Europa Universalis II Updated Preview

We take an in-depth look at some of the new features in Europa Universalis II.

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Serious strategic gaming made a comeback earlier this year thanks to Europa Universalis. Paradox Entertainment's look at 300 years of empire building was a cult hit with the hard-core crowd, which embraced the game as an alternative to lighter, less realistic fare like Sid Meier's Civilization series. More than 60 nations, some 750 provinces, and a gallery of famous regents and rogues contributed to an impressive backdrop that would have stood up to the scrutiny of even the most fastidious history professor. All of this made for a challenging experience, albeit one that gave a lot back to the player who invested time learning the game's many facets. Nevertheless, many were scared away by this complexity.

A full tutorial is a welcome addition.
A full tutorial is a welcome addition.

Europa Universalis II may be even more complex. The sequel, which arrives later this month from Paradox and publishing house Strategy First, is certainly coming with more of just about everything. A broader focus, more than 150 total nations, dozens of new historical personages, a wide range of revamped units, and additional options for diplomacy and trade should make the follow-up more expansive in nearly every way. At the same time, however, the overall design seems to be a lot more approachable. Our extensive perusal of a nearly complete preview build revealed a friendlier game, thanks in large part to a reworked tutorial that sets down all of the need-to-know information in easily digestible bites. Nine separate sections take you from the basics of the interface right through more esoteric elements like diplomacy and religion. Where the first game dropped you in the middle of the woods without a map, the second takes you by the hand and leads you exactly where you need to go.

That's a good thing, since Europa Universalis II is a huge game. While the first game covered the three centuries between Columbus' discovery of North America in 1492 and the beginning of the Napoleonic era in 1792, the second starts nearly a hundred years earlier and ends almost 30 years later. This expanded timeline grants the developers a chance to depict virtually every event of historical import that took place between 1419 and 1820. The scope is incredibly broad, encompassing late medieval conflicts such as the Hundred Years' War and the Napoleonic conquests that characterized the latter days of the Age of Enlightenment.

Byzantium starts from a precarious position in 1419.
Byzantium starts from a precarious position in 1419.

All of these momentous events are fully detailed in the 11 single-player campaigns. A few are enhanced and updated models of those available in the first game. The American Dream, for example, lets you take up where the original United States scenario left off in 1792 and continue through the southwestern expansion and the War of 1812. This formidable scenario features a number of difficult diplomatic objectives and waves of English troops that attack from Canada in the early years. Similarly, The Age of Revolutions campaign lets you guide one of eight states through the turbulent period between 1773 and 1820. You can take the reins in familiar situations, such as the American Revolution and its aftermath, or look into the affairs of foreign nations like Spain and Austria. The history of the latter is particularly fascinating during this period, which saw the central European nation go from expansion to a defensive alliance with its most hated enemies.

New Regions

Yes, as a matter of fact the peasants are revolting.
Yes, as a matter of fact the peasants are revolting.

The centerpiece Grand Campaign now features eight playable states, including Novgorod (Russia) and China, two Eastern powers that were overlooked last time, and Byzantium, an empire that no longer existed when Europa Universalis began in 1492. Russia and China add a lot of depth, introducing regions that were largely left unexplored in the first game along with new provinces, units, and scenery. Each begins from a powerful position that's accompanied by a drive for expansion. Russia seeks to conquer territory from the Poles and then move into the Baltic states, while China wants to fight any number of hostiles and potential hostiles to the north and south. Playing as China also offers the chance to do a lot of exploration, since much of the map is obscured by the fog of war. Byzantium, on the other hand, is strictly for masochists, because the Turks have whittled the ancient empire down to a few strips of land as play begins in 1419. Barring significant changes made before the code is finalized, it will be impossible to survive more than a year or two against the constant Turkish onslaught. That's perfectly in line with history--as the Byzantines were pretty much as dead as their Roman predecessors when the 15th century rolled around--but it doesn't make for much of a game.

Feel free to send Napoleon to Elba a little ahead of schedule.
Feel free to send Napoleon to Elba a little ahead of schedule.

