In a break from my usual frenetic shooting and madness, I look instead at a quieter more tactical offering in Paradox Entertainment’s 4th offering in the Europa Universalis series.
Originally reviewed for Acegamez Here.
Full text below the cut:
If there’s one thing that stands true about history, it’s that we never get bored of the Romans. Not only do they represent the pinnacle of ancient military training and tactics, but they were also host to one of the most fascinating periods of historical conquest and intrigue. With that in mind, the question that pops up isn’t why Paradox chose to base the fourth Europa Universalis game around Rome, but rather what took them so long.
Following on in the pedigree of the series, Europa Universalis: Rome takes the same basic premise and tries to create a gaming experience that’s quite different from the rest of the crowd. As with Europa Universalis III, the game presents you with what is ostensibly a completely freeform world, covering the entirety of Europe and the Mediterranean in great detail. In addition there is the choice of starting at any point from the end of the Punic Wars up to the birth of Christ (a period of around three hundred years for those of you who aren’t history buffs). Helpfully there are a number of defined starting points during that period, with historically accurate territorial maps and political climates included. And really those are the only boundaries of the game; you choose which nation you want to play as and what direction you want to take them in, within your selected place and time – the rest is entirely up to you.
However, freedom is a funny thing; too little and you constrain the creativity and enjoyment of the player, but give them too much and often they won’t know which way to turn, which is the precipice that Europa Universalis balances upon. This is because it’s actually up to you to decide what the aim of the game is. Only got a few hours? Then play as a strong power and try to conquer a puny nation. For a longer campaign, why not try an alternate history by leading Hannibal to victory against Rome, or forgo the military approach and use craft and pluck to farm and trade Rome into bountiful splendour and riches? Technically the possibilities are endless, but they do rely on you setting your own goals or simply playing out the entire timeline. This lack of a victory point can actually be surprisingly unnerving and I found myself struggling to decide what I ought to do when my enemies weren’t battering down my doors.
The other main concern with the size and scope of EU: Rome is the utter complexity of it all. Now, Paradox deserves heaps of credit for managing to include such a range of customisable options and tweaks for almost every aspect of the game, and even more praise for wrapping it up in such a presentable and neat package. But this doesn’t alter the fact that for a newcomer to the series, the game is almost impenetrable. To further complicate matters, it’s most readily available as a download through Gamersgate, and as such came with no manual, but nothing is included within the game files either. All that is provided to ease players into the gaming equivalent of War and Peace is a handful of very brief, non-interactive tutorial presentations, which do a good job of making sense of the two dozen icons scattered around the interface, but go no way into instructing you as to how the machinery of the game actually functions. It’s all well and good knowing that you have a menu that lets you assign new commanders or move soldiers around various units in a legion, but it’s little help when you have no idea whether you’re actually improving anything. Sadly this applies to almost every aspect of the game; the tools are shown to you and they are easy to manipulate, but it’s not much use when you don’t know how they work. To old hands of the series this sort of problem probably won’t manifest, and as with all worthy things, persistence will bear fruit – in fact, the experimentation is actually quite fun while you get the hang of things. It’s a pity then that you need to get the hang of everything at once.
This is never more apparent than while managing a nation of ancient peoples, as a hefty amount of work and attention goes into the cultivating and expansion of the culture. EU: Rome doesn’t skimp in that respect and rather than the military side being the prime focus, as in many similar games, the micro-management of each individual province comes into play at a level that manages to be both fundamental and superficial, utilising a combination of factors that rivals Sim City in scope. For example, on beginning a new game with any of the assorted peoples, the first and most pertinent point is establishing alliances and trade. To facilitate this there is a handy set of simple menus that allow you to maintain a whole host of diplomatic relations with the other nations, everything from establishing a new trade route or demanding tribute from the local backwater to declaring outright war. What’s more, as well as providing these standard options, you can help incite riots by smashing local temples or secretly supporting rebel partisan factions. On the surface that might not appear to be the most wholly unique option in a strategic game, but Paradox have excelled in its application by combining it with a personality-based leadership system. Don’t like the local warlord? A pesky Roman Senator won’t give you trade access to lands beyond his province? Well that’s fine, because it may be a simple case that the envoy you’ve sent isn’t persuasive enough, in which case there’s usually a pool of candidates to throw at the situation – and even if it’s a hopeless case, you can just have him assassinated. Sadly, nothing is ever quite that simple though; get caught and trust will drop, making both your nation and its delegates less popular with other nations.
Now, let’s be honest here, you can debate and trade the world away, but in the end this is ancient Rome and we’d be lying if we said that we didn’t want to get into the thick of battle, with Pilum and Gladius hacking the uglies off people left, right and centre. The military here is one of the principal draws, and to both the credit and detriment of the game, you still don’t have any real influence on the battles – nor do you ever see them carried out in anything other than a static image, but hey, if you want that you can always pause the game and play Rome: Total War for twenty minutes. However, the armies themselves do have to be created and each legion must be recruited, maintained and bolstered when necessary to keep your nation free from marauders. This system has been streamlined quite considerably down to a few basic land and naval units, each selectable from the handy menus and the status and orders of all units can be minded easily on a single toggled drop-down. Once your troops are in the field they appear as a giant marching soldier that can be easily found on the map and commanded with a simple mouse-click. Of course, the units can be infinitesimally adapted in composition, which comes in handy when several have been decimated and rather than disbanding them utterly, they can be melded into new units. Combat itself takes place in the form of a menu with simple battle arrangements and force info, while the soldier avatar hacks and jabs away at the enemy, or fortress, to the strains of clanging metal and loosed arrows.
All of this detail and effort would pale into nothing if the game wasn’t easy to use and pleasing to look at, a factor that’s very important when the game is built on such a staggering array of options. Thankfully, the interface itself is actually quite intuitive; instead of relying on pop-ups and complex lists of figures, the screen is kept free from clutter and uses a simple set of border menus that are easily accessible (at times a little too much so) and the presentation is kept crisp and clean, as the windows smoothly flit in and out of sight when needed.
As far as the look goes, Paradox have definitely outdone themselves on the visual aspects of the game, with the map now rendered in full topographical 3D, which makes playing at times more like a trip through some time travellers version of Google Earth than a strategy, as well as being rendered in vivid colours, the overall aesthetic really adding to the atmosphere. On top of that, the different figures representing your units of troops and ships are well animated as they go through their various routines, serving as more than simple placeholders but never distracting from the overall experience. The music is also suitably epic, sounding like a medley of themes from the last few years’ sword and sandal films, complementing the occasional ambient sword clashes and building sounds that echo from the game whenever trouble sprouts up around the map. Not that it’s all roses, as the interface, while well built, still manages to hide some of the simpler information in non-intuitive places, and the lack of help and coaching combined with no clear aim means that it’s all the more likely that the casual player might simply give in and play something else.
But even with that proviso, the slick look and easy to use feel of Europa Universalis: Rome combine with its astonishing depth and freeform style to provide a truly compelling and quite unusual game experience. While it might not be the easiest game to pick up and play, with its complexity and lack of overall aim sure to deter some people, it’s one that given time pays off beautifully, and for true connoisseurs of the time-based strategy genre, I can’t really stress how much of an essential purchase it is. When you do pick it up, sit back in your chair and have a slave peel you some grapes, because it’s going to be a long and enjoyable night.