The Europa Universalis series has always been one of the most hardcore strategy games on the market. In fact, no other computer game can really simulate the intricacies of a complex board game. But then again, no board game could ever be this complex.
Unlike most strategy games that tack on some type of plot, with Europa Universalis there is no need. You see the plot of the game is pretty much the story of the world. You can take almost any country (there are 250 of them in Europa Universalis III) that existed between 1453 and 1789 and lead them however you like. Do you want Ireland to be a dictatorship or Japan to be a democracy? Go ahead and give it a try. Just be ready for some interesting happenings if you sail against the historic trends.
There are three main thrusts for Europa Universalis III that set it apart from its predecessors and guarantee it a needed spot on your strategy gaming shelf. The first is graphical detail. Although not as important as solid gameplay, the graphics really do help make the game more fun. Units are all animated and the terrain is colorful and varied. More on this later.
The second area is, and those of you who played Europa Universalis II won’t believe this, complexity. The interrelation between countries and even territories within countries has been beefed up. And there is a lot more you can do with warfare, diplomacy and other options.
Finally, Europa Universalis III was specifically created so that new people could jump into the game and play. Basically things are more streamlined. There is still a bit of a learning curve, but it’s not the same "study the manual for three days and then play a bit" experience that we have seen before.
Ok, graphically the game series has really come along. People have learned to expect that their units in any game look cool on the screen. And with over 100 different troop types, you also have to be able to glance at them and tell if they are Welsh Longbowmen or French Musketeers.
You also will feel a little more like you are in the game thanks to the overall interface. There is a pretty big window at the left corner of the screen that for the most part is reserved for graphical flair, though you also get your status updates there. So if someone proposes a Royal Marriage, you will see a little graphic of tents for what is probably going to be a nice ceremony if you accept. Seeing the little graphics come up was a real treat.
And the 3D world map is enough to make any evil villain jealous as you examine 1,700 land and sea zones where you can send your forces.
In terms of depth, this is obviously the most ambitious project that Paradox has undertaken. And you can tell that they borrowed some elements from other games they produced. For example, there are over 4,000 historically accurate rulers depicted in the game, which you have to assume come from their research for the Crusader Kings game.
And borrowing a bit from the highly successful Civilization series, there are now famous people (or great persons) that show up within your realm sometimes. You can summon them to your court and they will offer you advice and even help your country grow. And with people like Sir Isaac Newton, Rene Descartes and Amadeus Mozart on your side, who can stand against you?
You can run your nation pretty much any way you wish, though each choice you make will have advantages and disadvantages. Let’s say you decide to make a theocracy. It might give you good relations with the Pope (if you happen to be the right religion). But other countries with different religions might not like you as much. So even if you have liberal trade policies, you might not get a lot of trade because your government type is so different from others. Also, let’s say you have a country where the dominant religion varies across it. This might set you up for internal conflict or even revolution within your own realm.
This all sounds very complicated, but one of the big pushes with Europa Universalis III was to make it more accessible to first time players. In this respect all the games from Paradox have come a long way. I remember the first time I played Hearts of Iron, which is like Europa Universalis but set in World War II. It took me three full days of reading the thick instruction book before I could even hope to take the field, and then another couple days of playing with the game before I had ascended the huge learning curve. I think the work paid off with many, many hours of gameplay. But some people don’t want or can’t spend that kind of time with a game.
Europa Universalis III is not exactly a shooter where the end of the gun points at the other guy and you left click to fire and are on your way. But it’s not difficult to get into either. Tutorials are actually helpful and the game manual makes it easy to understand what to do. Also, the game itself is more setup to treat you like a monarch sitting on the throne. Events kind of come to you. You make your decision (and there is a default decision that happens for you if you don’t decide on anything, normally with you declining whatever offer is on the table) and then your advisors go off and make it happen.
A king or emperor or profit or whatever you call yourself should not have to micromanage their realm after all. You can, but the game makes it so for the most part you don’t have too.
There were quite a few saved scenarios that came with our review copy of the game and I thought it might be neat to go over a couple of them, just to show how diverse Europa Universalis III can really be.
One fun one puts you in charge of Spain in 1602. With a large army and tons of money, the temptation is there to fracture the peace and grab some land from your weaker neighbors. But you can also send out colony ships and try to take some land that nobody else has, or even really knows about. The choice is yours.
Another puts you in charge of Japan during their war with the Ming Empire. Every advantage in this scenario goes to the computer AI. But you do have trained armies in good position and can win with a lot of battlefield strategy, using the right troops against the right defenses. Japan is a bit isolated, but you might try to snag an ally or two, though few would probably help you out since the outcome of the war is far from certain.
Finally, the game is open to modding and multiplayer. Pretty much you can set the world up however you like in your own scenario and then play any country within it. So if you can dream of an alternative history of the world, then feel free to put that into the game and see if your favorite country can cut the mustard. For multiplayer, you can of course have each of the players running a different country, but a fun variation has multiple players playing as the same country. Each person takes on a different aspect of the government. One might run the military while another handles all domestic issues. This is true team building, because if one leg does not support the other, you are going to be in big trouble somewhere.
Europa Universalis III does the impossible. It keeps the hardcore strategy of letting the player do anything in place and even adds more stuff to do, while at the same time making it easier. Oh, and did we mention the eye candy is top notch?
Europa Universalis III earns 4.5 GiN Gems for its treasury, because it really does put the world (any world) in the palm of your hand.