Friday, January 12, 2007

Europa Universalis III Review

Europa Universalis III, developed and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Fantastic user interface, high replay value due to large scope and unscripted history with appropriate random events, improved AI, tons of new additions without becoming unwieldy, extremely easy to modify
The Not So Good: Smaller scenarios with concrete goals would be nice, automated merchants would decrease the tedious micromanagement of trade
What say you? A multitude of quality improvements on an already spectacular title makes this the best grand strategy game ever made: 8/8

Rarely do I publish a preview of a game (4 previews compared to 200 reviews so far), but when I got a chance to check out an early beta version of Europa Universalis III, I jumped on it. You see, the Europa Universalis series is very good and I greatly enjoy taking the helm of a country and trying to take over the world, or at least Canada. In the preview, I predicted, “I think we can pencil in a perfect score.” Was my clairvoyance correct? Well, considering I put the game score at the top of the review, I guess you already know; but please, enjoy this review anyway!

The 3-D graphics of Europa Universalis III is one of the most prevalent additions to the game. First, the map looks good: the realistic terrain for the entire world is impressive and actually impacts the gameplay (units paths will trace around mountains, adding to the travel time). The units are an upgrade: each region has a specific 3-D model, and each country has a particular color scheme (although the flag above each military unit will provide faster identification). While the map is much improved over previous titles in the series, it still can’t hold a candle to the vibrant strategic map of Medieval II: Total War. Of course, it’s a lot easier to make a nice map of Europe than a good map of the entire world and graphics aren’t really the focus of the game anyway. I would much rather have Europa Universalis III use all of the processing power for actual gameplay instead of swaying trees (turn resolution in Medieval II is extremely long) anyway. Honestly, I’m surprised at how well the game runs considering how many calculations need to be done in real time: it’s a mark of good game design and optimization. There are different map modes available, each of which are very useful: terrain, political, religious, imperial (for the Holy Roman Empire), trade, and diplomacy. A visual display of current relationships is always easier to understand than text, so the map modes are well done. Related to the graphics is the excellent user interface in the game. Paradox has done a wonderful job streamlining the game and making almost everything accessible from only a few menus that take up small portions of the screen. They have also added the outliner that is a customizable list of pertinent information, such as centers of trade, armies, buildings, sieges, and battles. The outliner gives a quick glance overview of the status of your country and it’s very handy. Also useful are the alerts; small icons appear at the top of the screen when you are at war, can adjust governmental options, or are running a deficit (just to name a few; there are many others). Europa Universalis III will also place an icon at the bottom of the screen when you receive a diplomatic offer from another country; this is much better than popping up another window that you might accidentally close. The game still features the excellent tool-tips over practically every value in the game, clearly indicating why you suck so much at running a profitable economy. The graphics of Europa Universalis III have the quantum leap forward I was expecting in the game: it looks slightly better and it’s easier to use.

The sound is much the same as before. Again, excellent background music fits the time period well and it’s as catchy as classical music can be. When the music is going through your head while you’re trying to go to sleep, I guess that means it’s fairly memorable (either that or highly annoying). The sound effects are there and they accompany each action in the game. They do get repetitive after a while, however. I would have also liked the tutorials to be voiced-over, but I’m fine with reading (after all, reading is for winners!). A nice touch is the background sounds for different climates that you can hear if you zoom in far enough. Much like the graphics, the sound in Europa Universalis III is pretty much what I expected.

Hello! So, why should you get Europa Universalis III if you already have EU2 or any of the other Paradox games (such as Victoria or Hearts of Iron)? Well, this isn’t just a superficial graphical improvement to the series like Medieval II: there are a whole host of additions to the game that makes purchasing it worthwhile. Take a deep breath and here we go: a more streamlined user interface, the ability to start at any date between May 30, 1453 and December 30, 1792, randomization of new monarchs, military tradition that rewards aggressive nations with better generals, realistic army reinforcement (eliminating the need to constantly produce new troops), lots of forms of government, court advisors, national ideas, more straightforward colonization, new diplomatic options, espionage, the new Holy See and an expanded HRE, fitting random events, extensive mod support, and everything that was in the previous titles. Whew! So, as you can plainly see, EU3 is definitely worth it. Now, on with the countdown!

