The real beauty of EU4 comes from the variety of options for play. There are a few basic rules. The Earth is divided into a few hundred "provinces," each holding resources and continually generating more cash and people for you to use for military, exploration, diplomatic influence, religious domination, etc. The complexity is a sort of emergent property of those restrictions, and their applications create a myriad of varied scenarios. It is entirely within your power, for example, to take the reins of Louis XIV, start a war with everyone, ride into battle with your foolishly out-of-touch leader as a general, get him killed in battle, convert your France into a more democratic society and avoid the French Revolution – or you could just take over the world. The possibilities aren't endless, but when you can play as a fledgling Ottoman Empire and conquer Britain by 1500, it can certainly seem like it. Speculative history is the thing to do here, and EU4 takes many of the series' established traits established and builds marvelously upon them. For example, as much of the middle ages were dominated by absolute monarchs and powerful political figures, developer Paradox has added a "Monarch Power" system. The political strength of your nation's leader is expressed via "Monarch Points" which can be spent on everything from suppression of political unrest to advancing your level of technological development. It's a relatively small change, but it also means that your strength as a country is often tied to the will of your leader. Lines of succession become much more important as you'll need to constantly work to ensure your ruler has the strength of will and the points needed to muscle their way through the uncertain tides of history. It also ties directly into a new addition to the game – allowing your heir to ride into battle alongside your legions of musketeers and cavalry. The balance here is one of huge moral support for your troops, as well as a greater payoff in your ability to accumulate additional points for your bloodline, but with the potential of losing an heir you've invested decades into securing and grooming for the throne.
Lines of succession, then, are made immeasurably more important than in previous titles. Careful management of your political allies and rivals takes on a new meaning. Religious influence is just as critical to monitor and for much the same reason. Other national leaders that don't share your faith will more often than not be reluctant to integrate into a royal family that represents an opposing religious faction. Missionaries can be helpful for spreading "the one true faith", but they can be costly – both financially and diplomatically – and depending upon how pious your targets are, even well-planned cultural assaults may meet with extreme resistance.
Often, even the strategy games that offer players the most latitude in terms of play style ultimately favor more aggressive, militaristic tactics. Europa Universalis 4 largely avoids this simply by keeping to a very realistic and historical presentation of warfare. Creating troops, for example, will rapidly drain your coffers and take a severe toll on your total population. With more troops out in the field, your people won't reproduce as quickly either, making it much more difficult to wage long, drawn-out campaigns against even a single target, much less multi-front wars. Additionally, your soldiers will need to be varied and include a strong mixture of cavalry, infantry and artillery. Other games often artificially reinforce this kind of planning with an arbitrary rock-paper-scissors mechanism for determining superiority in combat. In EU4, however, troop management becomes a bit more important. Cavalry won't charge, for example, if there aren't enough infantry to form ranks behind them. Artillery units are completely useless on their own, and require tremendous amounts of infantry support to be a practical choice. Those limitations, grounded in reality, only serve to drive up the cost of the kinds of massive armies you will need to actually conquer all but the smallest polities.
If you do choose the path of the sword, expansion and colony maintenance will be necessary to bolster your treasury and shore up your population. This also means that you'll need to start gearing your empire for growth from a very early stage. Finding new lands, while requiring significant investment, is still much easier than trying to create, ship and then supply the armies needed to wrench lands from their new "owners." Early exploration requires Explorers or Conquistadors, but can yield tremendous financial advantages – provided that you can effectively and efficiently supply, fortify and defend your colonies. Similarly, investing in technological development can help you reduce the number of units you need to maintain the same military effectiveness. Cutting overhead allows further investment into other areas of your empire, potentially helping you avoid violent conflicts altogether.
Perhaps the biggest source of frustration, however, is the antiquated user interface. While the Europa Universalis 4 UI is very much improved over its predecessors, there are still many small annoyances that add up to a noticeable problem. For starters, most of the ornate decoration that's been layered onto the interface obscures some buttons, particularly the menu and utility bits that sit in the bottom right-hand corner. Buttons for province maintenance as well as national management are easy to lose, and the layout of each sub menu tends to be cluttered with stats and figures. Granted, those numbers are important, but they aren't cleanly arranged and more important functions like attaching troops to transport ships are often placed in seemingly random places. In a game that's already incredibly complex, muddled menus just make it that much harder to learn.
Europa Universalis 4 too often struggles to foster the level of appreciation it deserves, but the potential for historical "what-ifs" will keep any interested players busy for a very long time. It may be a bit rough around the edges, lacking the kind of spit-shine we've come to expect from better-funded fare like Civilization V, but the core experience is one that encourages a sandbox approach to history. Learning how each of the countless mechanics work together to form the simulated medieval Europe is a challenge, but for those that don't mind taking the time to explore, Europa Universalis 4 is a brilliantly crafted playground.
This review is based on a PC download of Europa Universalis 4, provided by Paradox Interactive.
Daniel Starkey is a freelance game critic based out of Minneapolis. When no braving the snow drifts of the Arctic, he likes to lose himself in the latest RTS or RPG. He can be found on twitter @dcstarkey
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