Sunday, September 10, 2006

Europa Universalis III Preview

Europa Universalis III (Preview), developed and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Streamlined interface with detailed tooltips, 3-D graphics, built for mods, random and unscripted gameplay, varied military units with automatic reinforcements, numerous forms of government, new national ideas, military tradition rewards aggressive nations with better leaders
The Not So Good: Not released until 2007

The best grand strategy games ever made are Europa Universalis and Europa Universalis II. In fact, I though so much of those games, I gave them both perfect scores back at my old stomping grounds. The EU2 engine has been used in a number of follow-up games, such as Victoria and the overly complicated Hearts of Iron series. The series has now returned to what brought it to the dance, as the release of Europa Universalis III is slowly creeping up on the horizon (a little too slowly for my tastes). Through questionable techniques, I have gotten my hands on a beta version of the game. Will all of the bloodshed and bribery be worth it?

The first thing to notice about Europa Universalis III is the map: it’s in 3-D! All of the graphics and sound in the preview version are still in their working stage, but the game looks pretty good so far. Personally, I’m fine with a flat, 2-D map, but actually putting the mountains and trees on the map not only looks better, but it better represents the tactical challenges your armies will face. The units are represented in 3-D as well, and we’ll see how varied they become when the game is finally released (right now, they have different colored uniforms depending on their country). Flags flying above each of the capital cities is also a nice touch, and it makes it easy to identify your territory without have to result to the political map mode. The sound in this version of the game is still being worked on, but the background music seems to carry the strong tradition of period-influences scores present in previous versions of Europa Universalis. Probably the best aspect of Europa Universalis III is the streamlined user interface: almost everything is accessible now without obscuring the map (thanks, high resolutions!) and available on one of two interfaces (country or province, reachable by clicking on the country flag or the specific province). Europa Universalis III still employs the imformative tooltips present in earlier versions. Better graphics and easy to use? Sign me up!

Europa Universalis III continues the strong pedigree established by the earlier games. The game adds several new aspects to the gameplay, and since most people who are read this preview are at least somewhat familiar with the previous games, I’ll mostly touch on what’s new so that you can start salivating now. You can control any of the game’s 170 or so countries in both single player and multiplayer matches (although multiplayer was not included in this build). There are several start dates the game suggests (important historical events) and interesting country choices for each, but you can choose any country and any starting date from January 1st, 1453 to December 31st, 1789. This means that you can play Europa Universalis III minus the Europa, concerning yourself with conflicts in Southeast Asia, South America, Africa, and North America. Each country is rated according to how difficult it will be to survive so that you can gauge how frustrating playing as a vassal will be. This is also a good time to talk about the mod support of Europa Universalis III. The game comes with simple text files than can be altered to a greater extent than Europa Universalis II. Everything can be changed (except for the core engine): the map, events, advisors, buildings, countries, governments, technologies, trade goods, units, cultures, religions, and more. You can alter the game to cover any period of time and any alternative historical event you’d like: a mod designers dream. With the rather large following Europa Universalis II behind the new version of the game, expect some strong mods to be developed once the game is released. The provinces mostly stay the same, as each territory is rated in terms of population, how many troops it can support, the risk of a rebel revolt, a fortress garrison, religion, and culture (which may be different from the nation as a whole, especially for conquered lands). Europa Universalis III adds a new suite of provincial buildings to construct, each of which is unlocked according to technology level and provides a unique bonus. One of the main aspects of Europa Universalis III is trade, which is still conducted by sending a merchant to a center of trade.

