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Graphics: Victoria utilizes the Europa Universalis engine to render its contents from menus to land masses to military units in 2D. The land formations look especially nice in the topographical view mode with various shades of brown, green, and yellow indicating where elevations and geological formations change. Other view modes alter the landscape to more traditional map colors of light green, red, purple, and so on, like you would see hanging in a school class room. These varied colors convey information on political leanings and infrastructure, and the colors give the additional views more of board game look. Popup windows bearing news and information from around the world have detailed pictures that border on art set in weathered sepia tones. Land- and water-based military units, icons indicating local resources, and symbols on menus are blocky but functional.
Resolutions are limited to 1024×768 or 1280×1024, the latter giving you a larger view of the map. There are stuttering issues that happen to a lesser degree when informational windows pop up and to a greater degree if the included autosave feature is enabled. Since autosave is a highly desirable element to have turned on in case history takes a turn for the worse on you, you often get ripped out of the game when it activates.
Interface: Setting up a new match requires that you choose one of the three included scenarios and a home country. Options can be set for the round either before or during play and include Difficulty, AI Aggressiveness, Game Speed, Fog of War, Autosave, and Use Counters. Once in the match, the most dominant part of the playing screen is the world map. It scrolls up, down, and to the side following the mouse and can be toggled to display different color-coded information representing things like political climate, industry, and the standard topographic terrain detail. You can also right-click on individual provinces to bring up a menu of quick shortcuts to activities in that province like infrastructure upgrades and army creation.
Surrounding the map on three sides are the informational displays and main menu. Along the bottom is a scrolling log window that reports on events around the world as well as dealings in your own country. Along the top is an informational display that delivers statistics like prestige points, discovery points, and the status of your treasury. On the left side of the screen is the main menu that houses clickable buttons arranged in a tiered menu system. From here you issue the majority of your commands as well as receive more detailed information on everything from troop strength to status of social reforms.
The main menu system presents the largest and most frustrating difficulty that exists in Victoria. So much control is centered in it that navigating from submenu to submenu gets confusing; often degenerating into a trial-and-error hunt for the item you seek. This is made worse by inadequate labeling on buttons, the most egregious of which is the small row of keys that toggle map displays from one view to the next. These buttons, like many of the menu items, have no graphical labels, so if you don’t instinctively know what you are about to push, you have to wait for the bubble help to pop up. Ultimately you start to memorize your way around, but there is still too much fumbling and misdirected efforts even after double-digit hours of play time. There are non-changeable hot keys to augment the execution of your will, but there are a lot of functions to memorize. As a result of this, the hot keys can actually muddy the water, creating more problems than they solve.
As mentioned earlier, the most common way for information to be delivered from around the globe is via popup windows that appear to alert you to various dealings. When several events happen simultaneously, these popups bury one another, quickly clogging the screen, and require individual responses. This problem peaks when the game speed is turned up and popups can layer a dozen or more deep before you have a chance to reach for the pause button so you can have a chance to take all the news in. The buttons on the popup windows by which you deliver a decision or response also have the detriment of being small, so that you have to be precise in your clicking, adding to the tedium. Some of this issue can be mitigated by toggling selected messages on or off depending upon preference.
Information about prestige ranking, national ranking, army advances, cultural advances, and an expense graph among others can be displayed in a view called the ledger. The ledger looks like a spreadsheet, is 27 pages long, and while informative, is like a strong dose of pixilated ether. It’s all very good information to have at your finger tips, but it doesn’t help the game’s user friendliness factor whatsoever.
Gameplay: There is so much depth in Victoria that you could play it for months at a time and never see the bottom. Subtle changes to the economy or political structure have lasting effects that alter your experience every single time through. Additionally, history treated every country differently, so your choice of homeland will also vary your progression and the game’s final outcome. Choosing to play as the United States, for instance, is going to give you challenges that are wholly dissimilar from those encountered in Belgium. This is especially true as historical events like World War I begin to grip the world around you. It’s truly mesmerizing the complexity of the background mechanics that whir around behind the scenes and how every decision you make interrelates to others.
