such as the ability to design cool new bottles for your cola--that add character to each commodity.
Further distinction is added by a dark sense of humor that livens up the proceedings at every turn. Frequent random events are spiced with goofy stories that lend personality to what could have been a very dry experience. These wacky elements, which include such outlandish occurrences as rumors of mutant monkeys being hired as replacement workers causing mass strikes, are balanced by more realistic news items such as government grants and consumer protests so that The Corporate Machine never gets too silly or too serious.
More black humor is provided by direct action cards. You get three of these at the start of the game, and one more is dealt out at the start of each year. These allow for all sorts of activities, from blowing up opposing factories to nuisance lawsuits to enlisting child labor. Perhaps the funniest moments are provided by the stereotypically slimy sales executives, who respond to every click with comments like "You're brilliant!" and "I'm all over that!"
Yet perhaps the most involving aspect of The Corporate Machine is the quality of the computer opponents. Even on the easier difficulty settings, your opposition will make every effort at building a powerful presence and attempting to take you right out of the marketplace. The computer players typically begin at a distance from your corporate head office, depending upon which map you choose to play on (everything is available, from regional maps to the entire planet), and insidiously move closer to your home turf with the passing of each year. The invasion begins slowly, but quickly accelerates until you suddenly discover that there's more than double the demand for a Calvin Kleen car in your host territory of Egypt than there is for one of yours. Computer enemies will pull out all the stops in doing so, using every available direct action card and dirty trick available to make sure that Joe Sixpack chooses their product.
Of course, this works the opposite way as well. As you expand, you must advance toward districts controlled by your rivals. You can do so in just about any way that you can imagine. You might go the honest route and simply try to win consumers over by offering the best car, soda, plane, or computer for the money. Technology trees branch off from the construction of different types of buildings, letting you fashion a specific approach for success. Go research heavy, and you'll want to construct the lab, enhanced lab, and lab complex. Try for top productivity and worker satisfaction, and you'll order your contractors to design a manufacturing plant and training facilities. You could also be a bit more devious and specialize in the questionable art of selling. Put up a marketing complex, and you can stage television and radio ad barrages promoting the coolness of your merchandise...or you can sink right into the sewer and set up a FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) whisper campaign smearing the opposition. Any way that gains you a foothold into an enemy-controlled region is fair play, so you might as well pull out all the stops.
The success or failure of these endeavors is communicated to you in the form of statistics. These numbers aren't hard to break down into sensible factors governing your future actions, as much of it devolves to simple laws of supply and demand, though it can be very difficult to figure out where to find this data. Both the interface and the manual for The Corporate Machine are Byzantine, the former because of a complex jumble of graphs and the absence of tooltips and the latter because of horrendous organization and a lack of specifics. Although the game itself is strong enough to overcome such inherent weaknesses, it would be a lot easier to approach The Corporate Machine if it possessed a better menu system--let alone an in-game tutorial. Presentation might also be a barrier to some. The game's graphics and sound are at least several years behind the times, though they're adequate.
These few shortcomings are all minor when viewed in contrast with the game's numerous great qualities. Winning design, powerful artificial intelligence, and a great sense of humor make The Corporate Machine one of the best strategy games so far this year.