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Victoria II is a games writer’s nightmare. To experience every aspect of the title, it would probably be ideal to play through three full campaigns as every different ‘tier’ of nation: great power, secondary power…

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Victoria II Review

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Victoria II is a games writer’s nightmare. To experience every aspect of the title, it would probably be ideal to play through three full campaigns as every different ‘tier’ of nation: great power, secondary power and ‘uncivilized.’ However, a single play through one campaign takes upwards of twenty hours (depending on how much micro-management a player engages in and the speed at which they elect to let in-game time pass.) No matter how much we may wish it were the case, a writer cannot dedicate 60+ hours to a review copy unless they are an unpaid enthusiast with little else to be getting on with.

The above often goes unsaid in the games press, but it’s worth drawing attention to. For my part, I’ve taken secondary power Portugal into the early parts of the 1900s (around 80 years of in-game time) and dabbled with the first few years of different starts for great and uncivilized nations. This has taken, at a rough estimate, about twenty hours and includes time spent with the preview build.
That preview is the place to go for an explanation of the basic tools available to a budding nation-builder. To quickly re-summarise though, Victoria II places players at the helm of a 19th century nation state from 1836 to 1935 in much the same way as a football management sim places you at the head of football club. There are financial, technical and political methods at your disposal to guide the nation/team in a desired direction, but there are fewer direct controls with which to dictate specifics. Large portions of time are spent with the game paused, during which various sliders are fiddled with, then re-paused after a little time has passed to see what effects the tweaking has had.

This hands-off approach can be something of a weakness. Too often, incidents arise that the player is left baffled by. Although the tutorial provides a fine, multi-tiered introduction to the game, it is powerless to explain more pointed questions like ‘why do my factories keep closing under a laissez faire government?’ or ‘how the hell do I effectively manipulate my upper house into a position where they will enact social reforms?’ Victoria II is kind enough to offer the option to display messages about almost everything that happens in the game-world, but is less conscious about highlighting which ones might actually important. I’m always alerted when there are 15 unemployed craftsmen in Region X, but does it actually matter? (The answer, in this case, is no.)

Without prerequisite knowledge, certain areas of the game remain confusing. Inaction on political and social reforms seems mystifying, until you realise that the game is hard-coded so that upper house socialists only support social reform, and upper house liberals only support political reform. Find yourself with around 33% of each, plus a final third of conservatives, and reform in your nation will come to a crashing halt. This was obviously a game mechanics decision taken by Paradox, but to people with some knowledge of history (which will, I’d imagine, be the majority of this game’s audience) it seems highly incongruous with the setting. The Artisans’ and Labourors Dwellings Improvement Act of 1875 was a piece of social reform enacted by Disraeli’s conservative government in the UK. Gladstone’s Liberal governments of the same period also enacted multiple pieces of social and political reform. To have socialists and liberals making up the majority of an upper house and being perfectly happy at the stagnation of reform just doesn’t feel right in the context of the rest of the game.

Players often have more power over the economy, though is largely dependant on which party is in power in the nation. Elections periodically alter the ruling party, but if you have certain political systems in place (such as HM’s Government) you can simply appoint your party of choice and reap the benefits – while also annoying certain segments of the population. Not all economic choices appear to be equal, however, as the capitalist section of the population who make project decisions under laissez faire conditions (as opposed to interventionalist or state capitalist) tend towards some horrible decisions. It’s reasonable to assume that some factory projects will fail, but I’ve witnessed a laissez faire economy personally destroy a number of previously profitable industries and then attempt to construct some factories that go bankrupt almost immediately. Maybe this is a satirical lesson in economics, who knows.

Whatever it is, a planned economy seems to be the only way to succeed at present, and the reasoning for this appears to be tied to the trade system. As far as I can tell, subsidies (only available under left-leaning government types) are crucial for factories, because if the availability of required production goods dries up for even a couple of days, a laissez faire economy simply throws up its hands and assumes the factory has failed. Unfortunately, due to the volatile nature of the local and world markets, this happens quite a lot, so even otherwise profitable factories will be unnecessarily closed down.

It’s hard to be entirely sure if this is the reason, as the trade system in Victoria II is a monumental disaster zone. So many oddities like the factory situation above seem to crop up that it’s difficult to assume anything other than the worst. The best solution at present seems to be to allow the AI to handle much of the trading and simply accept the strange outcomes that sometimes occur. At one point I was taxing my aristocrats and capitalists precisely £0.00 and had a huge national stockpile, but the hapless cake-eaters were still unable to purchase their basic life needs from the local market. Playing Victoria II is a matter of slowly accepting little inconsistencies like this.

If you read the Victoria II preview, you may recall that I took issue with the trivial way colonialism appeared to be portrayed in the title. The good news is that this did change between preview and review copy, adding a ‘liferating’ to each potential colony, forcing certain technological advancements before nations can swan in there and take over. This adds a little more realism, but there’s still something very off-putting about the game’s approach to colonial expansion.

To quote a little from Victoria II’s own website, “When you’re one of the most prestigious and powerful countries in the world, you’ve got ships, guns, and lots of money, so you don’t have to pay so much attention to those native populations.” Statements like this sound like some of Winston Churchill’s darker imperialist musings. Discussing his role as a young man in raids on what is now Pakistan, Churchill wrote: “We proceeded systematically, village by village, and we destroyed the houses, filled up the wells, blew down the towers, cut down the shady trees, burned the crops and broke the reservoirs in punitive devastation.” These attitudes are now (rightly) regarded as monstrous, but appear to be presented by Victoria II with a straight face (unlike, say, the dark humour of a game like Tropico 3 which also deals with some unpleasant political stuff.) That’s not to say Victoria II has no sense of humour – it does a decent line in puns – but on this issue, it appears serious.
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It’s not enough to suggest that the game is simply trying to mirror the attitudes of the day either. Even at the time, views like Churchills were at the very extremes of British brutality. There are also several troubling examples throughout the title which indicate how the programmers feel about ‘uncivilized’ nations (the Euro-centric definitions of what counts as ‘civilised’ being perhaps the most obvious.) If you’ve seen any maps of Africa in Victoria II screenshots (such as the one to the right,) you’ll know that it is largely a blank space. Though they’ve prided themselves on adding hundreds of world nations, Paradox’s team did not care to research many of the African tribes of the period, despite their crucial role in the history of the continent. In Victoria II, