Summary: Brett takes a look at the latest offering from Strategy First in the Europa Universalis. Even though it's a rehash of Europa Universalis with new scenarios and features, will it be enough of an effort to be another good strategy game? Put on your armor and flip up your visor and read on!
New package, old game
Europa Universalis: Crown of the North is a pretty catchy title for what seems to be a standalone expansion pack. The moniker even seems accurate, in that gameplay focuses on the medieval war for supremacy in Northern Europe between the Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians. But all isnít quite as it seems. Although Europa Universalis II is included here in its entirety, along with three bonus mod campaigns, Crown of the North is really a completely different game. It installs and loads separately from Europa Universalis II and was even released on its own in Europe under the name Svea Rike III. So if youíre looking for ďEuropa Universalis II Gold,Ē be aware that this isnít it.
Which is both good and bad. While itís good that this isnít yet another budget-minded repackaging of yesterdayís game with some fresh table scraps, developer Paradox and publisher Strategy First arenít being entirely honest. Europa Universalis II fans might be surprised and disappointed that theyíre getting a cut-rate game in the style of the original Europa Universalis, not a real expansion to that gameís much-improved successor. Newbies looking for their first exposure to the series might be better off hunting down a cheaper copy of the real deal, since theyíre really not getting any significant extra content here. At any rate, the packaging is extremely misleading.
SIDEBAR: EU2: CotN Offical Website
European history in PDF format
And there are other problems as well, most notably the absence of a paper manual for Europa Universalis II and a serious problem with the on-disc PDF version. The Adobe Acrobat document is next to useless, as whoever formatted the thing managed to excise all of the odd-numbered pages. Brilliant. Since the strategy epic is as deep as a doctoral thesis, itís pretty much unplayable out of the box without a manual. Even if it was complete, a game that features four centuries of European history, complete with thousands of actual events and personages, needs more than a PDF manual.
At least you do get a short paper booklet that goes over the basics of Crown of the North. This manual is actually an improvement over the documentation provided in the original Europa Universalis II, in that it goes into quite a bit of depth on this single campaign while the first book addressed only the generalities of play and glossed over specifics. Paradox has scrapped this approach here for tables detailing unit, recruitment, province, and terrain specs.
Random Fact: The manual for the original Europa Universalis was a great history primer. Unfortunately, it told us more about Suleiman the Great than how to play the damn game.
SIDEBAR: Recommended System Requirements:
Pentium II 450Mhz
2MB Video Memory
A Crusade? Iím there for ya, Pope Pius
This manual proved to be a real blessing for me because Crown of the North plays quite a bit differently than Europa Universalis. The tighter focus on a relatively small and isolated part of Europe makes for a distinct style of play thatís more directly based on a rock-paper-scissors system where you conquer provinces and construct and upgrade buildings in order to qualify for further upgrades, military units, etc. Developing provinces and keeping them rebellion-free is a juggling act where you have to balance the needs of the nobles, clergy, burghers, and peasants against one another. Virtually every decision that you make raises your profile with one group at the expense of your profile with another. Grant fiefs to the nobility at a provincial castle and you gain two points with the upper crust and lose one point with everybody else. Transform royal farms for the use of the common and you gain two point with the peasants and lose one with everyone else. Your response to dozens of random and historical eventsósuch as starvation, treaty offers, plague, money counterfeiters, and even a comet that has everyone running scaredóalso influences the attitude of these groups.
Of course, keeping everybody happy is really the primary goal of the game. Since this happiness is rated on a scale of 1 to 10 (nicely illustrated by icons representing stormy to sunny skies), itís really easy to lose control for a bit and wind up with one or more groups hating you enough to foment rebellion and cut back on paying their taxes. The only way to keep on top of this is by careful decision-making and building construction. When the clergy gets upset, crank out the churches and respond favorably if the Pope calls for a Crusade. Donít devalue the coinage if you want the burghers to stay smiling. Call for a Ting council meeting whenever the nobles seem antsy. Since each move placates one or two groups at the expense of others, you need to bounce around from month to month. Events often arise where you simply canít win, meaning that youíre always scrambling. A regulation issue with merchants drops your approval rating with that group by four points no matter what response you choose, for instance.
SIDEBAR: Time slows down near a black hole; inside, it stops completely.
