Review: Europa Universalis IV requires an empire-building state of mind

At a Glance
  • Paradox Interactive Europa Universalis IV

It’s 1467. Christopher Columbus, son of a Genoan weaver, is barely 16 years old. He’s nobody.

Meanwhile, Teodosio de Magalhaes, a Portuguese navigator, receives orders from his king: sail West. “Gladly,” says Teodosio, and with ten ships he sails across the Atlantic, pausing to resupply at the Portuguese colony on Cape Verde. In 1468 Teodosio discovers the New World, dooming that sucker Columbus to a life of mediocrity. American children grow up celebrating Teodosio Day. Also, the entire U.S. speaks Portuguese.

The sun never sets on the Portuguese Empire.

This is the future I've wrought in Europa Universalis IV, the latest grand strategy game from Paradox Interactive.

A whole new world

Like the three previous Europa Universalis entries, EUIV is a historical strategy game set in the Renaissance era. It’s a game about colonization, enlightenment, overthrowing tyranny, religious upheaval, nation-building, mercantilism, piracy, feuding monarchies, and political intrigue.

Or none of that. Like most Paradox games, EUIV is a virtual sandbox with a ton of systems and no real end goal. Launch the game and you’re presented with a map of the entire world, populated with various civilizations from the Aztecs to the French to the Koreans.

Pick a country! Any country!

You choose which country to play as, what year the game starts in, and then take command of the country. You decide what technology your country invests in, arbitrate disputes between your nobles, put down rebellions, send spies to neighboring countries, and maybe even—if you're patient—wage a war or two.

If you've never played one of Paradox's games before, know this: Europa Universalis is not like Civilization or Total War. Waging war in EUIV is often a last resort, reserved only for the most powerful countries; small countries usually shouldn't bother. Even if you win, you can't just take over an entire country in one fell swoop. You might annex one tiny corner of a country, slowly convert it to your culture and religion, and thirty or forty years later they may finally acquiesce to your rule.

Grand strategy games are all about patience, EUIV demands it in spades. This is chess, played out on a world stage.

The new kid on the globe

The game runs at a player-controlled speed until you decide to hit the pause button, effectively pumping the brakes to make some world-changing decisions. Technically you could play the game as a turn-based strategy game, with each turn the length of an in-game “day,” but there's really no need. While each turn in Europa Universalis is measured as a single day, many actions require months (raising an army) or even years (settling a colony).

You spend a lot of time looking at beautiful maps in this game. On the trade map, arrows represent trade routes. In motion, it's a work of art.

With that in mind, let me tell you what my “grand strategy” has traditionally consisted of when approaching a new Paradox title: launch the game, marvel over the epic menu music, load the tutorial, complete the tutorial, feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on the game, start a real campaign, play twenty minutes, realize I understand nothing at all, watch as my empire crumbles to dust, exit the game, and load up YouTube videos with titles like “Learn to Play Europa Universalis!” or “Europa Universalis for noobs!”

I go through this cycle every time. I did it with Europa Universalis III, with the Hearts of Iron games, and even with Crusader Kings II.

When I started playing EUIV for review, I forgot there wouldn’t be any helpful tutorials out there for me to fall back on. No beginner’s guides. No arcane forums to pore over. By and large, I was on my own.

There were mishaps. One game I decided to play as the Golden Horde because it sounded like a suitably bloodthirsty experience, only to find out the Renaissance was far past the Golden Horde's prime. Within minutes of starting the game I found my entire country partitioned up by four other tribes. Oops.

But Paradox, perhaps spurred on by feedback from 2012's Crusader Kings II, has made EUIV a much more user-friendly experience than previous games. That, or I've just gotten better at playing grand strategy games. Maybe both.

The tutorial is still a bit lackluster. It gives players the absolute basics: how to move, how to navigate some of the menus (trade, technology, etc.) and how to wage a humble war in Spain. Forget jumping into the deep end—leaping from tutorial to core EUIV experience is like leaping out of a burning helicopter directly over the Mariana Trench.

For the first time, however, Paradox throws you a pair of swim floaties after you've plunged into the main game. Directly above the minimap there's a new hint system; activate it, click on whatever you're confused by, and the game will supply you with information about the most applicable system.

The hints system (lower right) should help newcomers surmount the grand strategy hump.

I never thought I'd be so happy to tout glorified tooltips as a feature, but it's a welcome addition for those times when you just need a quick refresher on some of the game's many systems. Once you've pulled up information on what topic, EUIV will also prompt you with related topics. Confused by Trade Nodes? Why not learn about Trade Goods, Trade, and Trade Value while you're at it.

Veterans will probably scoff and turn the hint system off immediately (it presents you with that option each time you load your game) but it's just one more way Paradox has made the core EUIV experience more accessible without all the negative connotations that word commonly invokes.

