Spiffy? Nah... no need
The Europa Universalis games have proven time and again that great games do not need a spiffy looking game engine to hold their own. Gameplay and interface have always been their strength and those who were able to look past the spartan looks have been treated to a level of depth that can enterain for weeks or even months at a time. While Europa Universalis III is the first game in the series to sport a 3D engine, it is hardly breaking with its tradition of gameplay over graphics. I won't go into the graphical details very deeply as the accompanying screenshots speak for themselves. Suffice it to say that things have improved somewhat, that the new geographical terrain looks interesting but too confusing to be of any real use, and that players should once again try to look past the lack of graphical splendor.
So what is Europa Universalis? If you have never played any of the games in the series before, it is not that easy to describe. If anything, it is a hardcore strategy game that is real-time but can be paused whenever the chaos on the various battlefields dictates to do so. Europa Universalis III takes place between 1453 and 1789. Depending on your country of choice you can play anywhere in the world. The difficulty level is based on the military, economic and diplomatic strengths of your country. This rating will give you -some- indication of what you can expect but unfortunately it is far from accurate: your geographical location (and thus your neighbours) is not factored in. It is entirely possible for a country rated as 'easy' to be near impossible to play. The world map changes all the time, meaning that some countries will not be available in later era's, simply because they have ceased to exist. It also means that playing a country in one era can be a completely different experience 100 years later.
Once you have made your selections and are inside the game, one of your first tasks is to find some advisors. They don't actually advise but they do provide healthy bonusses towards developing new technologies or help recruit merchants, missionaries, spies and colonists. You will have to pay wages but these are easily outweighed by the services that they provide.
Depending on your treasury you can also hire new units or build improvements in the provinces under your control. Many of these improvements need to be unlocked through research. Hovering over their icons will show you exactly what you need to build each improvement and this 'tooltip' way of guiding you through the options can be found all over the game's interface. Without it, figuring out Europa Universalis III would be a daunting task. In doing this, the developers have managed to structure the game in such a way that learning how the game works becomes a pleasurable journey of discovery rather than a continuously frustrating dip into the manual.
Your army starts out with the basic units of the chosen era. Through research, new units will become available but sometimes m stronger or more exotic units can be recruited in provinces that you own but are contended by your neighbours. If your enemy's Land Tech is further along than yours, you are actually able to recruit armies based on -his- technology. Fun, but it disappears when the province is no longer contended so you can't count on this for very long. The game is filled with intricate little details like this one and can keep you puzzled about certain things for weeks until you finally discover the reasons behind them.
Conquering your neighbours can yield quick rewards and it is definitely doable taking down a more powerful country. Don't be too quick going to war however; their allies may prove bothersome and your own allies seemingly betray you at leisure. This is actually one of the weakest points of the game. Many of the diplomacy options are solid and well thought out but alliances seem to work only for your enemies. I have yet to be in an alliance that lasts longer than maybe 20 years while my enemies have had the same allies for centuries. As it stands, there seems to be no sense of loyalty towards the human player.
Once you have gotten on someones bad side, they often declare war just for the sake of declaring war. It does not matter how much bigger you are or even how large your standing army is. Angry neighbours will attack you a couple of weeks after your latest truce has expired. While they remember that they are pissed off at you, they don't remember that you crushed them a dozen times already and will probably do so again. Even worse, they will do so without being sufficiently prepared. The rhythm of their attacks will be pretty obvious after some time, so you will have forces waiting at your mutual borders and -as often as not- will be able to walk right into their undefended territories! The rest of the AI is capable, sometimes even clever, but for me this is a missed opportunity that frustrates rather than entertains.
No Pros and Cons at this time