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Europa Universalis III (PC) artwork

Europa Universalis III (PC) review

"Of course, you might instead send spies and find yourself surprised by the fact that you must choose which of several enterprises should serve as the focus for their energy. Most games would simply let you deploy spies and call it good. Europa Universalis III isnít like that. Thereís an insanely deep infrastructure in place that almost always takes things further than other genre titles available, but somehow itís not that difficult to get a handle on things."

Research tells me that Paradox Interactive has published a long line of fantastic and expansive strategy titles. Thatís as fitting a description as any for Europa Universalis III, a game that essentially lets you imagine that youíre an immortal. Thereís never any talk of a wizard insurrection or of the odd beheading ending your reign, though. This isnít a game about that or even about you. Instead, itís the chance to play God. The world as we once might have known it serves as your stage. You can rule it mercilessly with an iron fist, explore its furthest reaches, turn Europe into one giant series of trade routes or develop Asia into the most advanced culture known to man. Anything is possible and you have several centuries to make it happen.

You begin by choosing the year and region. I went with Calais in the mid 1400s, though I couldíve started pretty much anywhere. The map even includes stars that indicate how difficult the resulting game will be. Calais fell near to the lower end of the spectrum, but not in ďOh wow, you must really suck at strategy gamesĒ territory.

At least in Europa Universalis III, Calais was part of English territory during that time period. Unbeknownst to me, that choice meant that England would serve as my home and empire. That suited me just fine. The island sat just to the north, broken up into several districts that all fell under my control. I quickly learned that each district has its own city. Meanwhile, I had a single treasury. I could stupidly spend it all on a single district if I liked, so of course I did. Things were going well. I was quite pleased with Calais. It wasnít much--just a small speck on a massive world map that at that point remained unknown to me--but it was mine.

Then trouble came. Calais residents grew dissatisfied with my dynamic leadership and revolted. New to the game, I responded passively. I didnít know enough to send troops with swords and guns to suppress them. Anarchy followed. Before I even knew what had happened, Calais fell to rebels who claimed it for their own. Oops.

To avoid making that particular blunder in the future, I learned more about how Europa Universalis III functions. It turns out that if you keep your residents happy, you donít have to worry about revolt and territory loss. Your citizensí satisfaction depends on any number of variables, but typically means that youíve maintained decent relations with the surrounding countries and that you havenít plundered your treasury and young male population to finance an extended military campaign. Then as now, people prefer a competent leader.

You also have to watch yourself when it comes to other nations, which requires arranged marriages with neutral or friendly territories, political bribery and perhaps even trade route expansion or military alliances. Of course, you might instead send spies and find yourself surprised by the fact that you must choose which of several enterprises should serve as the focus for their energy. Most games would simply let you deploy spies and call it good. Europa Universalis III isnít like that. Thereís an insanely deep infrastructure in place that almost always takes things further than other genre titles available, but somehow itís not that difficult to get a handle on things. Iíve played only a few strategy games in the past--Civilization IV being the primary example--and still I was able to get the hang of things without reading an instruction manual (my review copy only came with a digital version that I refused to read).

Certainly, the instruction manual might have removed some of the early frustration I had with the game. When other countries began exploring the coast of Africa and then moving their search beyond that and into the new world, I cleverly continued worrying about building a marketplace and turning Wales into one of my vassals (while the pope declared England a pretty good pal and Ireland said it wanted none of me). The world around me was developing and I was behind the curve, constantly flirting with bankruptcy due to extravagant spending and insufficient investment in profitable ventures. I bribed people with nothing to give me, just because I could. By the time I caught onto the whole notion of building bigger ships and sending my explorers out over the Atlantic, Portugal had beaten me to the punch.

That isnít to say I didnít make solid efforts, or that none of them bore fruit. I soon began working to secure Canada. The problem was that the heathen natives werenít anxious to surrender their land to a bunch of English colonists. Iíd find a sweet island and try to claim it, but the boatfuls of colonists got nowhere. Each area I wanted to settle came with a success probability factor (Europa Universalis III is very good at providing visual cues whenever and wherever you need them), but even 60% proved risky given the cost of colonization attempts. What choice did I have, though? With England the only part of Europe that wasnít already claimed by nations more powerful than mine, expansion into the New World was vital.

Eventually, my colonists persevered. With each successful boat trip, my success rate climbed. Sometimes the natives got nasty and wiped out entire colonies. Other times, everything went peaceably. I began adding tax offices and markets, forts and shipyards. Gradually, Englandís tiny portion of the world grew more significant and I became truly addicted. I started appreciating details I hadnít noticed before, like how much I loved the stirring soundtrack and the way it blended such beautiful aural representations of the worldís nations. I noticed the pleasing background--waves rolling in a gentle sea--and appreciated how easy it was to change from one map style to another the minute I wanted to check my trade routes or political relations.

That was somewhere around the 8-hour mark and probably would have been a good stopping point. Outside my apartment, the sun had set and my wife was finished watching Home Improvement. Before long, she headed off to bed and left me alone with Europa Universalis III. Like an idiot, I kept playing.

North America became my obsession. Though I owned most of Canadaís eastern seaboard, the southern regions remained undiscovered. I decided to extend my influence. That went rather poorly. Connecticut resisted my efforts to the last man. I lost an absurd number of colonists before it was mine. Florida went fine, but I didnít see much value in settling disjointed chunks of land. I wanted the whole seaboard. Meanwhile, the Pacific Coast beckoned. Competition there wasnít so fierce and its unclaimed territory contained gold and naval supplies. I began working to bring those colonies under my protective wing. As I succeeded, Englandís income grew. Improvements came more quickly and the variety of available structures increased. Just when my interest would wane, something new would happen. Iíd have another project, like building level three forts throughout my Canadian colonies, or discovering more territories and working my way down to Cuba and building sugar plantations.

The game hooks a person that way. By the time the eastern United States truly opened up, I looked outside and dawn had arrived. Around the time I picked a fight with the Creek tribe and the Shawnee joined hands with them to make my life miserable as we spilt blood across seven or eight colonies, my wife marched into the living room, angry that Iíd played a stupid computer game for 18 straight hours. Oops.

Europa Universalis III is like a drug. Just try stopping three or four hours in and youíll see. Thereíre just too many things youíll still want to accomplish. Maybe your troops are finally built up and youíve decided to drop the political side of your campaign and drive a military spike up your rival nationís back side. Maybe South America is almost yours and you simply want to possess it completely before you head off to class or retreat to your bed. When you play Europa Universalis III, you play it just about any way you like and the rewards are so significant that you donít want to quit even when common sense and fatigue say that you should. If I were immortal, Iíd never stop playing.

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Staff review by Jason Venter (March 22, 2007)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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