Europa Universalis: Rome – Vae Victus (PC)

Lend my your thumbs! Or eyes as you read my amazing review of the expansion for Acegamez.

Full text below the cut:

EUROPA UNIVERSALIS: ROME – VAE VICTIS

Quite often, due to the problematic time constraints inherent to the industry, a game can come out with an unfinished feeling, caused perhaps by an overlooked flaw or bug, or an aspect of the experience that the developers didn’t anticipate would rub players up the wrong way. Normally the solution to this is a patch or two, fixing the problem or changing the gameplay in some form or other and while they can vary in size from the sublime to the ridiculous, they always share one critical factor: they’re free.

Compare this to the humble expansion. After being out for some time, it has become the usual practice to bring out some form of add-on pack, usually to pad out the meat of the game with a further single player campaign and more missions, or some new side quests that add to the flavour and make the original game a more worthy purchase. The fact that it helps fill the coffers of the publishers and developing teams alike probably doesn’t go down too badly either. So, herein lies the quandary; at what point do the two meet? This is the exact issue that’s clouded this review from the moment Vae Victis had downloaded, the expansion to Paradox’s vast and impressive strategic epic Europa Universalis: Rome.

For the uninitiated, Europa Universalis is probably the most vast and open-ended strategy series ever created. EU Rome allows you to dive into Ancient Europe at any point from the final centuries of the Roman republic’s expansion up until the Empire rears its head in the year 0 A.D. Plotted out on a map of Europe, Eurasia and Egypt, the world as seen is divided into neat little provinces, each with its own strengths, weaknesses and benefits. You can choose any tribe or society present at the time and through the clever use of trading, people management, military reinforcement and city building programmes, you attempt to lead them to glory. Working against you are the barbarian hordes, angry tribes, pirates and inevitably your own rebellious citizens; however, the game gives you enough scope and powers to step through such meddlesome annoyances using your own choices of might, pluck or craft. The game is set out functionally and a tidy and helpful set of menus and pop-ups allow you to pick and choose everything from the choice of who Pompeii will buy coal from to which jumped up governors will be exiled, or worse, assassinated. It’s quite literally one of the best and most all-encompassing political strategy games ever made.

Because of this, it’s a matter of opinion as to how to improve something that already stands out as being so great. One way is to slap a lot of glamour upon it and hope that the shiny new front will entice others to look at it. Alternatively, there are those that seek to add depth and breadth to the game by throwing in new functions. As the old saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, tweak it”. Vae Victis follows this second ideology to the letter; rather than flooding the game with unnecessary graphics and extras, the additions in this expansion are subtly insinuated within the core of the existing game. In fact, only a golden sub heading on the option screen shows that there have been any changes at all – and this is one of the fundamental problems that strikes with this new ‘expansion’; it doesn’t actually seem to announce itself very well, leading you to think that there isn’t very much to it, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Given that Europa Universalis is a series that has no campaign as such, the only reasonable way to bring more from the experience is to plumb deep down into the game and alter a few fundamental controls and options to make the experience richer and more enjoyable, which is what Vae Victis purports to do, on the face of things. However, your ten pounds purchases a worryingly small download, with a relative cost of less than a pound-per megabyte. Naturally the size doesn’t have any impact on the quality of the changes but it does belie the significant problem with Vae Victis; it’s lacking in a few important ways. You see, despite the fairly heavy amount of advertised new features inherent to the expansion, your money won’t afford you the kindness that would come from a manual detailing the new modes and how they are implemented. Considering the genuinely baffling level of complexities involved in EU Rome and the fact that fundamentally altering the game’s delicate balance will create a lot of headaches for players new and old alike, Paradox has negated to provide any form of documentation with the game. Most unforgivably, the original tutorial remains unchanged, despite now featuring the wrong menus and omitting many altered features. Curiously there is also no option to revert the game back to its original state; these additions are here to stay if you make the decision to buy, so if you are tempted to get hold of the new pack then you should bear this in mind.

