Ever since I fired up my very first game as Novgorod way back in Europa Universalis 2, I have been a huge fan of the series. Europa Universalis games have some superficial similarities to the Civilization series, but trade the large and somewhat bland scope of Civ for a very detailed and specific modeling of a period of real world history. EU4 models the history of the world from the mid 1440s up until the early 1800s using a very detailed system of armies, politics, economics, and many hundreds of provinces and sea zones. As a result it has a substantial learning curve but a very rich and rewarding game experience once you have gotten the hang of it.
The player takes on the role of the ruler of a nation and follows that nation through to it’s destruction or until the end of the game time period. There are no strict winners or losers, and no concrete victory conditions or game goals. Nations range from tiny single-province minors such as Siena (a small city-state in Italy) to enormous superpowers such as France and Spain so the game experience and difficulty will vary drastically depending on the nation chosen to play. The game world feels alive in a sense as history happens around you and various nations pursue their own agendas.
The time period covered by the game is a fascinating and critical one in terms of world history and includes the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the colonization of North/South America, and many others. Nations can rise and fall, large nations can break apart and new nations can be formed. The dynamic event system ensures lots of interesting possibilities and choices for the player, particularly when playing as a more interesting nation with a lot of rich history programmed into the game such as England. Unlike most previous EU games, EU4 uses truly dynamic events. No longer are various historical events scripted to occur at particular times in history; now a series of triggers and modifiers can allow for events like the War of the Roses, the collapse of Burgundy, the creation of the United States, etc. to occur.
The graphics engine is both beautiful and smooth, looking good while mostly staying out of the player’s way. The UI is solid and continually improving, Paradox is king of the tooltips which are absolutely essential in a game with so many complex modifiers. The music and sound are nice when you are listening for them and again mostly unobtrusive when you are otherwise occupied.
The game hews very close to it’s historical roots. Real historical countries exist that many players will never even have heard of. Themes exist that most game companies wouldn’t touch with a 10 foot pole such as differences between religions manifesting as game effects, forced religious and cultural conversions, and profiting from slavery. The world of the 1400-1700s is a very different and more complex place than most gamers will be familiar with from their likely limited historical education and the result is that there is a ton of education to be gained through the game, even though it is a game first and foremost and not a true historical simulation. Most importantly I think it provides a great source of interesting events and places which the player may be inspired to research further.
Perhaps most importantly to me in any strategy game that I know I’ll be playing primarily single player, Paradox is thoroughly committed to creating a challenging AI and has even brought on board a dedicated AI programmer. I have found the AI drastically improved over previous iterations of the game and capable of truly giving the players a hard time. Exploits and minor issues persist, but AI improvement will no doubt continue and it’s already quite strong.
After all that praise, I will say that my main criticism is that the game feels like an incredibly well built and beautiful house with a lot of empty rooms. The potential of the game mechanics are enormous but a lot of areas of the world and history are still pretty bare-bones. The military side of the game is fairly fun but outside of combat there is sometimes little to do. The game could use many more events, missions, and choices for the various nations as well as new mechanics. This fleshing out has already begun with the first major DLC called “Conquest of Paradise” releasing tomorrow. This will add new mechanics for colonial nations, much more detailed gameplay for Native American tribes, and an option to have a randomly generated New World continents shape which is cool for nations that are heavy on exploring and colonizing.
Paradox is among the best strategy game developers out there and their ongoing development and patch support for their games has always been phenomenal. EU4 looks to be no different. Paradox has also taken the route of the cheap minor DLCs to raise cash by selling things like new tracks and new unit renders. These are of course entirely unnecessary and are basically a cash grab by the company, but for now I’m willing to buy them because I’m basically using my dollars to vote for more development on EU4. Paradox knows these small DLC have a huge profit margin but will only sell well if the base game remains popular, which in turn requires continued development on the meat of the game. I trust Paradox to keep the balance and continue to develop EU4 into a fantastic historical strategy game so I’m more than willing to come along for the ride.