The Duck of Death
Nations augment this sort of interaction in the same fashion. The struggles between Sweden, Norway, and Denmark between 1275 and 1340 are perfectly realized, as the factions have varying strengths and alliances that contrast and complement one another. King Erik Menved of Denmark begins in the strongest situation, with a strong army situated in the perfect geographic location. Enemy provinces nearby are rich and ripe for the picking. Norwegian King Haakon V may be slightly out of the loop in Trondheim, but his hilly, forested provinces are stable and easily fortified. In Sweden, King Birger sits uneasily on the throne due to a brewing civil war prompted by his younger brothers, Erik and Valdemar. Overall, youíll have it easiest playing the Danes, experience slightly more difficulty as the Norwegians, and endure real hardships siding with the Swedes.
You can also forego the rulers entirely and sign up with one of the rebel forces. The Swedish duchies home to Erik and Valdemar are available, as is the small territory controlled by Marshall Stig Andersson, a Danish nobleman recently fled to Norway after assassinating King Erik Klipping. These three groups add a lot of color to play, serving as wild cards that can change the course of any game. While none of them is equal to the royal factions, their assistance can turn a strong enemy into an unstoppable foe. This cranks up the importance of alliances to a level not seen even in Europa Universalis games, which were heavy on politics to begin with.
SIDEBAR: When King Haakon V of Norway died in 1319, his grandson Magnus united the crown of the north and became ruler over both Norway and Sweden. Boy, Iíll bet youíll sleep better tonight knowing that.
Replay value is fairly strong, although you have to consider that there are just six playable sides and adjust your expectations accordingly. There are only so many ways to be successful here. For example, the Dukes have to ally themselves with Norway to have a chance of taking out Birger. Norway has to play a juggling act with the Swedes, helping the Dukes for a time but not letting them get so powerful that they will remove Birger and become a threat. And so on. The only really free choices can be made by Denmark and Stig Andersson. Denmark can take just about any path it wants. Playing it is similar to playing one of the powerhouses in Europa Universalis II, nations like England or Spain, without the grand scale of continent-wide conflict. Things are more wide open for Stig Andersson, who can be played a lot like Turkey in the later campaigns of Europa Universalis II because he doesnít control much land and threats are all around him.
Artificial intelligence isnít very challenging no matter which side you take on, however. Enemy forces donít react very well to your amassing a huge army right next door, nor do they defend smartly. Charge into enemy territory and your rival will almost always send its defending army into the province you just left. Sometimes this catches you with your pants down, but it still doesnít make sense for the computer to abandon the defense of its territory like this. And this happens pretty much unfailingly, even against overwhelming odds. Iíve seen the computer respond to one of my offensives by sending a couple hundred basic infantry into one of my provinces fortified with over a hundred knights. The computer also doesnít seem to build smartly. Fog of war hides some of this, though the computer provinces rarely seem built up properly by the time I arrive.
SIDEBAR: In medieval Europe, alchemists mixed powdered gold into drinks to "comfort sore limbs," one of the earliest references to arthritis.
Still, there is some challenge provided in the later stages. It isnít easy to accumulate more victory points than your main rivals. Yet as well put together as Crown of the North is, as entertaining as it is to try and keep your nobles and peasants from killing one another (or worse yet, their king), it doesnít provide enough gameplay to make the $30 pricetag justifiable. Itís hard to believe that this game is being sold on its own in Europe. Throwing in the complete Europa Universalis II makes the sticker somewhat more bearable, though itís hard to count this as much of a bonus since most of the gameís fans already own the original. And then thereís that whole missing/screwed-up manual thing to consider.
Perhaps more significant is the misleading marketing. Crown of the North looks and plays more like something designed for the original Europa Universalis than its successor. Most tellingly, the interface doesnít feature a lot of the interface amenities introduced in the sequel, along with the ability to use resolutions higher than 800x600. Maybe this doesnít make much difference in the end, as the core of the game is still the same historically rich grand strategy, but Strategy First clearly implies that Crown of the North is an expansion to Europa Universalis II. Some fans of the series will undoubtedly be disappointed that this really isnít the case, no matter how the new game stands on its own.
SIDEBAR: I canít play any of the Europa Universalis games without singing U2ís ďZooropaĒ at some point.
Whatís in a name?
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