Friday, August 13, 2010

Victoria II Review

Victoria II, developed and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Extremely detailed simulation of population dynamics, interesting diplomatic positioning between Great Powers, lots of goods to produce and trade, varied political and social reforms to implement, military size restricted by population groups, specific goals for wars, unpredictable events, decent tutorials, multiplayer, nice graphics for the genre
The Not So Good: No missions or advisors to assist with development and decisions, capitalists build unprofitable factories without your consent, trade too dynamic to do manually, production chains not obvious enough, limited diplomatic options for non-Great Powers, uninteresting political features for stable conservative governments, sporadic research decisions, migration of population groups has no direct user input, only one scenario
What say you? Significant automation with only subtle manual adjustments makes for limited interaction in this grand strategy sequel: 5/8

One of the more niche extensions of personal favorite Europa Universalis was Victoria, a game that spanned from 1836 to 1920 and addressed the internal changes that countries experienced during that time period. Despite ominous warnings from the CEO, Victoria II has been anointed as the next title in the pantheon of Paradox grand strategy games. Since this time period is not notable for colonization or warfare, it could be considered boring or dull; will the economic and population models be able to hold our attention?

Victoria II is a visually impressive iteration of Paradox’s 3-D engine for grand strategy games. It’s the best looking game they’ve made (not surprising), starting with a detailed game map with excellent textures. It even reverts to a cool retro-style political map when zoomed out: impressive. The interface is clean and easy enough to read, and the units look nice with accurate models and animations. People don’t usually purchase grand strategy games for the eye candy, but Victoria II delivers. The sound is appropriate for the genre, featuring notifications during events and fine, period-specific background music. The presentation is one area where Victoria II does not slouch.

In Victoria II, you control any country in the world for one hundred years, from 1836 (15 years after Europa Universalis III ends) to 1935 (when Hearts of Iron 3 begins). There is only one campaign encompassing the entire time period; I guess the developers didn’t want to spend the time figuring out who owned everything like they did for Europa Universalis (can you say “expansion”?). The detailed game map features realistic terrain and weather that affects military operations, in addition to appropriate goods produced in each province. You can improve each province by adding better forts, ports, and rail service. Designating a province your national focus will persuade citizens to align to a population group of your choosing, or favor certain kinds of production. The tutorials are good, offering basic, intermediate, and advanced interactive coverage of each aspect of the game. They are short but numerous (25), and the game prompts you as to which tutorial you’d like next. Victoria II, like previous Paradox grand strategy games, also features multiplayer for those who are interested in that sort of thing and modding support for those who are interested in that sort of thing. I have experienced a couple of minor bugs while playing: a huge negative balance the first couple days after a saved game load, a black flickering of the screen followed by a lack of sound, and this friendly warning message every time I start up the game. None of these prevent me from playing the game, but they should be noted.

The interface is an enhanced version of what’s been used in previous Paradox titles. The best aspect is the information bar, which spans the top of the screen and grants one-click access to all of the game’s screens (production, budget, technology, politics, population, trade, diplomacy, and military) and pertinent information at a single glance: pretty great. I like all the little icons used in the information bar, but all the screens cover up the entire map. The outliner makes a welcome return, providing information about hotspots scattered around your territory, and flag alerts offer an icon-based alternative to the running text display. Tool-tips are also extensive as always. If it weren’t for the full-screen displays, the interface for Victoria II would be completely excellent instead of mostly excellent.

Victoria was most known for the people: all of your citizens are classified into one of twelve groups, from soldiers to laborers to craftsmen to bureaucrats to artisans. Victoria II does a great job comprehensively tracking all of these individuals: employment, access to goods, political issues, nationality, religion, income, and literacy. Individuals will move between classes if properly motivated by jobs or money; this is an automated process in Victoria II, doing away with needless clicking. Your job is to keep your population happy, and I found it easy to meet the needs of the people: just keep their taxes low enough so that they can afford life, everyday, and luxury goods. The pie charts make it easy to figure out where the balance point is, and automated trade will always bring in enough goods for everyone. Your interaction with this very detailed system is limited and indirect. Yes, manually moving people between population groups was extremely tedious and annoying, but the developers might have gone too far into automation. You can use your funding levels and national foci to persuade people into more favorable groups, but the lack of direct interaction means you can ignore the population detail and still play effectively.