And, much as I'm sure some hardcore fans will complain the game now looks “too fancy,” the improved graphics make for a better first impression. For those of you who used Crusader Kings II as a gateway drug to Paradox's grand strategy insanity, loading up EUIV will feel like a favorite blanket. The two games shared a single art team, and thus have a very similar style—enough that you could pass off screenshots of Crusader Kings II as EUIV and vice versa.

Cape Verde: The first of many Portuguese colonies.

It's actually a very smart move. At this point, you could start a game of Crusader Kings II in the year 1066 (or 867 if you bought the Old Gods DLC) and it would still appear like you were playing the same game when you finished your game of EUIV in 1820.

In fact, it's possible you were playing the same game. Or, at least, playing the same basic save file. Though technically unaffiliated, the Crusader Kings II developers went back and built a converter that will import their saves into EUIV. You could start a game of Crusader Kings II in 1066 as the Count of Ulster, unify Ireland, conquer England, maybe inherit part of modern-day France, and then bring that save game into EUIV to begin your global empire. It's a neat feature, albeit one we haven't gotten to test out yet—the converter was not available at the time of review.

Still waters run deep

So whether you got your start with Crusader Kings II or EUIV is your first grand strategy game, Paradox has certainly done a lot to bring you in. EUIV is a great update for longtime fans too; most of the improvements over the previous game are incremental, but welcome.

You no longer have to waste time telling each province individually to raise units or construct buildings. There's now a production window that color-codes your holdings based on whether you can construct the unit or building in question. You'll even get handy stats, so you can tell it will take 62 days to raise that infantry unit in Barbados but only 53 days in Tortuga, or that your Constable will give you an extra three ducats income in the Gold Coast but only one in the Azores. If this sounds like small potatoes, know that it streamlines what used to be an extremely tedious task.

Portugal is first to establish New World colonies.

Also gone are the various domestic policy sliders you used to manage: centralization versus decentralization, land versus naval, and the like. Now you accrue points in three categories—Administrative, Diplomatic, and Military—which you spend on actions like boosting political stability and unlocking technologies. The number of points you get each month is affected by your leader's traits, any advisers you hire, and (in the case of the military) how many leaders you've conscripted.

I'm torn about the removal of the sliders. I miss the granular control they afforded, but I don't miss babysitting those things all the time. After spending some time with the game, I largely think their removal is an improvement and I think most fans will agree. EUIV flows a lot better without constantly fretting over the sliders—and believe me, the game still affords you plenty of control.

To get an idea of how the Europa Universalis team approached this game, I think it's best to look at the way maps are handled. At first glance, EUIV features six map modes. There's a terrain mode, a political mode, a mode focused on trade—basically, the most common modes players will be interested in. Click a button, though, and you'll reveal the other fourteen map modes. Surface-level accessibility quickly gives way to hidden depths.

Turn off, drop out

I didn't play these kinds of games online, but what I saw of the EUIV multiplayer is a pretty huge improvement over previous titles. As always, each player controls a different country, and the game tends to run at a constant speed instead of pausing regularly. The game I played was set to the second-lowest speed (of five) and was still fairly hectic, especially during wartime. Alliances are made, then broken in gleeful fits of betrayal, and the whole thing makes for a fun time that also occasionally incites you to murder your friends.

You'll need to hire explorers to remove all that white space from the map.

Paradox has finally made multiplayer a freewheeling drop-in, drop-out affair though, and it's wonderful. Not only will games continue as players drop in and out, but you can drop out and come back as an entirely different country. If you, for example, just watched four other tribes destroy your beloved Golden Horde, you're not relegated to sitting on the sidelines; you can jump back into the fray immediately.

Bottom line

Europa Universalis IV is a much-needed update to a classic PC game franchise. An extremely useful hint system, an efficient production menu, and hugely improved graphics make this (in my eyes) the best Europa Universalis title to date. It's sleek where it needs to be, while still retaining the core complexity that makes these titles so popular.

On the other hand, it also largely sticks to the formula established by its predecessors. It's an excellent grand strategy game, just like all of Paradox's titles, but its clear the developers were playing it safe.

If you've played Crusader Kings II before (or any other Paradox title for that matter), feel free to jump into EUIV. It might seem overwhelming at first, but the two games are similar enough in style (if not in core mechanics) that you'll quickly gain your bearings.

For those looking to enter the grand strategy realm, however, I'll still have to recommend playing Crusader Kings II first. Because of its focus on personalities instead of countries, it remains an easier avenue for traditional players to get a hold on the genre before trying their hand at something more complicated.

And who knows? Maybe you'll get hooked.

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At a Glance
  • Paradox Interactive Europa Universalis IV

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