Thursday, June 12, 2008

Europa Universalis III: In Nomine Review

Europa Universalis III: In Nomine, developed and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Missions are mostly fantastic, rebels have an agenda and are quite dangerous, improved AI, revamped religion, new advisors, expanded timeline, manually triggered events, improved colonization, changes to make combat less frustrating
The Not So Good: Combat missions typically target questionable provinces with no justification, tutorials are broken, no graphical enhancements, new ideas are generic and don’t fit game enhancements, removal of zero morale troops can cause a large portion of your army to disappear instantaneously
What say you? Substantial improvements for an expansion: 7/8

Gone are the days of the meager expansion pack that only adds a couple of new units and a new map (well, for the most part). With quality expansions for games like Galactic Civilizations, the bar certainly has been raised. Europa Universalis is back with the second expansion to its third game, entitled In Nomine (Latin for “In Nomine”). While the last expansion was just OK, offering up automated merchants and an expanded timeline, Europa Universalis III: In Nomine (using the full title makes the review longer) focuses on missions and an expanded timeline. Will these new features be enough?

One area that certainly did not get many improvements is the graphics. The game looks exactly the same as it did a year and a half ago. Europa Universalis III: In Nomine does not incorporate any of the graphical improvements from Europa Universalis: Rome, such as a more detailed map or ability to tilt your view. In Nomine does include more detailed tool-tips (always a strong point of the franchise), however. The sound is the same as well. Not much to report here, so on with the countdown!

Whereas Napoleon’s Ambition added 28 years to the end of the original timeline, In Nomine appends 53 additional years to the beginning, starting in 1399 with the coronation of King Henry IV. So now, you can control your country for 420 years, which is not too shabby. Accompanying the extra years are more countries, such as a united Scandinavia and Galicia (which has a neat flag). The base map has 30 more provinces as well, to add more detail in Europe. Despite having a host of gameplay upgrades, the tutorials have not been updated and actually don’t even run at all. Clicking in the “colonization” tutorial not only doesn’t tell you the new rules for establishing colonies, it stays at a loading screen permanently! I guess the developers figured that if you were playing an expansion you were familiar with the game, but it would be nice to see the additions made in the two expansions without having the read the manual.

One thing I've complained about in Europa Universalis III is the lack of direction when leading your country. Well, that's all in the past thanks to the new semi-random, optional mission system. There are now seventy categories of goals you get be assigned, from building forts to conquering provinces to accumulating money. While having a sandbox in which to play is nice, having a short-term objective is also nice, and the missions provide good direction for both the human and (especially the) AI players. The conquest missions are odd, though: they can target provinces and countries that have good relations, lack a casus belli, and aren’t core to your empire. This makes little to no sense most of the time, but rest of the missions are cool. If you don’t like your current mission, you can cancel it for a prestige hit and get a new one. The bonuses for completing missions aren’t overly dramatic, but they can add up in the long-term. Speaking of prestige, it now has a larger impact on gameplay, where before it was really just there for scorekeeping purposes. Now, a large array of attributes (stability, morale, diplomacy, trade) is positively and negatively affected by your current prestige level, and things can spiral out of control quickly in the event of a poor war.

While Europa Universalis III always had a large suite of nation-specific and general events, the decision system of In Nomine lets you customize your country even further. These are manually triggered events that can be activated once you fulfill certain objectives, such as forming a new nation or passing a militia act. While some of these decisions are all-positive, most have a balance (like increased taxation for increased rebel chance). These can be done at the country level or for individual provinces, in addition to being religious-related. Religion as a whole has gotten better by actually being simplified. First, the papal controller can invoke a crusade, and the pope can excommunicate leaders of nations, for some additional things to do if you are in charge of the pope. Instead of having sliders you can adjust so that any neighboring religions are tolerated, religious groups are now set into one of three categories: state religion (positive), heretics (slightly negative), and heathen (really negative). You can alter your religion and tolerances somewhat through decisions, but this less flexible method really works better. Missionaries are also revamped: instead of spending a whole bunch of money for a 20% chance of success, you devote a portion of your budget to missionary work that will be permanent until it works, whether its 6 months or 10 years later. Colonization works in much the same way: use a budget slider and colonies will grow by themselves over time without sending additional colonists (although that will produce a short burst of population). Also, income is now directly dependent on the strength of your navy, in an abstraction of real life.