Beginning so much earlier also means some significant changes to the existing states. England now starts with King Henry V leading an army of 25,000 men into France. France, of course, begins on the ropes, needing to mount a defense against that massive invasion force...perhaps with the divine assistance of Joan of Arc. Spain doesn't even exist at this point, though it will in the near future if you can unite the warring kingdoms of Castille and Aragon. And Turkey is preparing for the final campaign against Byzantium and a subsequent drive into Christian Eastern Europe. These changed scenarios should make a tremendous difference in the way each nation plays, most having only a vague resemblance to their 1492 counterparts from the Grand Campaign in Europa Universalis.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Europa Universalis II will be Napoleon's Ambition. This campaign deals with the effect that the rise of the diminutive French emperor had on eight nations that stretch across the globe. You can satisfy your inner despot by siding with France and fighting a war of expansion beginning in 1795. Trying to repeat Napoleon's conquests was incredibly difficult in the preview build, with simultaneous pressure from England, Prussia, Austria, Spain, and minor states such as Savoy and Bavaria making it necessary to simultaneously fight on three or more fronts. Anyone who plays this campaign from the French point of view should emerge with greater respect for Napoleon's achievements. Of course, it isn't all that easy for France's enemies. England must remain constantly on guard, and Austria, Prussia, and Russia must walk a diplomatic tightrope to preserve their alliance against Napoleon.

A Historical Event

China is a new player in the Grand Campaign.
China is a new player in the Grand Campaign.

Game mechanics have mostly been left unchanged. Most importantly, the few additions have done nothing to complicate the basics of play, which remain refreshingly free of micromanagement. Internal policy can be altered with slider bars that let you create a nation that is aristocratic or plutocratic, free or feudal, and so on. Diplomacy has been beefed up with options that let you make trade agreements and offer mutual defense treaties and other pacts encouraging a rival to accommodate your wishes in regard to waging war or making peace with a third party. Historical events pop up, often requiring your input--meaning that you can send Napoleon packing before he takes power, choose to side with the Lancasters or Yorks in the War of the Roses for the English crown, or even build an immense palace (à la Versailles) to reinforce your imperial majesty. Missionaries can be sent into provinces in an attempt to convert the residents and make them less likely to revolt. This can be very important in certain areas, due to the addition of new religions such as Buddhism, Confucianism, and Hinduism. You can give your conscript armies an added boost by hiring mercenaries. Privateers can be paid to cause havoc by attacking shipping in certain waters. New units for both land and sea warfare have been added, mostly to represent the later and earlier time periods.

Presentation is similar in appearance to that seen in the first game, although much has apparently been refined. Paradox has clarified matters with a revamped interface that features more tool tips, each containing a greater amount of information. Unlike its predecessor, much of Europa Universalis II seems to explain itself. Veterans of the first game will immediately recognize the main map screen, as it seems to have been retained with no significant changes. Some frills become apparent after a few hours of play, however, mostly in the form of additional animations. One new highlight involves the missionary, who goes about his business by waving a cross and a Bible.

Battle for independence in the expanded American campaign.
Battle for independence in the expanded American campaign.

In contrast to the visual side of things, audio effects have been completely redone. Where the original was quiet much of the time, the sequel boasts a sound sample for nearly every in-game event. Battles are riots of clashing sabers and gunshots, failure is met with the disapproving jeers of the mob, and triumphal horns ring out to mark an important accomplishment. Most pleasing to the ear is the brand-new musical score that has replaced the canned tunes of the first game. This soundtrack represents all of the historical periods and ranges from Latin choral odes when playing in the High Medieval Era through orchestral pieces when playing in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. While both fitting and entertaining, some of these tunes can be a little distracting. Paradox says that some changes will be made to the music, though, so perhaps this issue will be cleared up in the retail release of the game.

Judging by the preview build, Europa Universalis II should be a worthy successor to one of the more impressive strategy games in recent memory. While Paradox hasn't done much to alter the essentials, the company has taken some of the criticism of its first effort to heart and worked at smoothing over the rough spots and giving fans more of what they liked. Look for it to arrive in stores a day or two after the November 13 ship date.

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