I had been eagerly awaiting the release of Europa Universalis 4, the fourth iteration of Paradox's flagship title that first put the studio on the map and marked the entry of one of the greatest strategy game developers. EU3 marked one of the more ambitious projects undertaken by Paradox that indicated the rapid improvement of their development staff, as well as their budget, and Crusader Kings 2 marked the first truly polished release last year, making EU4 that much more critical in demonstrating whether Paradox was truly able to consistently release bug free and enjoyable games.
Europa Universalis 4 is set in the time period of 1444 to 1820, with the player able to choose any historical nation during any point in that time frame. At the player's disposal, as leader of the country he or she picks, are the military, diplomatic, and economic tools of the state. The entire system has been revamped since EU3, with administrative, diplomatic, and military "power" representing three continually generated resources with which the player must ration and utilize to achieve their various goals. Much else remains unchanged, with variable government type, generals, monarchs with three core abilities and other features familiar to players of the Europa Universalis making a return.
One of the greatest changes in gameplay is that of trade, which has been entirely revamped. One of the most appealing aspects of the EU series was the dynamic trade system, which fit in well with the often ahistorical and divergent world of each game. While centers of trade can no longer be changed, and instead the areas of trade importance are entirely static and based on geography, the wealth of these areas can be transferred from trade "node" to other nodes, to reflect the draw and pull of some empires over others, creating a simple and effective trade system. While initially intimidating, once familiar with the system it is much simpler and requires less micromanagement than the previous system - a welcome improvement.
The greatest strength of EU4 however, especially relative to the previous titles, is the degree to which real choices need to be made as leader of the state. Previous iterations were often easy to "power game", that is, once you understood the mechanics it was extremely easy to roll over your AI opponents and become overwhelmingly powerful in every aspect of the game regardless of your nation's circumstances. EU4's power system and more specialized ideas instead require significant tradeoffs and specialization to achieve one's goals, especially for smaller nations. This has the effect of handicapping one's nation relative to those that specialize in other aspects of the game. For example, if you choose to specialize in colonization other nations may specialize in trade, reaping many of the benefits of your colonial efforts. In addition, a blind focus on some form of specialization can actually handicap a player, as the same power resources that allow for idea purchases drive diplomatic (naval) technology, and players may find themselves behind others in other aspects they unknowingly neglected.
Alongside the balance instituted by the necessary tradeoffs of specialization, rapid expansion has been given greater drawbacks that necessitate more slow, piecemeal approach to expansion. While "badboy" wars can still occur, they do so in a much more realistic way, with nations forming a "coalition" against the offending power, which creates an alliance if any of the coalition members go to war with the target that cannot be ended with a separate peace.
More threatening for most players, however, will be the dreaded "overextension", a measure which increases with each province without a core, and drives up the cost of stability increases and drives down trade revenue. It costs a wealth of administrative power, a valuable resource which has a high opportunity cost - that same resource could be going to increase stability or administrative technology. It is also now harder and more expensive to convert provinces' religions if one does not have the right specialization, though cultural conversion is a bit too simple and fast given the cost. The overall effect to create a more historical and satisfying impediment to expansion, which coupled with much stronger rebels and more restrictive manpower requirements, provide for potentially disastrous results for smaller nations seeking expansion.
One of the most welcome changes for veterans is that multiplayer is finally playable without the need for a third party client. Paradox finally gave up on their horrendously unstable and unworkable metaserver, and one can now actually play multiplayer with friends without incessant bugs and crashes, and with minimal set up time. While the game lagged slightly in battles, this may have been an issue with my own connection or setup, and regardless, it represented the most stable and enjoyable multiplayer experience I've ever had with a Paradox game.
One area of additional fun for players of Crusader Kings 2 is the inclusion in the pre-order pack of a CK2 to EU4 save converter, which allows for the continuation of games in Crusader Kings 2 to begin in 1444 in EU4. Previous paradox games often sported fan made converters which worked to some degree but suffered from constant bugs inherent in the variable outcomes of the previous game's history, but with the support and effort of Paradox itself, the converter works almost without issue. There will occasionally be some bizarre outcomes, but the possibility of creating wildly ahistorical worlds with Norse pagan empires, or Zoroastrian middle eastern empires, well outweighs any potential drawbacks.
Europa Universalis 4 represents the greatest release by Paradox in the grand strategy genre thus far, rivaled only by Crusader Kings 2. With a revamped trade system, greater tradeoffs and need for specialization, and a bit more challenge for the veterans, fans of the genre or even more casual players seeking a game in which to test the waters of grand strategy should give it a try. The tutorial and tooltip system makes game play considerably more transparent, and for the price tag of only $40, it is a bargain for the hundreds of hours of unique and entertaining game play that fans will derive from it. Paradox has finally distinguished itself as a major game developer, and one can only look forward to future releases that further revamp their storied titles and franchises.
This review was based on a digitally downloaded PC version of the game provided by Paradox.