Okay, I admit. Sometimes, a game just downright intimidates me. I'm potentially interested in a lot of different genres, and screenshots of pretty much any well-crafted title can awaken a certain desire in me to give it a shot, but it is not uncommon that I am held back by the time and effort required to fully enjoy the game in question. This ambiguous sentiment was particularly strong with Europa Universalis III, the (surprise, surprise) third installment in Paradox Interactive's prestigious strategy series.
Whilst the prospect of forming my own empire and ruling it as a megalomanic despot seemed greatly attractive, I rather feared the idea of having to maintain the equilibrium of my nation. As a result, I hesitated whether this game was "for me". Until I finally succumbed and found out that annexing other countries and ruling them with an iron fist was easier than I had anticipated.
The basic premise of Europa Universalis III dictates that you select one of many historical nations from anywhere between 1399 and 1821 and make it prosper in the tumultuous climate of the early modern world. Mind that 'prosper' can be defined in any way you see fit. You can take on the challenge to select one of Europe's superpowers and try to dominate the continent, or you can select a small province and use your diplomacy and trading skills to turn it into a respectable country and the region's most wealthy and influential entity. The starting date of your game can also be selected, allowing you to, for example, either play as Castile on the fragmented Iberian Peninsula, or start your game as the unified country of Spain.
Did someone say... "Reconquista"?
The uncannily wide array of playable countries and the possibility of setting your own goals make for a practically endless variation of scenarios and playing styles. You can choose to prevent the fall of the Byzantine Empire, unify the British Isles under Scots rule, expand the Inca Empire all across the Americas, turn Germany into an unparalleled colonial power, or discover and conquer America while playing as China: 'what if'-history has never been so fun. Furthermore, with the possibility to make things as easy or hard on yourself as you wish, this game offers an unusual combination of accessibility and depth: it's comparable to golf, where selecting a handicap allows even the most unexperienced players to enjoy themselves on the playing field without this resulting in concessions for the veterans.
Accessible as the game may be, though, you will naturally have to familiarise yourself with the basic pillars of the gameplay of Europa Universalis III: diplomacy, economy and military. It is thus not unlikely that your first few nations will succumb to overambition or obliviousness towards one or more of the gameplay's main ingredients. Managing your military is pretty straightforward, as you basically just have to create units, distribute them across your realm and be able to support them financially. The economic aspect can be a bit more tricky, though, as you'll have to keep an eye on government expenses and incomes, inflation, taxes and many more aspects that may influence the contents of your treasury. Diplomacy, moreover, may be even more complex, as it has an influence on pretty much everything you do. Declaring war, for example, requires an acceptable motivation (a Casus Belli) such as a trade dispute or border friction, or it may gravely affect both the stability of your realm (increasing the odds of regional insurrection) and the way other countries perceive you.
In addition, alliances can be made with other countries, as well as royal marriages, trade agreements and even personal unions. The comprehension of these concepts, and the possibilities and threats that may arise from them, can greatly increase the chances of your nation being successful. So while it is easy to get into Europa Universalis III, there is still a great deal to learn if you are to truly dominate it. It can take many attempts before all of the game's aspects have been mastered, but as long as you adjust your ambitions accordingly, frustration is by no means a mandatory aspect of this process.
If your ambition is not to get oppressed by China: good luck.
There's also a full-fledged multiplayer mode that supports LAN and internet games for up to 32 players. With multiple players, you can select to either compete against each other using different countries, or work together on one single nation. While demanding somewhat of a different focus, the basics of the gameplay remain largely the same, except that, naturally, some of the AI competitors are replaced by real people. As such, I personally prefer single player, as the AI provides enough challenge and allows you to experiment a bit more without such endeavours immediately having grave consequences. And even when the latter do arise, they are easily revertible by loading an old save.
If there's one thing that is required to enjoy Europa Universalis III, it's a bit of imagination. For the entire duration of the game, you are basically looking at a giant world map. So don't expect any visually exciting, Age of Empires-like battles, or animated messages from other leaders like the ones in Civilization. Nearly all the information you receive will be delivered in the form of text boxes that just pop up on your screen. While not all that visually stimulating, the display of this game is actually very effective, as information is logically distributed across the screen. You can also decide which type of messages you wish to receive, making clutters of information overdose an easily avoidable annoyance.
The historical distribution of Burgundic culture makes you wonder where on Earth contemporary Dutch culture came from...
The music for this game is a tad conventional for the genre, though very enjoyable. A variation of classical themes ranging from soothing to bombastic accompanies the gameplay sessions that are likely to take up multiple hours at a time. As such, the soundtrack can eventually become repetitive, but given the quality and proper pacing of the compositions, this isn't a grave error as much as a minor and forgivable flaw of an otherwise solid aspect of an already solid game.
All things said and done, I'm glad I conquered my fears and got into the hazardous world of Europa Universalis III. This strategy title offers a versatility that is not commonly matched, even within a genre that relies on depth of gameplay rather than productional spectacularity. With so many nations, historical periods and gameplay features at its disposal, EU3 can be played almost endlessly, as extraordinary things happen during every session. At the same time, the rather basic visual presentation of the game requires an audience with imagination and patience; one that is not in need of constant visual or aural stimulation in order to stay focused. So if you're the type who never really got the point of Risk, you probably shouldn't bother. But if you've always dreamt about conquering continents and ruling over an extensive empire, you'll find in Europa Universalis III a game that is as accessible as golf, as addicting as a browser game and as deep as a flight simulator.
Note 1: This is a review of Europa Universalis III: Chronicles, which is the most recent and up-to-date edition of the game, and includes all of the updates and expansions released so far.
Note 2: Currently (as of 17/09/2011), prices on all versions and expansions of EU3 have been reduced by 50% on Steam.
Jesse Dolman, NoobFeed.