Saturday, April 12, 2008

Europa Universalis: Rome Review

Europa Universalis: Rome, developed and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Simplified gameplay should appeal to a wider audience, improved graphics and performance, interesting dynasty dynamics
The Not So Good: No objectives, very Rome-centric, non-interactive non-voiced tutorial, reduced scope makes for less variety
What say you? With meaningful gameplay alterations, a smaller scale works just fine for this grand strategy series: 8/8

Vēnī, vīdī, vīcī: I came, I saw, I kicked its ass. This famous Roman phrase is pretty much sums up the dominance of the Empire during the days of Caesar. In the continuing effort to expand beyond World War II (the Civil War and Napoleon have been popular choices), Europa Universalis: Rome takes us to the historical setting of...wait...let me see..ah yes...Rome. I was a big fan of the latest game in the venerable series, and now the grand strategy game takes a more focused look at one of the powerful empires of history. Will this change preserve the awesomeness present in previous versions?

One advantage of having a smaller geographic focus is that more work can be put into the map graphics. Europa Universalis III was the first iteration of Paradox’s new 3-D engine and the results were mixed: while the game looked fine from a wargame perspective, general audiences would not have been impressed. Luckily, Europa Universalis: Rome features a much better looking map with great textures and more topographic detail. While it doesn’t quite look photo-realistic, the map in Europa Universalis: Rome is a far cry from previous games: majestic mountains, thick forests, beautiful coastlines, sprawling plains. Plus, the view can be rotated from birds-eye view all the way down to essentially ground-level, producing a variety of visuals along the way. So all those people who complained about the bland map in Europa Universalis III will hopefully be satisfied now. The rest of the graphics remain largely the same, although the 3-D units obviously have Roman flair now. The sound design also remains the same: great period-specific background music and sound effects. However, some of the indicator sounds could be a lot louder: I routinely miss diplomatic events even with the volume cranked up. Overall, Europa Universalis: Rome is simply more polished than the previous game.

Europa Universalis: Rome lets you take control of any Mediterranean (European-Middle Eastern-North African) country starting on any date from 474 AUC to 727 AUC, whatever the heck that means. Not surprisingly, considering the title, the focus of this game is on Rome. Controlling any of the other nations, especially the very minor tribes scattered around Europe, is not as exciting. In order to get the most out of the game, you really need to focus on one of the big five nations: Rome, Carthage, Egypt, Macedonia, and the Seleucid Empire. You can choose any nation you’d like, but the smaller European tribal nations are basically wastes of time. The situation is less disappointing in the Middle East, but players used to being able to choose from a “whole bunch” of semi-interesting nations located around the world will feel quite limited in Europa Universalis: Rome. It depends on whether you enjoy controlling “mid-major” nations like I do; the game is still interesting as a minor player, but there is certainly less to choose from. Being able to play a game in Europe, Asia, Africa, or the Americas while the rest of the world develops is a limitation players of Europa Universalis: Rome will just have to accept. Another thing this game lacks, just like its predecessor, is short- or long-term goals. Europa Universalis: Rome is purely a sandbox game; in fact, the prestige ranking has been removed so there is now no scoring method. While you are free to make up your own goals (make an alliance, create a trading empire, don’t die), it would be nice for the game to give little objectives with small bonuses. The game comes with a tutorial, though it is not voiced and doesn’t involve any direct interaction with the game (it’s more of a movie), so you’ll have to read along. Europa Universalis: Rome also comes with the same multiplayer features as before; I didn’t test it out because I received the game before release (I am cool like that), but if it’s anything like it was in Europa Universalis III, then it should work well. Most people will probably play single player games with the AI, which holds its own and behaves realistically enough.

The game interface puts most information right at your fingertips. Because of the removal of merchants/colonists/diplomats/missionaries/spies, there is room to put icons to access all of the displays on the main screen, making almost all of the information about your country one click away. All of the wonderful aspects of the Europa Universalis III interface (the outliner, alerts, diplomatic messages, descriptive tool-tips) are carried over to Europa Universalis: Rome, and a lot of aspects are even streamlined or overhauled to appear more appealing. National ideas are still here, although you are limited to three and each of the three should (or suffer a penalty) be in one of four categories (military, economic, civil, religious). The national ideas are more powerful (since you have less of them) and having nations “specialize” in certain areas is pretty cool. Just like before, the building blocks of your empire is the province. Each province will be run by a governor (an actual person you appoint…more on characters later) and have a number of attributes (culture, revolt risk, fortification level) in addition to improvements and a population divided into three categories (citizens, freemen, slaves) that determine research and income levels. A lot of the provinces in the game are unowned, instead settled by evil barbarians. In order to colonize them, you need to own an adjacent province with a militaristic governor and routinely patrol said province. This is a much more intuitive and realistic way of doing expansion, as colonization in Europa Universalis III was haphazard at best. Now, you expand out instead of randomly, and watching the red blob of Rome slowly creep its way across Europe is intimidating.

