Underneath the smooth veneer and the classy presentation, Europa Univeralis IV is a brutal, angry game. Whilst moving your pieces around the game's map of the world might be as simple as nudging a bishop or a rook across a chess board, the fact is that player's actions in Paradox Interactive's strategy opus carry weight and consequence. A piece on the board can represent 50,000 men, and a decision made in a second can mean their death. Another choice, whether calculated or not, could mean the brutal subjugation of a people, the destruction of their religious beliefs, or even the annihilation of a culture. Call of Duty might let you kill people, Europa Universalis lets you destroy countries. For the most part it's pure, unadulterated violence. It's also hugely enjoyable.
There's a considerable barrier to entry, it must be said. The game is layered with unparalleled complexity and depth. For newcomers wanting to discover its charms, there's homework to be done. Tutorials to be completed. Manuals to be read. Even the first couple of games will be a learning experience, where mistakes will be made and invaluable lessons learned.
Europa Universalis IV charges players with taking over the world, or at the very least, cutting themselves off a hefty slice of the map. Fighters can paint the map their colour, expanding across the face of the world like a virus, while lovers can trade and grow, manoeuvre and marry. An elegant portrait of the known world greets players at the start of each game. As new lands are explored and conquered, so the playing field increases in size. The screen is littered with menus and icons, each with a specific function; either displaying key information, or facilitating the many decisions that need to be made. At first it's overwhelming.
Initial attempts ended in utter failure. Heartened by previous experiences with Crusader Kings II, I jumped in after a cursory glance at the manual, ready to take on the world. It concluded much quicker than I would have liked, with civil war ripping my kingdom apart, and enemies pecking away at that which I was unable to defend. Back to the drawing board, and another pass at the tutorial.
The second attempt was much more methodical. An empire was slowly forged. Allies and enemies made, allegiances broken, new lands explored. I began the process of conquering the Americas, flooding the land with conquistadors and colonising the indigenous people I met on the way. I fought over Corsica, I ravaged north Africa. Slow and steady, growing in confidence all the time. It took many hours to acclimatise, but once the drop-down menus and maps and facts and figures started making sense, I was able to make educated decisions, but more importantly, I started to really enjoy myself.
My third attempt was played using the Ironman mode, whereby saves are sent to the cloud, decisions set in stone and irreversible. It was all going swimmingly until I picked a fight that I really shouldn't have, and before long I was occupied and overwhelmed by a force I thought I'd had the measure of. Using a combination of land and naval power I'd hoped to separate my opponent from Manhatten, adding it to my growing portfolio of American colonies. It wasn't to be. In the end I had to sue for peace, and the terms weren't agreeable.
There's so many different directions to be explored, and such a huge variety of ways in which to walk similar paths, that despite the hours I've spent playing so far, I feel like I've hardly scratched the surface. There's a huge amount of longevity here. Players can choose from a wide selection of countries, plucked from a map that evolves over time. The political landscape shifts with the seasons, meaning that advancing a start date 100 years can change much, even if you're playing as the same country.
Each of the attempts mentioned above represented several hours of playtime, and each was suitably different from the last. Before each game there are some decisions to be made, a start date must be chosen and a country selected. The game offers suggestions; countries that were pivotal during particular moments in history. You can control the biggest nations, or the smallest principalities, although the more familiar options will likely be of more interest to the average player. Once a time and place have been selected, the game begins, and players must at once take stock of their situation. Who are the neighbours? Are they friendly? Are the population happy? What does the trade situation look like? Are there any immediate opportunities to expand the borders of the country? All of this information is available, and can be extracted from the various maps and menus with just a couple of purposeful clicks.
Time can be sped up or slowed to a crawl via the timer in the corner of the screen. When many things are happening concurrently - such as during times of war - the game can be paused and orders can be passed to all corners of your empire. Go too fast and you risk missing important, subtle details. Go too slow and you risk spending all night covering a tiny wedge of history. The more confident I became with the game's systems, the more frequently I pushed up the speed to accelerate my progress towards a goal. Conversely, most of the mistakes I made were because I was moving too fast, whether through time, or by making snap decisions and not considering the options presented to me with enough care.
Real world scenarios - for example the English Civil War or the Spanish Inquisition - are presented to the player at appropriate moments during a game. Certain variables must be satisfied for these events to take place, so they never seem out place, but they do a great job of hinging the game in actual history.
The fate of your country is, in many ways, linked to the abilities of its ruler. By that I don't necessarily mean the player. Different kings and queens will be blessed with different abilities; one will be an adept diplomat, another will be well suited to the art of war, while a celebrated monarch's heir may turn out to be as useful as a chocolate teapot. Advisors can be hired to compliment your rulers in areas where they're lacking, but even with these buffs, the variable talent of the different leaders will guide players down different paths. One decade you might be expanding outwards in terms of territory, while the next ten years could be spent building trade routes and forging diplomatic alliances, or even holding on for dear life while civil war rips through your nation.
As you progress through the game, different ideas are unlocked, and can be purchased by spending the points earned through the game (diplomatic, administrative and military). It's here that a player can really shape and mould their country over time. The system has an almost RPG-like feel to it. Different ideas offer different buffs and perks. One idea might be perfect if you want to explore and conquer distant lands, another is more suitable for players hoping to plot and conspire against rivals closer to home. Some players might be even be tempted to ignore war as much as possible, and for them there's religion and trade to busy themselves with.
For those who've played Europa Universalis III, much of what I've described so far will sound familiar. While not a huge departure from the last game, many of EUIV's systems have been refined, and some overhauled completely. The success of Crusader Kings II can also be felt. This is most prominent in the new monarch power system, which puts increased emphasis on the attributes of the individual leaders, and diplomacy has also been influenced by EUIV's dynastically-themed stablemate. A new trade system is now more central to the experience; players will have to pay much more attention to the business side of empire building if they're to be a success. Dynamic events throw more flavour into the mix, and when combined with unique national ideas, it's easier to get a stronger feeling for a country's identity.
Of course there's multiplayer, if you prefer to battle against someone other than the AI. Another really nice feature is the Crusader Kings II save convertor, which allows players with a CKII game to carry on their dynasty at the start of EUIV's timeline (in 1444). I must admit that my attempts at hurrying through an advanced save so | could convert it over didn't go according to plan (in fact it ended in disaster), but having the option to effectively merge the two games is a welcome one. It might take me some time, but I'm determined to see a game from the early start date of Crusader Kings II, all the way through to the end of Europa Universalis IV. When you look at it from that perspective, the scope on offer here is bordering on overwhelming.
Also bordering on overwhelming is the initial mind-boggling difficulty spike, where the game's systems are first presented. It's a tough nut to crack, and a few won't make it past the first two or three hours. However, those that push through, or arrive with an existing understanding of how Paradox makes its strategy games, will find here a wonderful and immersive experience. It's one of those games that can swallow an evening whole, spitting a player out in the early hours of the morning with blurry eyes and a head full of homemade stories. It's deep and complex, but not unintuitive, and the range of options open to the player means variety and longevity. Overall it might lack some of the personality of Crusader Kings II, but there's so much here that strategy fans will have plenty to get their teeth stuck into, and I'd recommend it to both EU veterans and newcomers alike.