In Europa Universalis III, you command a country in real time during the Renaissance (French for “you stinky Americans!”) and the Age of Enlightenment, after the darkness of the Dark Ages and ending with the time of revolution. You can pick any of the game’s 200 or so countries starting at any date from 1453 to 1789 (the game ends in 1793). Of course, the game is called Europa Universalis, so countries in Europe are more interesting to play (mostly due to the Holy Roman Empire and colonization), but you can still have a grand old time anywhere in the world. The country list and borders will dynamically change according to which date you have chosen. I wonder who had the job of figuring out which country had control of each the game’s 1,741 provinces each day for 400 years. I can see why game design is such an alluring profession. The game will indicate how easy it will be to lead your particular country, which acts as a sort of difficulty setting (you can also give bonuses to the AI, but the level playing field on “normal” settings is fine enough). If you are new to the series, Europa Universalis III features a set of tutorials that teach you about the game’s interface and lets you embark on small (10-15 minute) scenarios with specific goals. I would like to see more scenarios in the game; as it stands, Europa Universalis III is completely open-ended (which is great), but some people need more direction. Examples would include France (or Spain or England or Portugal or Ryukyu) colonizing a majority of North America, or lead Sweden in the Hats Russian War. With a game of this scope, the possibilities are endless. Of course, you can do all of these things anyway, but more concrete goals would be nice. Europa Universalis III features multiplayer over the Internet and through Paradox’s Metaserver service. Unfortunetly, the Metaserver for the press review version I received was not enabled, so I can’t report how well the game functions over the Internet. However, you are able to have multiple people control the same country, so that’s something.

Europa Universalis III also makes it extremely easy to modify the game, more so than any other game I’ve played. If you know how to edit text, bitmap, and targa files, you can change the game’s map, advisors, buildings, cultures, governments, ideas, natives, religions, spies, trade goods, units, technologies, and history of every country and conflict during the time period. It’s really easy to edit the information, even for people (like myself) without an extensive background in mods: it took me about 10 minutes to add additional bookmarked starting dates to the game. Whereas most games advertise lots of mod features and end up being messy to edit, Europa Universalis III has well-commented text files (over 2,000 of them) that anyone can change in a matter of minutes.

As I mentioned earlier (don’t you remember?!?), Europa Universalis III has improved the user interface greatly, putting almost all of the game’s information in two boxes that take up a small fraction of the screen. The first of these concerns province management, where you can build new buildings (which grant different bonuses, of course!) and units. You can also see where your income is coming from and access the nearest center of trade for trade purposes. The other one lets you change and alter domestic policies, which (as you’ll see) generally grant different bonuses to your empire. Europa Universalis III doesn’t give a “score,” but each country is given a prestige rating, raised by positive events like winning battles and forming new unions. This rating affects how likely other countries are to accept diplomatic proposals, how much advisors cost, and how successful various ventures (like establishing colonies) will be (among other things). When you retire at the end of the game, a timeline is shown with major wars and contributions of your different leaders, perfect for those popular AARs (although I haven’t found how to export this summary quite yet). While you are in control of your country, each nation (including yours) also has a king or ruler: they have a random (but realistic) lifespan and random attributes that affect your country’s diplomacy, military, and administrative costs. Rulers are given a name appropriate for your culture (All hail President Kang!). A three member court can also be hired, each of which will provide some sort of bonus to your prestige, research, stability, or national pool of colonists, merchants, and spies. Great men will also be born in your country periodically; you have a year of exclusive access to them if you want them. This is one of the great additions to the game that lets you direct your country in a specific direction and attend to particular needs.