Now I’m aware that thus far most of the comments have been somewhat negative, but understanding these provisos are inherent to the understanding of what Vae Victis both is and is not. In terms of graphics and sound there are no massive alterations; the music and sound remain the same as before, the maps still look great and the menus still retain their simplicity and ease of access. There are a few more options and controls available at first glance, but underneath there’s a nagging feeling that you might just be missing some essential part of the gameplay as the cascade of new options begins to reveal itself.

There are two main notable changes to the game, the first of which is the overhauling of the character system. In addition to providing you with a long list of historical figures, complete with family history and genealogy, Vae Victis expands their personalities by giving each one a political affiliation and a personal agenda. In practice this means that not only do you need to juggle their skills as masters and commanders, while keeping a keen eye on their methods, but it’s now imperative that you know their needs. Cato may be a friend but what if Catullus is popularly ruling a vast province like Macedonia and wishes him dead? Well, old friendships may not stand the test of time as the game actually makes you worry about the political backstabbing, as some characters try to curry favour with you before stabbing you firmly in the back with nary so much as an “et tu Brute?”.

This characterisation makes itself no less plain in the second most notable change: the Senate. The body of congressmen are now an integral part of the decision-making process, meting out the needs of the people as well as fulfilling their own often paranoid and selfish whims. Instead of the slightly more tyrannical bent that could be thrust upon the original game, the centralisation of the senate in the gameplay twists the way you have to play in order to succeed. Not that it’s all uphill; the Senators are a fickle lot who tend to propose their own agendas and give you a neat taste of political dissent as they bombard you with suggestions for new positions for senators and noblemen. However, seeing as how they are usually more sensible with their choices than lucky chance, it leaves one less thing to worry about – providing you trust them, and the best way to ensure a trustworthy senate is to keep its members happy. This is where the positioning and allotting of provinces and military commands becomes more important than before; as the individual characters now possess their own agendas and each harbours a secret goal or ambition – whether it be the assassination of a rival or the attainment of a prestigious position of power – it’s firmly within your power to accommodate or deny them. These boons can also be strategically withheld until you need a character’s support, or granted to bolster your positions or armies.

The senators also randomly advocate direct missions to their leader, which can be enacted within a certain time limit. Amusingly this takes the form of Carthago Delenda Est!, Cato’s famous rallying cry that Carthage must be destroyed, which effectively covers the majority of the suggestions as they tend towards wiping out some pesky nation that has become too uppity. In practice this is no real change from before but gives you a handy insight into the politics of the opposing tribes and nations and what threats stand out in the mind of the citizens. You can also grant or deny the passing of Senate Law, which grants you help in preventing various calamities from befalling the provinces and aid in boosting your citizen bodies in outlying lands. This is a clever way to get around one of the worst decisions – that being the sudden unavoidable reduction of all citizens from a captured land to nil, presumably because they’ve all been clapped in irons and sent off to work in a sulphur mine, although being given the choice would have been far more preferable.

Interestingly, the senatorial concept has also been expanded to the barbarian tribes and other nations allowing you to more effectively subvert them to your cause. Assuming you’re willing to get your hands dirty and do some assassination and smear campaigning, then you can sow seeds of malcontent far better than before.

To the experienced player of Europa Universalis: Rome, this will all come as a chalk or cheese alteration of the game’s inner workings. If you longer for more direct interaction with the political side of the Empire and the ability to really live that idea of being there then it’s hard to see how you could do much better than adding these factors into the already brilliant structure of the game. Fans of the Provincial expansion and micromanagement will probably find this all a tedious distraction from the existing complexities at work however and would do well to avoid it. With that in mind, it’s an experience that is hard to recommend or dissuade against. If Paradox pull themselves together and put out a free update that includes an instruction manual and fixes the still too brief and now horribly inaccurate tutorial then they will have a far more palatable addition to the existing game, one that is worthy of its mother-title. Until then, they’ve created an unintuitive trial and error complication of the original title that will put off a lot of players who have neither the time nor interest to drastically alter a game that they already enjoy.

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