Europa Universalis: Rome is so lean and tooltippy, you may not need to open the manual at all. Within an hour of completing the ten minutes-worth of tutorials we’d doubled the size of Macedonia, negotiated our first peace treaty, and purged our young empire of corruption. We were galloping along and loving it. For those new to the series, this is PCT (Pauseable Continuous Time) grand strategy. You pick a starting date (anywhere between 280BC and 27BC) and a faction (up to 50 to choose from), then use war, diplomacy, colonisation, war, trade, espionage and WAR to spread your dominion. Culture, religion, and science all have a say, but this isn’t one of those games where you can storm to victory on the back of a bold library-building program, or string of scientific breakthroughs.
With military matters so central, it’s disappointing that battles are dealt with so cursorily. Potentially, all factions have access to the same unit types and tactics. It’s leadership quality and army size that appear to be the crucial factor in engagements, rather than troop training, skill, or tactics. We say ‘appear’ because there’s zero feedback to base an assessment on. When two opposing forces wind up in the same province, there’s a flurry of automated dice rolling followed by a pop-up that tells you who won and how many died.
We’re not going to knock Paradox for leaving out a tactical layer, but when our Legio Erotica or Legio Formica (yes, you can name armies yourself) gets its rear kicked it would be nice to be told exactly how it happened. Anyone familiar with AGEOD’s (Birth of America, Napoleon’s Campaigns) system of ingenious battle narration icons will know there are simple, elegant ways of supplying such info.
The scraps might be heavily abstracted, but they are largely plausible, a quality shared by most other aspects of the game. In previous EUs, the numerous factors complicating decision-making, long game durations and vast global maps tended to generate history-mangling weirdness. Mali invading Wales, Denmark dominating Asia... it was lively but it was silly. Rome’s smaller map and tighter timeframe seems to lead to much more credible power struggles.
We’ve yet to see the AI do anything really lunatic: no improbable flip-flopping, no grotesque military incompetence. You actually feel as if you’re surrounded by sentient states. CPU-controlled factions even seem to negotiate sagely, a huge achievement given the many diplomatic instruments available.
Another aspect of EU: Rome that keeps unflattering Total War comparisons at bay is the events engine. Every few minutes the game throws a quirky immersion-enhancing incident at you and demands a decision. A lot of the incidents relate to internal politics. Your military and government are staffed by a gaggle of personalised personages who are always falling out, jockeying for position, and dying. Very occasionally you’ll get an event with more profound implications. In our last session we were looking for an excuse to do the dirty on our old chums the Spartans when a border dispute event cropped up. Bingo, we had our Casus Belli.
The inevitable patch probably won’t add any tactical fiber to the combat system (a real pity), but hopefully it will sort out a few interface aggravations. While the 3D soldiers look splendid striding around the landscape, it's absurd that the graphics don’t tell you anything about army size, morale state, or leader. Generals and town governors are dying of old age all the time and you really should be able to spot empty positions just by glancing over your lands. Of course, the patch that will really transform this game won’t be made by Paradox. The experts behind RTW mod Europa Barbarorum have already announced they will be working their magic on this too. If Europa Universalis: Rome isn’t already the most convincing strategic-level recreation of Roman empire building around, there’s a very good chance it will be six months from now.
Apr 25, 2008