Like in Europa Universalis II, you can distribute your income from taxes, production, and trade into five areas of research (government, production, trade, naval, land) or increased national stability. A portion of your income can also be minted to offset expenses from military maintenance or your advisors, or put it straight into your treasury. The more you put into your treasury, however, the higher your inflation will be: this increases the cost of everything in the game. Inflation can make things quite expensive, so it’s best to make most of your income from your yearly income, rather than siphoning off monthly profits. Loans are also available, but strongly discouraged as the interest adds up (trust me, I know). Your country will also be affected by historical and semi-random events, which are triggered by certain conditions being met. Each event gives you a choice between several options that vary in desirability. The event system, and the fact that fixed, historical scripting is removed once the game starts (unlike EU2, which generally followed what happened in real life), makes each game play different each time even when you play the same country (although since there are over 200 to choose from, that probably won’t become an issue). The event system is really neat and well thought out, serving up varied gameplay and unexpected happenings.

Religion was a major aspect of life during this time period, and Europa Universalis III features all of the major world religions. Each of your provinces has a specific religion and you also have an accepted state religion. Missionaries can be sent to specific provinces in order to convert the population to your state religion, but it’s expensive, it takes a long time, and it’s only successful about half of the time. Tolerances for each of the other world religions can be set, which affects revolt risk and relationships with other nations. This is a nice touch, as religion becomes another reason for deteriorated relations and eventually war. You can also convert religions (as another Christian religion might have more desirable bonuses), but this results in high instability.

Europa Universalis III features seventeen different forms of government, each of which provides a different bonus (see a pattern forming here?). There are restrictions to which government forms you can change to, however. For example, a despotic monarchy (a popular starting government) can only change to an administrative monarchy (a level 10 government) after changing to a noble republic, a republican dictatorship (a level 20 government), and an administrative republic. It’s confusing that you need to switch to a more advanced government first in order to switch to a “lesser” government. Another big addition to Europa Universalis III is national ideas. You can pick up to ten (depending on your government tech level) of the thirty ideas that (surprise!) grant different bonuses. Periodically changing your domestic policies will (surprise!) grant different bonuses. Each of these options come up just frequently enough in the game to constantly give you something to tweak, and all of the bonuses put together let you customize the role of your country: trade, diplomacy, military might, and exploration (it says all of those things on the game box, so it must be true!).

A potentially large part of your economy can come from trade, which is accomplished by sending merchants to a center of trade. Each center of trade collects trade goods from surrounding provinces and, depending on how many merchants you have present, you can earn a cut of the profits. You still have to manually send each merchant to a particular center of trade; I would like to have the option to automate merchants, sending them to specific centers of trade in an order you set. It’s just annoying and not very fun to press “send merchant” every time a new one appears, and since you can earn a lot of income from trade, you need to do it. Europa Universalis III again features a bunch of diplomatic options. You can enter alliances, form royal marriages, issue trade embargos or agreements, grant military access, guarantee a nation’s independence, sell provinces, offer a loan or war subsidies, and send a warning, insult, or gift. Alliances are now bilateral: this means that if two countries all allied, you don’t need to become an ally of both. This makes forming alliances a whole lot easier, as in EU2 it was impossible to get eight or so allied countries to accept any new members. The AI is reasonable accepting or proposing these terms, and the likelihood of a diplomatic offer being accepted is displayed before you waste a diplomat. Europa Universalis III also has expanded peace negotiation options. Not only can you request provinces or money like before, but you can also request nations to cease claims on certain provinces, force the creation of new nations, or impose your religion on your newly acquired territories. The number of terms the enemy will accept is determined by how successful you were in beating them during the war. Europa Universalis III adds an expanded Holy Roman Empire and the new Holy See to the mix. The leader of the Holy See, elected by cardinals that can be influenced with cold, hard, cash, will receive extra diplomats, reduced stability costs, and increase prestige. The leader of the Holy Roman Empire, elected by countries that can be influenced through diplomatic means, will receive the same stuff as the leader of the Holy See in addition to more effective spies and manpower and maximum army size bonuses. Both of these political bodies give you yet another goal in the game