A lot of the game’s actions are made from the domestic affairs box, which combines a lot of the interfaces from Europa Universalis II into one handy box-o-fun. New to Europa Universalis III is the ability to hire a court: three advisors can grant bonuses (such as increased research or prestige) for a monthly fee. This can be used to compensate for shortcomings in your country and promote the overall strategy of your nation. A lot of the advisors are key historical figures: as an example, I hired Tycho Brahe because he's damn sexy. All of the income you receive from taxes, production, and trade is divided into research, military upkeep, and the treasury. You can research government, production, trade, naval, and land bonuses, and also commit money to increasing your countries stability. Higher stability means more taxes and improved production, and stability is lowered by declaring war and random events. Hiring troops and constructing buildings costs money from your treasury, but you don’t want to send a lot of your spare cash to the treasury, as it will lead to high inflation. Putting that extra dough into research is the better option for long-term growth and prosperity. Speaking of the military, Europa Universalis III now features different unit types. You can choose a preferred unit type for your country based on your goals and aspirations, although selecting a Swedish unit for the Americans is kind of weird. Europa Universalis III also changes the way units are replaced. Instead of just building more units to replace losses, regiments will receive a constant stream of reinforcements. This is meant to remove a lot of the micromanagement associated with army activities and make it easier to maintain a large country. The goal is to have each country maintain a comfortable army size without having to constantly order new troops. Also new to Europa Universalis III are military leaders. Military action will increase your tradition, and high tradition can be exchanged for sweet generals (as good generals are made on the battlefield). This makes playing the game as a warring nation pay off, as more wars will result in better leaders for subsequent wars. If you’re having a shortage of leadership, your king can take to the battlefield and lead the troops himself (like Napoleon); of course, he might die, which would be bad.

Religion is still a big part of the game, and you can set tolerance levels for heretics: typically, you’ll have two religions you like, two you hate, and the rest will be in the middle. Europa Universalis III features new forms of government (17 at the present) that grant different bonuses and allow you to change domestic policies at specific rates. The government types get really specific so that you can tailor your bonuses toward your goals. Also new to Europa Universalis III are national ideas, a set of thirty ideals that also grant different bonuses, such as a bill of rights or exploration in the new world. Diplomacy remains large the same as you still have a copious amount of options to choose from: declaring war, royal marriages, offering alliances, embargoes, trade agreements, sending warming, asking for military access, and sending an insult. However, you can now implement spies, who can support a revolt, sabotage a country’s reputation, assassinate an advisor, or sink warships. Of course, spies can be caught (even if successful), and the penalty for having spies can be severe. Once diplomatic negotiations break down, it’s time for combat. The results of combat in Europa Universalis III have a more visual method: the game now shows the armies lined up against each other similar to a hex-based wargame and the subsequent dice rolls (and any bonuses) that will result in a winner once morale for one side is low enough. Retreating armies still have to be tracked down by the aggressor still, which results in a tedious game of tag. After war, it’s time for peace. You can annex a country is it only have one province left (not considered a good thing by other nations), or ask (or give) a tribute. Tributes may include provinces, converting religions, becoming a vassal, forming a new nation, or removing a province’s core status (declaring war on a core province is not considered bad). Europa Universalis III also has two new political bodies: the Holy See and the Holy Roman Empire (well, the HRE was in EU2, but it’s essentially new). Whoever gets elected as leader of these factions (through a cardinal or member vote) gets some bonuses, such as extra diplomats or extra prestige. The games of Europa Universalis III are now unscripted; in Europa Universalis II, the game generally followed a facsimile of real life, but Europa Universalis III may take history in a completely unexpected but reasonable direction. Before, you could rely on non-random random events (like the Reformation) or good leaders coming up (like Louis XIV), but it’s all random now, buddy. This will shoot the replay value of Europa Universalis III even higher than its predecessors, and make mods even more interesting.

Yeah, Europa Universalis III looks pretty damn sweet. The game takes the base established by the series and adds a host of new features one would expect in a sequel. However, the game doesn’t seem to have become bloated with these editions and it’s still reasonable easy to play for a game of this scale (more straightforward than other Paradox games). New graphics. A new interface. Excellent modification support. New military units and leaders. New forms of government. New national ideas. Random but realistic gameplay. It’s just too bad the game doesn’t come out until next year. Assuming that Europa Universalis III doesn’t suddenly change to a World War II first person shooter, I think we can pencil in a perfect score and anxiously wait for its release in early 2007 to see how it all comes together. I am very excited to see the finished product, so save up some holiday cash, kiddies!