Europa Universalis IV Review
Europa Universalis IV Review
Review - posted by Whisky on Wed 16 October 2013, 14:03:03Tags: Europa Universalis IV; Paradox Interactive; Tacticular Cancer
Europa Universalis is a series of strategy games allowing to play as any nation in the world during the period of the early modernity, from the year 1444 all the way to 1821. Its broad, so called grand-strategic approach to gameplay covers religious matters, colonization, diplomacy, warfare, trade and domestic matters. With the recently published Europa Universalis IV, the series got their fourth installation, promising a much improved gameplay experience in comparison to the earlier titles, with new introductions such as leadership points bringing drastic changes to the old design formula.
Europa Universalis IV (hereafter abbreviated EUIV) is a grand strategy game covering the whole period from 1444 to 1821, a time scholars have come to call the early modernity. The game advances in real-time, but the speed is adjustable and an additional pause function is available to make it easier to keep control of your country in tricky situations. During the timeframe of the game, the player can play every country in existence during that time. Countries are differentiated by religion, form of government, the primary national culture and the culture group they belong to, which influences, usually in a negative way, the research speed and the available leadership points. Because of this, European countries, while having a similar starting position like non-European ones, will gradually become the most advanced nations, dominating global trade, colonization and warfare. This is, in a nutshell, the meaning of the term Europa Universalis.
The game plays out on a map of the world, which is partitioned into a large number of land and sea provinces. Sea provinces basically only serve as obstacles for movement, while land provinces serve to delineate territories and nations. Control of a province provides income, trade power and manpower for the military. Every province also has a specific provincial religion and culture, which often limits how much you can exploit the resources of the province. However, both religion and culture can be changed, if you are willing to pay the price to do so.
The GUI consists of the game map and a number of menus for different aspects of the game, such as military matters, research and diplomatic relations. It is usually quite straightforward and easy to use, but due to the sheer amount of information it can sometimes appear to be quite cluttered. The game also tries to offer the player a maximum of transparency, explaining the effects of a decision or new technology with detailed tooltips. This, while being certainly well-intentioned, adds to the sometimes confusing design of the GUI.
Technically, the game uses the same engine that was already employed – and introduced – with its direct predecessor, EUIII. However, in comparison with EUIII, the engine has been significantly improved in stability and performance, leading to very quick loading times and very few noticeable lags ingame. Lags seem to occur primarily during auto-saving (as in EUIII), and seem to occur more frequently while playing in ironman mode. This mode is a new addition, and offers a new challenge by drastically limiting the number of available savegame slots to 1. However, this gameplay mode can only be used while being logged in to the Steam service. The same applies to the multiplayer mode. Also, achievements (if one cares about those) are also only awarded while using Steam.
The soundtrack is very similar to the soundtrack of EU III, and fits to the game and the era it depicts. If it gets too repetitive, it can be turned off without problems in the game options.
The Role of Kings
In previous EU games, money has always been the most important resource. With money, you could buy and maintain armies, invest in technology and even improve your domestic stability, making it the most important factor in the well-being and advancement of your nation. In EUIV, money is of course still present, and still used for paying your soldiers, advisors and buildings. However, technology and many other domestic matters are not influenced by money anymore. Instead, this role is now fulfilled by the new leadership points, which are for the most part derived from the ability of your ruler in the three areas of diplomacy, administration and military. Each month, you will get a small amount of those points, and when you have accumulated enough, you can spend it to unlock new technologies, improve your internal stability or convert the culture of a culturally alien province to your national culture.
With this mechanic, the game always maintains the distinction of the three mentioned areas. You can only have three active advisors, one in each category. You can only research three technologies at a time, again one in each category. While this works quite well and makes the game arguably more balanced for very big or very poor nations, it also feels very artificial and mechanical. Added to this are some highly arbitrary choices for the allocation of gameplay elements to these three category, such as the association of naval matters with diplomacy instead of the military. It should also be noted that while the skill of your ruler affect those leadership points, it does have little direct effect on other gameplay elements. Things like the possible number of diplomatic relationships or the limit of your land forces are only influenced by your national ideas, not by your ruler’s skill.
