Sunday, September 09, 2007

Europa Universalis III: Napoleon's Ambition Review

Europa Universalis III: Napoleon's Ambition, developed and published by Paradox Interactive on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Automated merchants, more rules options, longer timeline with additional events and national ideas, several interface improvements, Austria is finally colored white
The Not So Good: Can't join multiplayer games in progress, no short scenarios
What say you? A sufficient expansion for fans of the original game: 6/8

The expansion pack has inundated the PC gaming market. Adding a few additional features for a reduced price, expansion packs have run the gamut from comprehensive and worthwhile to oversaturated and meaningless. One of my favorite games is Europa Universalis III, and a digital-only expansion has been released called Napoleon's Ambition. Not surprisingly, the game centers on an expanded timeline to cover the exploits of one Napoleon Bonaparte and his attempts to try to take over the world, among some smaller user-requested features.

While the graphics remain the same as the original game, there have been some interface improvements made to make navigating through the game easier. There is a right-click province menu for one-stop military shopping, a colonization view with all of the pertinent information in one place, an improved ledger view of provincial improvements to make building easier, and others that I will talk about a bit later. All of these additions are nice, but things that could (and some have) been included in a free patch. Still, anything that makes navigating through the game easier is fine with me, and the interface improvements are worthwhile things that you will actually use. The game performance has also been improved, as loading the game and playing at the highest speed both happen noticeably faster, so that’s nice.

The most obvious improvement made in Napoleon's Ambition is the expanded timeline to December 1820. You can now start the game any day between 1453 and 1820 and the world’s provinces are historically accurate. With the date expansion comes more events, additional national ideas for high technology levels, the ability to dismantle the Holy Roman Empire (by occupying all of the capitals of the member nations), and enhanced revolutions. Now, nations that are revolting gain bonuses against monarchies, and vice versa. I think it’s just a matter of time before the game expands even further into the present; the game engine could probably handle all the way up to the present day using the current rules, and it’s just a matter of investing the time and energy in doing so. The potential for the game engine is exciting, and I hope the developers make additional expansions to Europa Universalis III instead of making separate games with slightly different rules like they have done in the past (the rules and level of complexity in Europa Universalis III is the best out of all of the Paradox titles).

To satisfy those patrons of Europa Universalis II who enjoy less randomness and more historical accuracy in their gameplay, Napoleon's Ambition includes additional game options that influence the appearance of historical leaders. Before, leaders, advisors, and rulers had a window in which they could appear, but now you can set “historical” rules and they will appear on their actual birthday and die on the appropriate day as well. This has some really interesting impacts on gameplay, especially if you have historical military leaders on. Basically, you are getting leaders for free (great for cash-strapped countries) with really good ratings without using tradition. You can also eliminate the costs associated with merchants, colonists, missionaries, and spies, adding another layer of intriguing ramifications on gameplay. The spread of land discoveries and colonist size can also be tweaked to alter the composition of the New World. More options are always better, so it’s nice that Napoleon's Ambition adds more user-defined settings to tailor your gameplay experience further.

An area that received improvements was trade, and most notable is the addition of automated merchants. Finally you don’t have to keep clicking every couple of months to constantly send merchants. It was so tedious and by far the least enjoyable part of the game. Now, you can assign each center of trade a priority (high, medium, low, or zero) and the game will automatically send merchants to the best center of trade if you have enough money. The game won’t send merchants if it will bring your balance below zero before year’s end, and it will take value and competition into consideration when choosing where to go next. Now, instead of trade being an annoying part of the game, it can be left alone and your focus put on more important areas. The trade map has been enhanced with icons representing the good it produced; while it is helpful for colonization and manufactories, you have to know which goods are “good” and which are not. Napoleon's Ambition adds the ability to create (and destroy) new centers of trade if the current center of trade in the region is pulling in a lot of cash. The AI seems to do a good job with managing new centers of trade, and it’s a nice addition to allow for nations to develop another source of income.

Provinces can now have a recruitment queue for military units, taking some of the repetitive nature out of creating an army. While this is a useful feature, it’s faster to build one unit in five provinces than five units in one province, unless you have some sort of bonus from a manufactory. Smaller nations have been given a boost through discipline, which is tied to the quality vs. quantity slider. Now, high quality nations will get double benefits, through increased morale and discipline, to make the use of that slider more practical. This evens the playing field a bit more, although the largest nations will always have an advantage in war. You can consolidate regiments in Napoleon's Ambition: instead of having two half-strength infantry units, you can combine them. I don’t really see the usefulness of this feature, since it’s the same number of troops and you are preventing reinforcement during and after the war. Spies have been given a couple of new tricks: counterfeiting currency to increase inflation, reducing stability, fabricate core province claims, inciting natives, and bribing defenders. I’m not a big spy player, but, again, more things to do is always welcome.

The last area of improvement deals with war. First, if you click on the war alert flag at the top of the screen, the diplomatic panel for the country you are at war with will open. This is very useful in those weird wars where you are battling some far-off ally of an adjacent country (for me, Funj allied with Austria). Napoleon's Ambition comes with more end-of-battle information, with the total troops engaged, casualty information, and the values of each leader, replacing a simple “you lost” message. There is also a war screen that displays the data the AI uses to calculate how a war is going. The armies and navies, stability, and economy are converted into a war capacity value that shows how much more a country can invest into a prolonged battle. This takes some of the guesswork out of an AI refusing a peace proposal even though you hold several of their provinces (they may still be able to raise more troops). I think the war capacity was always in the game and it’s just now being shown to the player; some users think that the AI has been altered somewhat but it seems to behave the same as before for me.

There are some other odds and ends included with Napoleon's Ambition as well. You must hold the capital of a nation in order to make it as vassal. An annexed nation loses all cores on colonial provinces. And you can move your capital to a new province. I’m not sure what the reason for this is and the AI seems to be a little too happy in doing this (Spain’s capital in modern Peru? Whatever). I suppose if you are losing your home provinces you could “relocate” to your colonies, but wouldn’t that really be considered a new country? But I guess one weird feature in a sea of good features is OK.

I like what Napoleon's Ambition has added to Europa Universalis III. I wouldn’t call it a must-have to owners of the original game, but it offers enough substance to warrant its purchase. The expanded timeline is nice and it gives you more time to develop your country, but it is thankfully not the only additional feature. The automated merchants is my favorite feature (something I mentioned in my review of the original game), and the additional rules options allow users to customize their game even more. Most of the smaller improvements I like (the movement of capitals and unit consolidation are questionable), and overall they make playing the game that much easier. Oh, and Austria is now it’s appropriate while color instead of that blasphemous red. Some (most?) of this stuff could have been included in a free patch, but since the basic game was so cheap (and yet so good), I don’t mind paying $20 to support the efforts of the developers. At $50 total for the original game and the expansion, it’s a very typical price and still less than all of those useless console games. The game still doesn’t allow for joining multiplayer games in progress (something I wish they will add in the future) and small scenarios are still missing to ease people into the game. Still, if you play Europa Universalis III enough, it’s worth $20 to get Napoleon's Ambition as it enhances the game and adds meaningful features to an already impressive game.