Paradox Development Studio games are for a particular crowd, there’s no question about this. In Europa Universalis IV you’ll manage the affairs of one of the world’s nations from as early as 1444 to as late as 1821, if you last that long. Diplomacy, trade, religion, government, the military, colonisation, technology and 'national ideas' are all at your command, and managing them well is key to success.
You can start your game at any time from 1444 to 1820, and the difficulty and what qualifies as ‘winning’ is all up to you. Sure, you can play as one of the heavyweights of the period, such as France, England or Spain, and see if you can be the predominant power of the age, but it’s equally valid to play as a small German principality in the Holy Roman Empire, and simply try to survive for as long as you can. There is a ‘score’ for those who want to see if they can be the most powerful nation, on average, for the period, but chasing that is only half the story. While picking a European nation is going to generally be an easier run, you can pick any nation world-wide that was in existence, historically, at the date you start the game.
Make no mistake, this isn’t a ‘real-time strategy’ game built on the Dune 2 model like StarCraft 2, but rather a 'grand strategy' game, where your focus is on nations and armies, rather than individual units or small squads. Time can be adjusted to move at one of five set speeds, and you can pause at any time to take actions like build troops, move them into other areas, send a diplomat to seal a royal marriage with an ally, or send spies to support a rebellion in a rival’s colonies. These actions are handled either from the map screen (clicking on troops) or a range of information tabs handling your ruler, technology, diplomacy, your realm’s stability, military leaders and ‘missions’ (tasks which, when completed, give a boost to your elements like your diplomatic power, prestige or your ruler’s legitimacy.
As you get into it, gameplay feels very much like role-playing a nation. Which countries do you ally yourself with? Who do you want to have royal marriages with? How do you cope with your large neighbour with a different religion, that would like nothing better than to charge in, conquer you and convert your subjects to their faith. Get in the wrong alliance and you can find yourself drawn into endless expensive wars. Not build up strong enough alliances and you’ll be seen an easy target for neighbouring nations looking to expand their borders. Very importantly, the AI in EU IV is a substantial step up from that in EU III, and nations by and large act believably, creating a wonderfully immersive experience. As England, you can make an effort to improve relations with France and minimise or (with a bit of luck) even avoid war with them altogether. Or send insults and sow discontent, and find your navies clashing in the English Channel regularly.
While immersive and immensely enjoyable if you like this style of gameplay, this definitely isn’t a game for everyone. This reviewer has over 150 hours of experience with Europa Universalis III, and it was a good 20 hours into EU IV before he was anywhere near confident what he was doing. If you’re new to the series, then I highly recommend reading the manual. Yes, there are tutorials and a handy in-game hint system, but the tutorials would need to be longer than many retail games to cover everything. Europa Universalis IV is complex, and that’s part of the charm. It’s also important to note that as a high-level strategy game you don’t have control of your troops when actually in battle. You set the force composition, decide on whether (and who) to lead them, and then see how they go.
As a real-time strategy game, the graphics are far less important than the gameplay, but Paradox haven’t skimped on making very aesthetically appealing maps and unit models for the era in question. The unit models change over time, from medieval infantry in the 1400s to early musketmen to the rank-and-file of the early 19th century, and vary between nations, to further immerse you in the shoes of the ruler of your given nation.
EU IV comes with a classical soundtrack that changes depending on the circumstances (rousing marches during wartime, more relaxed compositions when your nation is at peace) that provide a pleasant aural backdrop to your nation-managing. There are alert sounds, and sounds of conflict for when you’re watching a battle play out, and cheers when you seal a royal marriage. It gets the job done, but it’s not the highlight of the experience.
EU IV’s interface is generally excellent. The information screens are well laid out, there are a variety of map modes which allow you to take in information about your nation at a glance (such as religion, revolt risk, economic value, culture and level of infrastructure), customisable alerts which pop up on screen (and can be set to pause the game) whenever specified events happen (such as being attacked, having one of your fleets arrive somewhere, or having someone ally with one of your enemies), an organiser that gives you quick access to your armies and navies, and high-level alerts that appear at the top of the screen. The only gripe I had was that you only have ‘go to’ buttons on certain alerts, and not for others that could have been useful. For example, when one of your colonies is fully built, you can press the ‘go to’ button on the pop-up, but if you’re attacked, there’s no go-to button and you have to find the battle in the organiser to go there.
Paradox has a long history with history, and it shows. While you control your nation, and the bulk of the gameplay surrounds dealing with the AI, historical events will regularly test your mettle. Cleverly, these fire based on circumstance plus a dash of randomness as much as time, so the English civil war won’t kick off at the same time each game, meaning you never know if Oliver Cromwell will raise a rebellious army in the middle of your already taxing war with Spain. These events add depth to the feel of role-playing a nation the game provides. Combine that with the quality of the AI, and the way things play out differently each time, and it really gives a feel of each game having its own story, even though there isn’t a cut-scene in sight.
This hasn’t been tested (a single game of EU IV can take upwards of 60 hours – to organise that over a MP game would have delayed this review to well into next year), but the word on the Paradox forums is that it’s the most stable and best-enabled multiplayer in the series yet. However, as we haven’t played it ourselves, we haven’t rated it in this review.
If you’re into 15th to early 19th century history, or grand strategy games, then you owe it to yourself to give this a look. If you’re on the fence, there’s a demo available on Steam as well so you don’t have to dive in without knowing what you’re getting yourself into. This won’t be for everyone, however – if your gaming is focussed more on first and third-person adventuring or shooting, this is a huge change to what you’re used to, and even if it sounds interesting I highly recommend the demo first, and a read through the manual (again, available on Steam). If EU IV gets its hooks into you, though, it will give you many tens, if not hundreds, of hours of nation-steering historical fun.
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