These ideas form another area which has seen a drastic reworking in comparison with the earlier games. In EUIV, idea groups largely fulfill the role of the domestic sliders present in the previous games. They include a wide range of aspects, ranging from administrative ideas over exploration to an offensive focus for your nation’s military forces. In contrast to the sliders of the earlier games, they only convey a bonus to the player, and when unlocking all the ideas of an idea group you get a rather hefty additional bonus on top of the boni of the individual ideas of the group. Like technology, idea groups are separated into diplomatic, administrative and military idea groups, and to advance your understanding in a given group, you have to invest the corresponding leadership points. This means that you often find yourself in a situation where you have to decide whether to spend your precious leadership on cutting-edge technologies or rather on some new ideas. This is a nice design idea and makes the concept of leadership points more interesting. At the same time, the ability to spend leadership points to affect many game parameters makes the game sometimes a little bit too easy for experienced players.
A last point of note regarding ideas is the new addition of national traditions. These are a sort of special national ideas, which convey often unique boni to your nation. To unlock those, you cannot spend leadership points directly, rather, they are automatically unlocked once you unlocked a number of the ideas available to all countries. This is a pretty strange mechanic, and seems to be intended as an additional reward for investing into ideas. With these national traditions, Paradox also tries to make individual nations more distinct and interesting. However, smaller nations often have the same traditions, which works a little bit against this intention.
With ideas and national traditions having taken over much of the role of domestic sliders and national events, the remaining events have been reduced in number and effects. The general events of EUIII, covering policies and regulations like the standardization of weights or the admission of lay priests, are still present and available for most countries. Specific national events are for the most part gone, with the exception of events that allow to form new countries. An example for such an event is the option to form the Indian-based Mughal Empire as the Timurids.
With the early modernity being the age of European expansion, expansion plays a huge role in EUIV. There are three main directions of expansion: Warfare, trade and colonization.
Warfare went through a number of important developments during this time. First, the old medieval scheme of raised vassal levies got replaced by mercenary bands with often quickly changing loyalties. Later, the first professional standing armies were created, and the musket more and more replaced the halberd and other forms of melee weaponry. In the last decades of the game era, nations began to experiment with total mobilization and officer corps where ranks were awarded according to merit and not according to noble background. Thus, the warfare of those times saw a lot of development and has a huge potential for interesting mechanics. However, sadly, warfare is currently the weakest point of the game. In principle, warfare is done by simply ordering troops or ships into another province. If hostile forces are present there as well, a battle will occur. The course of these battles are influenced by a number of factors, such as morale, discipline, tactics and terrain. The loosing force will either be completely annihilated, especially if its size is much smaller than the opposing force, or auto-retreat into a safe province to recover. This can mean to retreat into a province on the other side of your empire, which is rather weird to watch. However, this means that a defeated force can often recover and later participate in the war again, which avoids much of the ping-ponging seen in EUIII and mitigates the effects of a defeat somewhat. On the other hand, this new mechanic means that manpower reserves play a huge role in the standing power of a nation. As long as you still have manpower left, you can nearly always recover from a defeat and bring back your force to full strength, able to engage the enemy again as if nothing had happened. This leads to very long wars, especially in the later stages of the game. This problem is also reinforced by the fact that warscore, the score determining the winner of a war, rises rather slowly through battles alone. If you want to get an edge in warscore, you have to capture provinces of your enemy. This is done via sieging. If you have enough troops in a hostile province, meaning more men than the defenders, you have to wait for some time until the enemy garrison surrenders the province to you. If you have a very high morale and achieved a breach in the fortifications, you can also order an assault, which will speed up things but exponentially increase your losses. For a defender, the only viable way to stop a siege is to send a relief force, otherwise you will almost certain loose the province after some time. All in all, this warfare model has little to do with the historical realities and offers not much of a challenge. It would be good to see a major rebalancing or reworking of the combat mechanics in one of the almost-certain future expansions of the game.
Trade is another aspect which has seen an overhaul in EUIV. Instead of the trade centers of old, the trading game now is all about trade routes and trade nodes. These trade routes loosely follow historical trade routes, allowing the recreation of the silk road or the route around Africa. Instead of only collecting money, merchants can now also be used to steer the flow of trade into a desired direction, often your main collection point in your home territory. However, to make effective use of merchants, you need to have a certain trade power in the area. This in turn requires the ownership of provinces, which necessitates expansion even as a primarily trade-oriented country. Ownership over provinces is gained through two ways, conquest or colonization.