Of course, what’s the point of running your own country if you can’t take over other countries (isn’t that right, President Bush)? This is where your military comes in. Infantry, cavalry, artillery, and naval units can be recruited from your provinces. Europa Universalis III includes a lot of different units with varying offensive and defensive attributes. Only some of them will be available to your particular nation (depending on tech level and culture type), and you can set your preferred unit type that all newly recruited units will become and all existing units will upgrade to (with a temporary morale hit). The money dedicated to maintaining your military can be adjusted, which affects morale and how quickly units are replenished. Unlike previous games, regiments will continually be reinforced up to their maximum strength (1,000 men), so there is no need to constantly be building more and more units to replace losses during wartime. This is a spectacular addition to the game that greatly cuts down on the micromanagement and monotony of recruiting new units. Once you reach the army size limit your country can support (either practically or monetarily), you won’t need to recruit another unit ever again. I told you it was spectacular! Another new addition to the game is the importance of generals in combat. You’ll need to recruit and assign a general to each of your armies; otherwise, they will be greatly ineffective. Each general provides bonuses in several phases of combat. While general attributes are semi-random, you can recruit better generals by having more military tradition. Tradition is gained by combat or exploration, so aggressive nations are finally rewarded through a realistic method (nations engaged in war would produce better leaders).

Combat in Europa Universalis III is automatic and takes place over two phases: fire and shock. The damage caused by your units is dependent on their attack and defense rating in each phase. Not only are your units physically damaged during battle, but morale also drops: if morale levels become too low, the battle is lost. In fact, hardly any battles are fought to the death, as units will retreat to a friendly province once their morale levels are lowered enough. Ratings for your units can be affected by generals and the terrain the battle takes place on (randomly selected but dependent on the geography of the province); random dice rolls will also add an attack bonus, so outmatched forces still have a chance of an unset victory if they get lucky. While some people would like to have control over their forces during battles, I’m perfectly happy with the automated procedures present in Europa Universalis III: it’s just one more area I don’t need to specifically worry about (it should be my generals’ responsibility anyway). Once combat is over and one side has retreated in shame, a siege starts on the province that may last several years, depending on the strength of the fort and the artillery capabilities of the attacker.

Naval forces are handled in much the same way as land units, although naval attrition comes into play: whenever a fleet is at sea, there is a chance that ships may be lost or damaged (damn sea monsters). This is a way of showing how fragile ships of the era were, and how susceptible they were to mishaps at sea. The rate of attrition is very high, though: losing boats when they are near land gets annoying and it makes long-term naval blockades almost impossible. Ships are used for transporting units long distances, forming blockades against enemy ports (to reduce income from trade), and exploring new lands. If you have adopted the Quest for the New World national idea, you can recruit an explorer (or conquistador, the land unit equivalent) to enable a fleet to enter “terra incognita.” Once you have discovered new land that is not settled by any other countries (mostly in Africa and the Americas), you can send colonists in a process that’s similar to sending merchants to centers of trade. Creating colonies is much more straightforward in Europa Universalis III, as there are no more trading posts (thank goodness). Instead, once you successfully send one colonist to an empty province, it’s yours. Sending additional colonists will increase the population (and increase the income you receive) until it becomes a full-functioning colonial city. Of course, natives (with varying levels of aggressiveness) and enemy troops may try to take over your newly-founded colonies.

As you can probably tell, I really like Europa Universalis III. Between fighting wars, sending merchants, constructing buildings, proposing treaties, exploring new lands, hiring new advisors, changing your budget, upgrading through research, using spies, dealing with random events, and taking over the Holy Roman Empire, there is almost always something to do, even for non-European nations. And if you don’t have anything to do (or are waiting for something to happen), you can accelerate time until something comes up. The graphics are improved and the user interface is excellent, making it very simple to find information and figure out how the game computed certain values. Europa Universalis III also has high replay value because of the numerous countries available, in addition to the unscripted random events that will result in a different world history each time you play. And the few deficiencies in the game (lack of automated merchants, no structured scenarios, government prerequisite limitations) could be easily patched or even modded by users. I have no doubt that Europa Universalis III will be embraced by the modding community, as the game is so easy to alter a caveman could do it (I’ll have the roast duck, with the mango salsa). Europa Universalis III bills itself as “the grand strategy game,” and it certainly is the grand strategy game: an excellent continuation of the series that has defined a genre. If you’ve ever wanted to control a large empire and you just don’t have the start-up capital or social skills, this is your game.