Victoria II features six political groupings your population can be a part of: reactionary, conservative, socialist, communist, fascist, liberal, and anarchist (most likely in the UK). Your country will typically have three main parties (sometimes more), one for each of the three most popular groupings. Depending on your political system (dictatorship, monarchy, constitutional monarchy, democracy), you can choose (or the voters will) which one will be in power; the political party in charge determines stances on some policies (trade, religion, war) and what you are allowed to do (like build factories yourself, for example). Most of the work in politics will deal with social and political issues, fourteen areas where you can tweak how your nation operates. Citizens will have their preferences for different policies based on events and political party, so you’ll have to alter the minimum wage, pensions, slavery, unions, and voting policies every once in a while. You can’t enact reforms unless there is high demand in your Upper House (determined by militancy and consciousness, which seem to be most affected by events) or you run a liberal democracy hungry for change. If you have fulfilled the daily needs of your population and have a homogeneous culture (and aren't subject to pre-scripted events), there won't be much need to change. Despite the availability of reforms, you’ll never have to worry about politics on a yearly basis.

Much more interesting is diplomacy, at least if you are one of the eight Great Powers. Those eight nations are determined by prestige, industry, and military ratings; the benefit of being a Great Power is the ability to have a sphere of influence, where subordinate minor nations trade internally and behave nicer with the man (or woman) in charge. The top sixteen are the only nations that can colonize, a process involving spending national focus points and sending your military to gain control of a region. The interface makes it fairly easy to find other nations, as you can sort by relations, influence levels, and filter by geographic area. Diplomatic options are comprehensive: alliances, military access, war subsidies, and changing your numerical relations or opinions of other nations. You can assign priority levels to any nation, and slowly influence will increase, allowing you to add nations to your spehere of influence or inhibit others from doing the same. It's difficult to switch a nation from one sphere to another (you use up all of your influence points adding or removing nations), but the few neutral nations are up for grabs. I did have some entertaining diplomatic battles for control over several nations, and since there isn't much else to personally deal with, you can concentrate on the diplomacy. The game gives you so many diplomatic points (one per month by default) that you can drastically improve relations with another nation in half a year: pretty unrealistic in my opinion. Still, jockeying for the favor of minor nations and expanding your sphere of influence (which affects your prestige) while decreasing those of others is fun, if a bit tedious and repetitive. Victoria II adapts the specific casus belli introduced in Heir to the Throne, letting you set specific goals before conflict starts, like gaining territory, money, prestige, or releasing nations. I had significantly less casus belli at my disposal in Victoria II than Heir to the Throne (likely due to the lower frequency of conflict during the time period), which obviously leads to fewer global conflicts. To counter this, the infamy hits for declaring "minor" wars for prestige are small, making them more palatable. You can add more war goals during a war if you are feeling extra spicy. Be careful not to increase your infamy too much by requesting inappropriate demands during peace negotiations, or the world's ire will descend on you.

The size of your military is dependent on the number of people in the “soldier” population group: a nice mechanic. You order new units in a province that has those soldiers and then move them around the map for world domination. There is a number (and that number is “eleven”) of period-appropriate units to recruit, from infantry to dragoons and tanks. Nine more options are on the naval side (no, not navel) of the equation, including the man-of-war and ironclad. Leaders are recruited over time (instead of costing money, which always seemed to be a bit weird) and can be assigned automatically to waiting units. Combat in Victoria II is automated, using the various bonuses that it uses.

Let’s talk money. Each of your provinces produces one item, a raw material that can be used to manufacture better, more expensive items, or traded on the world market to reap a nice profit. Factories can be built to make additional goods (if you don’t have the prerequisite goods to produce a product, it can be imported), or the artisan population class will make some stuff on their own, although obviously not as quickly as large machines. Factories are grouped by region instead of province, making it easier to manage your industry. Unfortunately, production in Victoria II has several problems. First, the resource chains are well hidden. For example, a province in my country makes lots of fruit. Great, so show me (by, say, clicking on the “fruit” icon) what factories I can build to take advantage of this. Instead, you have to stare at tiny icons in a gigantic list of possible factory types and figure it out manually. In addition, you sometimes can’t decide which specific factories to build (depending on your political party (in fact, most political parties give most of the power to the capitalists)): capitalists fill up your available factory slots with things that won’t make money and don’t take advantage of the goods your country produces domestically. This means you’ll have to spend a part of your budget subsidizing these idiotic factories to keep your craftsmen employed. A much better method would have been to let you choose the factories manually in all government types but have the capitalists fund the projects; this would have allowed for player input instead of boring automation. You can choose which factories to upgrade, but this is an insignificant consolation prize. Trade is too complex to do manually: it's commendable that Victoria II includes over forty goods to trade, but that's way too much supply and demand to keep track of on a day-to-day basis. At least here the AI does a nice job getting stuff for your nation, but you always wonder whether the computer is doing the best job trading your precious resources. You never have to access the trade interface, giving you one less thing to do in the game.

