The game lets you take the helm of any country in the world from 1444 to 1820. Country-specific ideas, events, and bonuses make them play differently, producing varied experiences throughout the game’s long history. You can now join multiplayer games in progress, allowing you to jump in and out of simulations of the globe at your leisure; connection issues when attempting to join a server put a damper on the exciting possibilities. The game is also multi-platform (Windows, Mac, Linux) at release.
The interface has been streamlined, linking related tasks on the same display and providing easier access to all of the game mechanics. Highlights include a useful construction mode for units and buildings, increased information on each display, automatic trade patrols, and help for combating problematic provinces. The game also includes a decent, though not nearly comprehensive, tutorial and a contextual hint system for learning the various buttons and icons. A very interesting addition is power: you spend administrative, diplomatic, and military points, earned by your leader and advisors, to unlock national ideas, research new technologies, construct buildings, increase stability, combat inflation, or recruit military leaders, to name a few. The quality of your king or queen significantly impacts the amount of power you receive, and consequently can stunt (or accelerate) technological and ideological growth. The system makes for intriguing decisions on where to use your limited points: should you spend it on new cores provinces, or buildings, or technologies, or something else? This type of meaningful flexibility is fantastic.
Merchants, diplomats, colonists, and missionaries are now actual named characters that are given missions (steer trade, improve relations, enhance colony growth, convert) and must be managed. Europa Universalis IV gives you lots of missions to achieve that serve as guidance through the era, in addition to national decisions and numerous buildings to improve the attributes of your nation. The economy has been streamlined to feature only monthly budgets and less crippling loans, which makes managing money easier.
The trade system has been overhauled to feature trade nodes (similar to the old centers of trade) and routes that distribute goods around the nodes. You can assign merchants to either collect trade income at a specific node, or direct trade from adjacent nodes towards the one you would profit from the most. While I prefer this innovative system over the old one, once you set up your merchants, there is little need to pay attention to trade.
Gaining a new level of technology requires a significant investment of power points, requiring careful management of those resources. The national ideas also require power, and they are divided into groups (religious, trade, exploration, defensive) and then each group is unlocked in order over time. Unlocking generic ideas will also unlock country-specific ideas that will further guide your country.
Diplomacy is a two-way street (as in Crusader Kings 2) in terms of relationship values: you can like them, but they don’t have to like you back (just like real life!). More diplomatic options are present this time around: temporary coalitions against a single target, rivals for your nation, aggressive expansion penalties, basing your fleet in friendly nations, enforcing peace between nations, and all of the old spy actions (fabricating claims and the like). You are limited in the number of diplomatic agreements you can have at one time, so one cannot simply ally and marry every nearby nation simultaneously. An overextension rating prevents large countries by causing frequent revolts, negated by forming new core provinces (which costs administrative power). Rebels can also spawn due to religious (remedied by sending missionaries) or cultural (remedied by spending diplomatic power) differences.
Combat is largely the same, although defeated armies with low morale now retreat several provinces and must remain stationary while morale recovers. This, along with slower reinforcements, produces shorter and more satisfying wars. While different religious groups get some different attributes, the differences are small and religion plays a small part in the game (usually as an excuse to go to war). The AI plays the game well enough to produce an unpredictable, plausible alternate history, although more capable opponents are online. Underwhelming religion, generally hands-off trade, and occasionally functional multiplayer aside, Europa Universalis IV streamlines parts of the game without sacrificing depth, creating a more accessible and ultimately more enjoyable grand strategy title.