Monday, December 13, 2010

Europa Universalis III: Divine Wind Review

Europa Universalis III: Divine Wind, developed and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Warring factions for Japan and China, streamlined buildings, small interface and graphical improvements, reduced trading range, better advisor limitations
The Not So Good: Lacks dramatic gameplay enhancements, horde nations really annoying, center of trade city list remains buried, lacks updated tutorials, native Americans and Africans ignored
What say you? A lot of minor features make this a can-miss expansion: 5/8

The game that will never die is back with yet another “final” expansion. Yes, you people simply cannot get enough of Europa Universalis III, the grand strategy game that lets you control any nation in the world from 1399 until 1820. After three expansions (one OK and two good), what could possibly be left to improve upon? Well, the ever-forgotten nations of China and Japan have always gotten short shift in the series, maybe because it’s called Europa Universalis instead of Asiopa Universalis. In any case, it’s time for more stuff to be added to an already complex game; the Paradox disciples wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m writing this review with the assumption that you’re familiar with Europa Universalis III and its first three expansions. If you are not, what are you doing reading a review of an expansion in the first place?

Europa Universalis III: Divine Wind is not without some graphical augmentations. First, the game incorporates a couple of additions seen in Victoria 2: the neat, stylized zoomed-out map and color-coded military unit strengths. In addition, there is a handy new peace interface that shows negotiated territory on the main map view (great for large, sprawling nations), additional alerts for blockades, and a single list of all potential modifier triggers. Divine Wind also adds some hints to the loading screens, although improved tutorials in the vein of Victoria 2 are not present (and, in fact, changes in the interfaces invalidate some tutorial screens). Still, it’s nice that graphical improvements seen in other games using the same engine have been carried over.

As you might expect from an expansion named Divine Wind, most of the focus is on the Orient. In addition to some new countries and provinces placed around the world, Japan and China are now split into several factions that compete for influence. In Japan, the most powerful Daimyo gets diplomatic options as the Shogun, while China’s three factions provide varied bonuses depending on who is in power the most (China also receives significant bonuses for staying at peace). While this new level of detail is nice for people who are playing either Japan or China, it rarely affects outsiders in a significant way. Essentially, it gives you a new level of internal struggle to worry about, much like the external struggles of the Holy Roman Empire or Papacy in Europe. It would have been nice to extend a similar system to the Native American or African tribes to make them more appealing and less cannon fodder for the incoming Europeans (dang it, I think I just gave them an idea for the next expansion). The horde nations have undergone a change as well, making them at war by default and money the only option for negotiations (translation: they are now really annoying). This makes the hordes behave more like organized rebels (for better or for worse, worse in my opinion), which I suppose is how they were in real life. In fact, you can’t take any of their territory before colonizing it first. While this alteration of the game rules makes use of colonists from land-locked countries that would otherwise have no use for them, it makes it twice as hard to defeat a horde: not only do you have to defeat them militarily, but you also have to plan out your attacks in advance and colonize the right provinces beforehand, which is an extremely tall task for the poorer nations common in the East. Hordes act as dangerous, unpredictable foes for neighboring civilized nations; whether that's necessarily fair or not can be debated.

To reduce both building spam (manic construction when a new tech level is reached) and decision spam (too many magistrates) in one fell swoop, a new production system has been implemented, a balance decision that I approve of. Buildings now require magistrates to start construction, and they have been reorganized in a progressive build order divided by technology (production, trade, government) and combined with some of the province decisions. Trade has been improved: you can now only trade at cities located within range of one of your provinces, resulting in more intense competition in Europe and a greater need for colonial expansion for merchant nations. This makes a whole lot more sense: just because Wurzburg knows about Timbuktu doesn’t mean they should be able to send merchants there. By the way, there should be one-button access to the center of trade list, instead of having to access the ledger, click on the economy tab, and go forward three pages; this is something that still hasn't been improved upon. Anyway, countries that own provinces in a center of trade are also given a compete chance bonus for that city, something I just assumed was in the game before now. You are also given bonuses for trading certain goods (like better ships if you trade naval supplies, for example) and the world leader in trade gets even more advantages. Finally, trade winds are more significant, directing European powers more towards their historical colonial realms (Spain and Portugal to South America, England and France northward).

Dragging your allies into war is made easier with the “call allies” button, which seems to occasionally produce larger conflicts on a global scale. Vassals have no choice, but other nations will not earn a stability hit if they join the fray during the first three months. Spheres of influence, a feature of Heir to the Throne, has expanded in importance: more nations in your sphere earns more magistrates and a higher diplomatic skill. Divine Wind also allows you to annex a junior member of a personal union after fifty years, which seems like a really long time to survive without a king or queen. As for the Holy Roman Empire, it is now more difficult to take over non-core territory inside the empire, to decrease the frequency of petty fights that usually erupt in the region. You can also demand the Emperor to rescind the last reform in a peace deal, if keeping the empire fractured is in your best interests.

Divine Wind only allows one advisor of each type, to decrease the one-sided bonuses players enjoyed before (so I have a lot of Master of Mints, what of it?). Cultural tradition also decays, which reduces the spamming of high-quality advisors (you could almost always simply recruit really good people in Heir to the Throne) prevalent in previous games. Other minor improvements include rebels that fight each other, rebalanced prestige, additional missions and events, improved AI, and support for future Paradox Connect achievements. I should also note that the game crashes every time I exit (requiring me to open task manager and go to the error message), which isn't terribly annoying since I was leaving anyway. As a whole, I like the improvements made in Divine Wind: controlling China and Japan is more interesting, buildings are organized better, and advisors and trade are less “gamey”. But it does not offer the comprehensive changes needed for a full expansion, and there are some more (admittedly minor) areas in need of further improvement.

Each Europa Universalis III expansion has had a “killer app”: Napoleon’s Ambition had auto-merchants, In Nomine had missions, and Heir to the Throne had war goals. I fail to find something that dramatic in Divine Wind, and that makes it an optional expansion for all but the most dedicated fans (which includes me, actually). There are a large number of small enhancements: more options for Japan and China, horde nations constantly at war, better use of magistrates, and more historical colonization. Better diplomatic options are also included: calling allies to war, enhanced spheres of influence, and more choices for the holiest of Roman empires. In addition, there are interface and map enhancements borrowed from Victoria 2 to make the game look better. Still, the content is somewhere between a patch and an expansion, and with continuing annoyances like the center of trade list and lack of attention paid to other regions of the world, $20 is a bit steep in my opinion ($10 would have been more reasonable). Divine Wind serves as pretty good evidence that Europa Universalis III has run its course and the series is out of significant ideas for new additions that would dramatically accentuate the gameplay.