It’s fairly easy to make a monthly profit in most nations. All you have to do is keep your taxes low enough to make sure all your poor, middle, and rich population groups have enough money left over to purchase goods, and I usually have more than enough spare change to fund education, administration, social reforms, and the military well enough. The most sprawling or poor nations (Russia comes to mind as problematic) require more adjustments to get things balanced, and it does take some initial setup time, but most people will be able to find a modest positive balance and stay there until the next social policy is implemented. Those who enjoy micromanagement will probably tweak the budget more often than I did (to always maintain the same balance), but there's no need to. There are frequent fluctuations because of stockpiling and trade, but overall you usually don't need loans. Loans are kind of cool: excess money left over from your population groups is invested into the national bank, which will grant loans to other countries. Like a lot of Victoria II, the budget requires initial adjustments and minor changes thereafter.

Research offers access to twenty-five techs at a time (which can be intimidating), spread across five fields of study: army, navy, commerce, culture, and industry. Pick a tech, and eventually it will get researched, the speed of which depends on various attributes of your nation. The bonuses provided are usually small, and it can take a while to figure out which one to pick next as you scour the tool-tips. It can take several years (three to four) to research a new tech, so it's a set-and-forget type of operation.

The AI seems to be competent, as I did not experience any exotic wars and it leads the top countries well in diplomatic and domestic affairs. The AI seems to know how to play, but new players might be at a loss as to what to do next, as Victoria II lacks advisors and it doesn’t have missions to guide your way. There are semi-random events that can throw a curveball your way (which can be annoying in their persistence: yes, I get it, I have cholera in my country), but for the most part you’ll be making minor tweaks while avoiding militancy and rebels. Speaking of rebels, they are really annoying (I guess that's kind of the point), constantly popping up when provoked and requiring constant military shifting to deal with them. You really need to keep militancy low (sometimes impossible due to events) so you don't have to deal with them. The amount of automation may feel like you don't have enough to. The time period of Victoria II wasn’t big on large wars (except for one, of course), so neither is the game; warmongers shall be disappointed. I don’t mind automation, but things take such a long time to complete (factories, improvements, research, reform) or don’t require much, if any, intervention at all (budget, trade, population); you spend a lot of time just staring at the screen watching numbers fly by waiting for the next diplomatic action or rebel uprising. If you are not a Great Power, there can be years with nothing to do: production is determined by the capitalists, budget is set, research is set, can't enact any reforms, can't affect the population, trade is automated, and the military is standing by. Things pick up when conflict starts, either from within or internationally, but for a majority of the time Victoria II is, dare I say, boring. While the game lets you play as any country in the world, the game is best when played as one of the eight Great Powers; anything less borders on monotony. I guess it’s time to wait for the inevitable expansion to breathe some more life into this title.

Victoria II is about influencing your population through laws, taxes, trade, and diplomacy. Unfortunately, the influence mostly comes indirectly through your actions, so it can feel like the game is playing itself most of the time. Production is automated by your capitalists under certain political situations, population types are automated, trade has to be automated, and reform and research only require occasional input. So what are you left to do? Diplomacy for one, which is interesting if you are playing one of the eight Great Powers and have access to influence. You'll spend most of your time in Victoria II trying to stay (or get in to) the top eight Great Powers through the diplomatic influence of other nations. The game does have war goals and more directed casus belli (a feature from the EU series) to give wars some flavor. Managing your military is accessible, and the size of which is determined by your population dynamics. The budget is fairly easy to balance, although there are extreme daily changes due to automated trade. Victoria II features only one campaign, but does have nice tutorials and multiplayer. New players, though, will be without guidance from advisors or missions, left to their own devices during the march through one hundred years of history. The interface is neatly organized and accessible but the informational screens obscure the game map. Production is disappointing: capitalists queuing up the wrong factories, cloudy relationships between goods, and the inability to take control of trade due to severe daily fluctuations in needs. Dumb AI-build factories can cripple your economy and there's little you can do about it. Stupid capitalists. On the bright side, the AI seems competent and active, events inject a needed amount of randomness, and the graphics look nice.

Still, Victoria II involves a lot of minor tweaking without many significant events for most countries, and the slow pace of most improvements (factories, research) makes the game boring to play more often than not. As a Great Power, I spent most of my time in diplomacy, some time with the military, and hardly any time with production, budget, technology, politics, population, and trade. I left the trade and population totally automated (my capitalists had near full control of my production as well), while the budget and research only needed minor changes every three to five years. As a second tier power, your diplomatic options are greatly reduced, subsequently giving you even less to do in the game. It's important to strike a balance between giving the user enough to do and not giving them too much to do, and Victoria II doesn't quite get this balance right. The sheer amount of automation, whether mandatory or required, makes it so that you watch Victoria II more than you actually play it.