Sadly, the biggest problem faced by anyone that would sign up for this challenge is the monumental learning curve that is created by the complexity of the background mechanics. Micromanagement is the name of the game, and while you can control all aspects of everything from when elections are held to military unit creation, you have to be paying attention to so much at a given time that it can be dizzying. This is made worse by the fact that there is no tutorial to give you any kind of overview before being dropped into the ocean and being told to swim. The included manual provides a lot of useful information but it is an exceptionally dry read that tries to cram one hundred years of political science, economics, history and anthropology, as well as the potential outcomes of monkeying with any of these things into 47 pages. Even after you have slogged your way through the manual, Victoria is still unfriendly with a capital U.
The paucity of gameplay types is also mystifying. When I first looked at the single-player setup screen and saw only three time period options offered, I wanted to flip the CD upside down to find out where the rest of the program went. Applying the v1.01 patch adds one more starting point to the list, but every round ends up in the same spot – December 31, 1920. The time period options really only serve to make your game longer or shorter, and in some cases, like the pre-Westward expansion United States of 1836, vary the number of starting provinces. This dearth of play styles makes Victoria appear baldly and unabashedly incomplete. Unless you really like the solitary provided style a lot, you could feel shorted in a big way. Crash-to-desktop bugs also plague Victoria at random points during a campaign and often corrupt autosaves in the process, requiring that you restart farther back in time from another save. Who says history doesn’t repeat itself?
Multiplayer: Multiplayer for up to eight players can be established via TCP/IP over a LAN, peer-to-peer over the Internet, or via the integrated Valkyrienet. The multiplayer rounds are played in the same way as the single-player competitions, but with more human involvement. Match setup is identical to the single-player side of the house as well, with the unexpected interesting twist of being able to start a multiplayer round from the starting point of any saved single-player game. On repeated checks, there were no other users in the Victoria channel of Valkyrienet to establish a match against. Also, trying to even connect to the Valkyrienet without the v1.01 patch caused the client to crash to the desktop.
Sound FX: Sounds are sparse but solid. The largest variety of auditory output is attached to military units and activated by clicking on them. The most prevalent noise is a clicking effect that is associated with button pressings. The downside to this predominant clicking sound is that, since you notice this event the most, Victoria sounds more like application than a game. With the complexity of the menu system, it might have been better to draw attention away from all the buttons you have to push.
Musical Score: Victoria includes almost two hours of classical music from the period by composers like Verdi and Wagner. Some pieces sound like national anthems and are very rousing and inspirational. The quality of the music is excellent and so even if you are having great difficulty with the gameplay, you can at least enjoy your listening experience.
Intelligence & Difficulty: You know after reading the manual that there is a ton of calculations that the computer is doing in the background, but you never see much of it on the surface of the program. There are enemy units that appear, but unless you pump the AI Aggressiveness settings way up or find yourself leading Austria around 1914, the computer controlled characters stay comfortably on their side of the border lines. In general, the AI keeps to the traditional historical telling of where troops were in what years. If you declare war on someone then all bets are off, but the computer is usually quick to offer you a peace accord after the conflict starts.
Difficulty settings range from Very Easy to Very Hard and seem to affect the background dynamics of Victoria like political and economic events, rather than how often or at what point you get rushed. Difficulty is really in the complexity of the game as well as the near non-navigable menu system. The size of your chosen starting nation also affects the difficulty. Early in your encounters with Victoria it’s wise to choose a smaller country with fewer provinces to get the hang of what’s going on before taking control of larger blocks of land. Countries the size of Russia and the United States are almost too unwieldy to administer as you have to micromanage every aspect of daily life and the days blaze past even on the lowest speed setting.
Overall: Victoria: An Empire Under the Sun gets marks for depth and scope, but unfortunately so much of the detail goes to waste due to the frustrating interface, horrendous learning curve, and sparse gameplay options. It gets so frustrating that sometimes it feels like whoever created the interface was angry at you personally for some undisclosed sin. The most died-in-the-wool hardcore strategy fans who have mounds of patience to spare may find months of entertainment value in Victoria, but for most people this will be one that history should best forget.
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