One area of the game that’s really gotten simplified is the economy. Before, you spent a lot of time tweaking your budget, setting sliders in a bunch of research areas while still bringing in money to purchase troops and buildings. Well, all of that is gone as the economy is automated. The only thing you can directly influence is military maintenance levels (which I recommend leaving at maximum due to barbarian attacks unless you are seriously strapped for cash); you will get income from taxation, trade, and tributes from peace treaties, while losing money from the aforementioned military maintenance and tributes. And that’s it. This is really great for new players as it removes the slider adjustments completely, letting you concentrate on more important matters. Trading is also a lot easier: you can set up trade routes within your countries or to foreign lands, if the provinces are connected by roads. These provide a permanent income: no need to constantly send merchants every two months (or auto-send them). Trading may also grant new unit types or other bonuses (population growth, for example). Sometimes you can't maximize your trade routes because you haven't researched roads yet (which happens late enough into the game), but you can still pull in a lot of money through trade alone. The income you get each month now can be used for new units or buildings without worrying about whether you should invest it in research or stability. Europa Universalis: Rome also removes yearly income that, quite honestly, should have just been incorporated into monthly income to begin with. I like the changes Europa Universalis: Rome makes to the economy: everything is much more intuitive.

The diplomatic options have been greatly streamlined. Now everything is easily accessible from a single place (it helps that there are far fewer countries this time around) and clicking on a country in a sortable list (alphabetical, relationship level, or diplomatic ties) bring up a menu of options: peace treaty, alliance, military access, tribute, trade access, supporting rebels, desecrate holy site, seduce governor, trade route, or assassinate (even a rival your own country). Most of these options are familiar, though it should be noted that allies aren’t automatically involved in wars as you must call them to arms. The diplomatic menu also has icons that show agreements (or disagreements) at a quick glance. Before Jesus took over Europe (by force), there were a number of religions in the area, all of them vying for pious dominance. Religion is used for three purposes: causes for war, sacrifices to increase stability, and invoking omens for short-term bonuses. This time around, stability is a simple monetary investment, as killing a pig seems to make everyone happy. Omens have a percentage chance of success (based on the dominance of the religious group) and they can provide year-long increases in trade, morale, population growth, research, popularity, and more. If omens are not successful, then you get a negative bonus in that particular area, so there is always a risk that prevents spamming omens. The manual says there is an alert when you can invoke an omen and there is a good chance of success, but I've had a 90% success rate and no reminders; with everything else that's going on in the game, a more reliable indicator would be much appreciated.

Military units and combat is essentially the same as before, though the units are more generic as there aren't nation-specific units that have small bonuses. Combat is still automated (no problem with that) and good leaders will make their troops fight more effectively. The most different aspect of Europa Universalis: Rome is the dynasty/character system, similar to the one employed in Crusader Kings (for those familiar with that Paradox game). There are characters with family trees (complete with parents, siblings, spouses, children, friends, and rivals) that will be employed by you in several positions. Each character is rated in three major areas: martial (military), charisma (diplomacy), and finesse (government and research). You will choose five characters that are highly rated in finesse to head your research in land, naval, civic, construction, and religious areas. Research is not a budgetary item anymore, as the speed of technological discoveries is dependent on the skill of your characters and the contributions of your population. You will also appoint governors to each of your provinces; they will alter the tax income rate and have other effects on their domain. One character will also be chosen for diplomatic missions. Each characters is also rated in popularity, loyalty, and corruptness, in addition to having a host of traits that are automatically applied to their overall ratings. The character system in Europa Universalis: Rome is very interesting and a neat little side-game that makes the game feel more personable. You will occasionally get head-strong rivals that you will need to deal with (sometimes they will lead a Civil War against you), replace dead or assassinated characters (the listing is automatically sorted according to which position you are looking at), and resorting everyone to maximize your empire. I would like a notice when a new person of high attributes becomes available, but people die often enough where you're not unaware of someone for too long. I'm glad that the economic aspects of Europa Universalis: Rome have been streamlined since the focus has been put on individuals. Everything else (events, culture, war exhaustion, combat, sieges, core provinces, revolts, casus belli, morale, attrition, the ledger, et cetera) is almost identical to Europa Universalis III, so I won’t bother repeating myself (though a cut-and-paste does seem tempting).

So, how is it? Well, I like the changes the developers have made to the Europa Universalis III formula. This game retains the overall feel of the previous entry in the series while introducing new or tweaked items to make the gameplay feel fresh. The economic aspects of the game have been greatly simplified without being trivial, removing the tedious nature of adjusting budget sliders. The inclusion of characters brings another neat aspect to the gameplay, and watching children develop, rivals become more dangerous, and corrupt governors steal your money is rewarding. Overall, the game is a lot more straightforward, but there is still enough to pass the time (especially with the larger nations). I'm glad that Europa Universalis: Rome isn't just a carbon copy of Europa Universalis III set in a different time period. All of the issues I have with Europa Universalis: Rome (objectives, the tutorial, less nations) are minor, so I certainly can't rate it worse than its predecessor. Europa Universalis: Rome is the same but different, keeping the best aspects of Europa Universalis III and adding new, interesting features that will appeal to new players and veterans alike.