In Nomine comes with five new ideas that are generic at best. Rather than fitting the new enhancements (like granting less of a prestige hit for declining a mission, for example), they are fairly standard bonuses like cheaper ships and better spy defense. It is disappointing that the national ideas don’t take advantage of the new game rules. On a more positive note, combat has gotten some changes: war exhaustion doesn’t always occur, reduced reinforcement in enemy territory and mercenaries never reinforce, failed assaults recover morale for the garrison, and movement progress is not canceled if you change your destination. To reduce the dreaded ping-pong effect, zero morale troops are removed completely during battle. While this is certainly an effective method, having thousands of troops simply disappear can be quite annoying; perhaps a better solution would be to force them to return home and stay there for the duration of the war, instead of losing all of that invested time and money. Also on the combat front are the much more dangerous rebels. Not only do rebels have a goal (anti-tax, nationalist, colonial, religious, revolutionary), but letting rebels successfully siege a province results in a very nasty penalty. No longer simply a nuisance, rebels must be dealt with swiftly and rebellious provinces must be constantly patrolled. This goes for pirates as well, and to combat this problem is the inclusion of ship patrols: pick a destination and your fleet will sail between their current location and said destination forever, keeping the threat of those dreaded pirates down.

The diplomatic aspects of Europa Universalis III have also gotten tweaked for In Nomine. First, you can see if the AI will accept a peace treaty before you send the offer; this saves both time and wasted diplomats. In addition, countries now have rivals (which ties directly into future breakouts) and alliances are shown on the “declare war” screen so that you can gauge how much opposition you will face. Also, espionage has gotten a new action (infiltrate administration) and changing policy sliders doesn’t come with a stability hit. As for trade, merchant costs are now affected by cultural differences and distance and each center of trade where you have a merchant decreases your overall compete chance, so concentrating on a select few trade province with which you have good relations will result in more straight cash, homey. This results in a much more realistic trading economy, where nations (gasp!) actually trade near their location instead of halfway around the globe.

In Nomine introduces a number of new advisor types that affect mercenary cost, land tradition, morale, force limit, discipline, reinforcement speed, manpower, defensiveness, range, blockades, taxes, revolt risk, production, trade, inflation, loans, colonial growth, spy defense, and diplomacy. This amount of variety lets you customize your overall national strategy even more. Tying up the loose ends, In Nomine gives more options in the Holy Roman Empire (the leader can engage attackers of member nations), additional election events, and improved AI in several areas. Overall, Europa Universalis III: In Nomine has a better historical, yet still plausibly random, feel than its predecessors. Almost all of the changes contained herein are for the better and promote deeper gameplay without becoming overwhelming, as each added component comes with alerts at the top of the screen to remind you of actions you can take. In Nomine continues the satisfying strategic gameplay of the Europa Universalis series while adding even more customization options that allow you to lead your nation in the right direction.

This is a pretty long review for an expansion pack, so that alone should tell you the amount of game-enhancing content contained in Europa Universalis III: In Nomine. While nothing here drastically alters the gameplay like Twilight of the Arnor for Galactic Civilzations II (the best expansion I've ever reviewed), almost of the improvements are quality additions. Let’s get the disappointments out of the way first: combat missions can be weird, the tutorials are not functional, new ideas are bland, and the graphics remain the same. But look at all these wonderful, pretty things: missions, rebels, religion, colonization, decisions, combat, AI! Oh my! All of this for $20 is quite a steal, I think. You do have to get the much less impressive Napoleon’s Ambition to enjoy In Nomine, but $60 for the all three games (the original, plus the two expansions) is still a good price point (I forsee an EU3 bundle pack in the near future). Simply put, if you play enough Europa Universalis III, you need to get In Nomine.