This colonization works through the sending of colonists. They automatically increase the size of the colony over time, until it grows self-sustaining when reaching a population of 1,000 settlers. Until this is achieved, the colonist cannot be used to create another colony and you have to pay some upkeep for the expenses of the growing colony. Like in EUIII, the trade good of a colony is randomly chosen from a list of trade goods historically produced in the area. This means that you have to wait for some time and invest resources until you can finally find out if your colony produces a valuable colonial trading good like tobacco or spices. This makes the colonial game quite interesting and reflect the uncertainty inherent in the colonial endeavours of the era. However, in the present version of the game, the supply and demand for some goods does not yet work as intended, limiting the value of some colonial goods. Here, some patching and balancing is still necessary.
Last but not least, the game also allows to set forth on a campaign to spread your state religion to other countries, unite the faithful under one banner or combat heresies in your own territories. For this end, the game offers a lot of religious actions, with each religion having its unique set. The choice for muslim nations to decide between higher piety, and thus stronger missionaries, and a more worldly rule encouraging inventions and culture is a particularly interesting mechanic in this context.
Habsburg and Valois
With so many countries to play, even in multiplayer many countries will inevitably be played by the AI. From my experience, the AI usually does a fairly good job at this. You will often find yourself as the target of a coalition of your neighbors if you expand too much and too fast. The AI is also capable of forming rather formidable alliances and performs well in land-based combat. However, it seems to have problems when fighting wars in overseas provinces or provinces only reachable by ship. England, which starts the game at war with France, is particularly affected by this problem. England often looses her entire army in the very beginning of the campaign and is then unable to rebuild its forces, which usually triggers declarations of war by Scotland and the Irish micro-states, who can then easily reap the spoils of England’s weakness. Sometimes this initial blows are so severe that England cannot recover anymore and will slowly be eaten away by the resurgent Scotland. While this is arguably an interesting what-if scenario, it is a problematic insofar as it is caused by issues of the English AI. Here, the game’s AI is definitely in need of some improvements.
The numerous available states also bring along a rather complex and exhaustive diplomatic system. It covers many diplomatic instruments such as alliances, royal marriages, guarantees, military access rights and more. It is also used to conduct espionage missions, which are primarily used to forge claims on rival territories. This method is very frequently used by the AI, and leads to frequents wars and shifting alliances. One of the stranger things in the game is a limit on the number of diplomatic relations you can maintain at a given time. This is likely intended to restrict the size of alliances and avoid the cascading of alliances seen in the predecessor, but it feels a little bit out of place. Nevertheless, it’s fulfilling its intended role and the cascade of alliances is seen to a far lesser extent in this game. It also has the side-effect of slowing down diplomatic expansion via vassalization and later annexation a little bit. The AI uses a lot of those options, but is often too liberal in granting access rights. This sometimes leads to weird situations such as Hanseatic troops (with the Hanse being located in northern Germany) marching through all of the Netherlands, France and Spain to eventually battle the armies of Portugal. This means that the player can never count on neutral countries as a barrier for enemy forces. The AI is also a little bit too reluctant to conclude peace in war, especially if it already has achieved its wargoal.
The Struggle for Historicity
A major difference between EUIII and the earlier games in the series has been the role of historicity. EUI and II used events to simulate major political, social and economic changes of the era, such as the partition of the Burgundian heritage after the childless death of its last duke. These events often triggered regardless of the circumstances within the game itself, leading to a kind of enforced historicity. This led to the adoption of a different design philosophy during the development of EUIII, which abolished those historical events and replaced them with decisions that could be activated upon fulfilling the necessary conditions for them. While this made the games more coherent, it was not a perfect solution, however, since the impact of these decisions was usually not enough to steer the course of the game onto a roughly historical path. In a way, enforced historicity had been replaced with a historical setup that would then develop into a history of its own, without any semblance to real-world history.
In EUIV, this problem occurs again, and the design team has taken yet another path to deal with it. Historical events make a return, but this time with more context-sensitive triggers. This means that it is possible to see the above-mentioned Burgundian partition happening again, but only if certain conditions are present. Decisions, as has been mentioned above already, are also present and mainly used to transform a country into another once the conditions are met. This compromise solution works well, since it makes historical changes depending on ingame circumstances and developments, thus making those changes more coherent and logical.
EUIV offers all the content of EUIII with improved performance and stability. At the same time, major changes to key gameplay elements such as the introduction of leadership points set the game apart from its predecessor and justify its existence as a stand-alone game. With these additions and changes, the game plays out in a smooth and coherent way, albeit sometimes a little bit too easy for experienced players. In the present version of the game (1.2.2), issues still exist in regard to the ability of the AI to wage wars overseas and the value of some trading goods. The combat system is also not very sophisticated and could benefit from a major overhaul in a future expansion.