The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest.
For the uninitiated, Victoria 2 is the realistic historical empire strategy game from the geniuses at Paradox Interactive. The second expansion, Heart of Darkness has recently launched, and Paradox were kind enough to send us a review copy to take a look.
Victoria is an incredibly dense game. Although it’s real-time strategy, anything you decide to do will often takes months of in-game time to play out. You might envy a neighbour’s territory, but rather than just building troops and sending them over to attack, you must make sure you have the manpower to support such an army, make sure you have the diplomatic clout to pull off an attack, good reason, and then be wary of alliances that could lead your campaign to ruin. If you’ve played Crusader Kings 2, you’ll know how the pace of the games goes, but the playstyle is very different as you delve more into the political decision making of the 1800s rather than the much more personal family intrigue that characterised the medieval powerplays.
It’s an intensely realistic world, and no matter which country or state you choose to play as you’ll be alerted to real historical developments in your own country and will often have to deal with the same problems they faced thanks to similar resources and political movements. If you’ve got no taste for history, it could come across as incredibly dull, but thankfully as a strategy game the depth is intriguing and challenging, coming across as much more sophisticated than the more mainstream games like Civilisation.
The Heart of Darkness expansion, despite the name, does not focus purely on Africa, but instead adds a number of new mechanics that were instrumental in the struggles that occurred on the continent while the European powers were involved. There are crisis events where each country must pick a side and then deal with the consequences, often triggered by less important nations they can often embroil much larger countries into trouble or all-out war over territories hundreds, if not thousands of miles from their borders. In some ways this is an amazing educational tool, explaining how things like the Crimean War ever came to pass and the frustration you feel as a leader of a major power being sucked into a victorless conflict is palpable.
The expansion also beefs up naval combat to make composition important and allow smaller fleets to defeat larger powers through tactics and clever strategy. The war for the sea becomes key as you race to establish your colonies, the final new major feature, and it becomes surprisingly easy (especially in multiplayer) to prevent reinforcements from ever reaching the front lines if you can keep a decent (although costly) Navy going. Combat is still much less exciting than something like the Total War series, but in some ways this can be seen as a positive as you don’t enter wars for the spectacle, you avoid them due to the cost and the strain it involves.
There are other minor improvements, like Newspapers that relate key events and small bits of historical knowledge as you go and an improved tooltip system that does significantly help when navigating your way around the games myriad menus. You have a huge amount of power over the affairs of your country, but each decision making tool and graph and chart is not only vitally important but aesthetically indistinct. It’s hard to tell what you should be looking at at any given time, and when things start happening very quickly, you can pause the game but you ‘ll still be fumbling to find the right checkboxes or graphs to describe what you want. Often options will be unavailable due to some historically accurate but obscure law, and research will need to be done to find your way around it.
Sadly the game’s complexity may be its greatest strength but it is also a significant weakness. Victoria II is a game that requires dedication and mastery, and Heart of Darkness has done little to alleviate that. If you’re prepared to sit down and follow on-line tutorials on how to be successful, picking a less exciting nation to get to grips with the basics, you can experience by far the deepest political strategy game out there. But many will be turned off by this learning curve and many will simply not have the time.
In certain modes (such as the terrain map) the game can be quite beautiful, but for the sake of information you’ll spend little time admiring the cartography and instead be straining your eyes against colour charts and tiny text to decide whether or not you should raise the taxes or the service class in your country.
Interesting political questions are really at heart of the interest in Victoria II and it leads to interesting ethical quandaries. Slavery is an obvious example, despite the clear benefits it provides in subduing the local populace and boosting your industry, I’d be surprised if there are many players who were prepared to choose to allow slavery because it’s so unethical, even though this is a video game where the people don’t exist and you never see them. The fact that it still seems so wrong is testament to how much Victoria makes you care about the countries you rule and the world you inhabit.
If you’ve got lots of free time and any interest at all in world history, I strongly suggest you purchase this game now and persevere with it until everything begins to make sense. If you’re looking for a quick fix of strategy, you’ll need to look elsewhere towards the Civ or Total War games. This game is incredible, but it’s also frustrating and difficult to crack open. Once you do it’s well worth the effort.