To be a fan of Paradox products is not a kind fate. The company is head and shoulders above everybody else in its niche: grand strategy. It keeps coming up with the most interesting games. Want to build nations and colonize in post-medieval Europe? Europa Universalis is the game for you. How about a World War 2 game incorporating military, geological, meteorological, political, diplomatic and economic factors? Check out Hearts of Iron.
No, the problem lies in quality. Or, rather, its lack. I hear there is a thread devoted to raising money so that disgruntled players can travel to Sweden and personally [editor's redaction] to [libel redaction] with one or more pointy [editor's redaction]. Sideways. And then they'll do the same thing to the horse Paradox rode in on.
Paradox has also continued its recent trend of limiting the gamer to making unimportant decisions. As a bonus, if you make an important decision you cannot tell what effect your decision had. To complete the trifecta you will constantly be surrounded by rebels (and other problems) while having little idea why they exist and less about how to fix things.
Whew. I feel better now. Let's get back to the regularly scheduled review, yes?
The basic idea behind Victoria 2 is population management. Everything else you do - economic development, politics, warfare - is based upon, and designed to improve, the quality of life of your population.
To this end your nation is divided up into POPs - variously-sized groups of people that share a culture, a religion, and a job type. In fact, every POP has at least 17 different properties: size, job type, nationality, religion, location, militancy, consciousness, ideologies, issues, unemployment, cash reserves, life needs, basic needs, luxury needs, chance of rebellion, growth, and literacy. For example, one of my POPs is 38 Protestant Swedish soldiers who live in Bethel, Alaska. I have another POP that consists of 2 Sunni Kanauji fruit farmers who live in Monterey, California. Yes, the game will keep track of POPs that small.
Looking at my Swedish soldier pop, it turns out they are about evenly split between Liberal and Socialist politics. Their physical needs - life (e.g. clean water), basic (e.g. beer) and luxury (e.g. wine that doesn't come in a box) - are all taken care of. They all have jobs and a little money in the bank. As a whole, they are pretty happy with the way things are going, and, by extension, me. This is how I (as the guardian spirit of the nation) want everyone to be.This doesn't happen by accident. The Industrial Revolution is just getting started and you have to get your nation's industries humming along or be left in the dust. The economic model is amazing. There are so many raw materials, so many production set ups, so many interdependencies between production, consumption, wages and skills, that one can only stand back and marvel at what Paradox has wrought. Which is part of the problem.
If you have control of your economy you can build factories by hand, or at least order the various materials that go into a factory to be gathered, and then use them to build it. If you have a political structure in which you do not control your economy (e.g. a laissez-faire system) then you can watch the game play itself and hope it does what you want.
Even if you do build a factory it is unclear what is really going on. After you put together the physical building your attention is no longer required. The engine notes that there is a demand for the factory's required raw material (perhaps coal for a cement factory). It then locates a source of coal (either a mine in your nation, or the international coal market) and buys some amount of coal at the market price. At the same time, workers are starting to move in. Craftsmen do the grunt work while clerks manage daily operations and capitalists concentrate on keeping supply and demand in line. It is really sweet in theory but in practice is a bit of a crapshoot. It is easy to build a factory in Ohio and find out, two years later, that no one works there even though there are 5 thousand unemployed craftsmen right next door in Indiana.
But at least you still have the political game, right? There are all sorts of reforms both social and political that you can pass in order to mold your nation to your liking. Except when the upper house won't let you. No matter what type of government you run you will have an upper house. If the members of this house do not favor a given reform you may not enact it. It is as simple as that. No matter how much your POPs want that reform, no matter how many rebels spring up and destabilize your country, you simply cannot enact a reform your upper house opposes. It is immensely frustrating. There is a bug in the current version that (apparently) inflates the number of citizens who join a rebellion out of proportion to the number of citizens who actually care about the issue being rebelled over, making the situation worse.
But there is still the military, right? Sort of. The Victorian era was one of limited warfare, so one can only fight over single territories in any given war. It can make for a boring slog if you need to take a lot of land from somebody, especially given the 6-year truce period. The United States, for example, can spend a lot of time taking territory from Mexico that it historically gained rather quickly. Other than that the military is well-integrated into the population-management and economic facets of gameplay. Victorian armies came to increasingly rely on industrial bases in contrast to the live-off-the-land Europa Universalis model. You will need a well-fed, happy populace and money in the national bank before undertaking any Great Wars.
This is the part of the review where I generally tell you, Gentle Reader, what was wrong with the game. That has been done. Now, I will tell you what I think is right with Victoria 2.
First, the economic model is awesome, the best since Capitalism if not better. It captures the spirit and situation of the time period. It feels natural (if a bit inscrutable), as if there were a real economy purring along underneath your nation.
Second, the population management system is great. Most strategy games treat nations as monolithic blocks. Perhaps they will include a morale meter, but generally the nation may as well be clones of the leader. Victoria 2 has a more complex and realistic model of what your citizens actually care about.
Finally, the era itself is interesting. When the light is just right, and you look at the monitor from just the right angle, it can really feel like you are back at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution leading your nation to a better life. Steam power and mass production can give everyone a better life if you can just manage this tricky transition period...
Grading was difficult. My reasoning follows. It avoids an F due to high concept and ineffable "feel", misses an A for bugs and dodges a C because Paradox will fix them.