History never changes, but a few new sources can open up radical new perspectives and push historians to revise the textbook interpretations. Similarly, the revisions to Europa Universalis II might not seem like much on paper, but a few significant changes make the game play noticeably differently from its predecessor, which was released in the US just earlier this year. The new game goes further to emphasize the social and political specifics of historical nations and opens up the possibility of playing non-European and minor nations. Europa Universalis II also takes steps to maintain a reasonable balance of power, because while the original Europa Universalis wasn't intended to be played as a world conquest game, it wasn't that hard to run wild across the globe. Nonetheless, while Europa Universalis II is superior in many ways, it's hardly a true sequel.
Europa Universalis, transformed from its board game roots by a Swedish developer, met with considerable success for a game with such a serious historical emphasis and a steep learning curve. Much of the game's charm came from its exacting detail: 60 major and minor nations competed on a colorful illustrated map with some 700 territories spread across the globe. War was just one means to the diplomatic tug-of-war between leading nations, but when alliances of many nations would clash, dozens of battles could play out simultaneously throughout Europe in the game's rather abstract, real-time mechanics. And, as the title suggests, the game is very much focused on Europe.
The new game has a broader focus, one that will interest returning veterans of the first game, and it greatly improves the tutorial and documentation to ease the significant learning curve for new players. The total number of nations has jumped to well more than 100, and you can choose to play as any of them. While many of the new nations are quite minor, like the once independent French provinces of Brittany and Auvergne, there are now a number of new viable starting places outside of Europe. There are more interesting corners of the world to explore and conquer, and the regions of the globe are more distinct. Each province has a native culture, which can come into tension with the ruling culture of your nation. Religion and the political conflict between faiths play an important role in Europa Universalis, so it's natural that the new game also adds the predominant religions of Asia (Buddhism, Confucianism, and Hinduism) to the mix. However, don't think that large nations in Asia like China are natural winners. The game uses religious and cultural bonuses for research and productivity to give the West the momentum to reach its manifest destiny by the 19th century.
Even in playing one of the major European powers present in the first game, it's easy to see how the many small gameplay changes strongly affect the course of a game. Strategies that once would have paved the way to world conquest may now be recipes for disaster. Most of the scripted events in the first game focused on the sudden religion conversions that swept across 16th-century Europe, igniting domestic upheavals and breaking political alliances. Now events cover any number of historical happenings, from treaties and political intrigues to ideological shifts. In many cases, you can choose between two or more possible paths after considering the explicit statistical effects for each.
The events help ground the game more solidly in historical fact and flavor and also help to further distinguish the experience of governing one nation from another. There's real bite to events in part because they tie into a new set of domestic policy settings that describe social considerations, like the degree of centralization and aristocratic privilege in a nation, a nation's military preference for land over sea, or quantity over quality. Since the domestic policy sliders allow only a single small change every 10 years of game time, the comparably quick changes from events make the system seem much more relevant. However, the biggest overall effect of events is in decreasing political stability. It's now much harder to expand a nation into an empire and still maintain domestic peace. Rebellions are a bigger distraction than ever and ensure that there's always a lot of work to do.
But when your nation's inhabitants aren't rebelling, it's the computer-controlled nations that will keep you challenged. There are a few new diplomatic options to use to keep other nations on your side, but other countries are generally better at banding together to keep a very aggressive nation in check. It's still quite difficult to judge which computer-controlled nations will accept at the negotiating table. Vassals who think well of you will constantly refuse to trade maps, and friendly nations may declare war without provocation. Advisor suggestions, counteroffers, or contextual clues would really help make the diplomatic system less of a guessing game. However, new ways of concluding peace agreements are a more concrete improvement. You can now force defeated countries not only to give up a few provinces but to also accept military access for your troops; or demand that states become vassals as a kinder alternative to full annexation. Since runaway expansion isn't as much of an option as before, you'll have to pay close attention to victory points or other customizable victory conditions to win scenarios.
The scope of the game now extends earlier and later, starting out in the late Middle Ages in 1419 and extending through the Napoleonic era to 1815. Most of the seven scenarios focus on a manageably small corner of history and do a particularly good job of opening up the later periods for play without having to march through the grand campaign. For those looking to play a straight conquest game without the hindrance of minor nations, there's a fantasy scenario that excludes all but a handful of major nations spread around the globe. While multiplayer in games of this scale is quite daunting, those interested will appreciate the new integrated player-matching service and the ability to save games in progress.
While the gameplay additions have an overall positive effect, the benefit of the graphics and sound revisions isn't as uniform. The game now allows resolutions of 1024x768 and 1280x1024, using the extra pixels to display more of the map at a time. There are also more unit graphics for different time periods and regional military traditions. But the overall effect of the graphical touch-ups isn't noticeable for most of the game if you're playing as a European nation. And while the addition of quality MP3 music for each of the periods is quite welcome, the sound effects are still screechy and repetitive. Relative volume sliders for music and sound would have been a step in the right direction.
Europa Universalis II requires more subtlety and more work to play than the first game, as events often crop up to keep you from zooming through times of peace at higher game speeds. Although the new game doesn't represent the jump in production values that some might have hoped for, the gameplay changes should give fans of the first game plenty to work with. For those who haven't played the first game, the better documentation makes this a much more accessible way to try out one of the most engaging serious strategy games of the year.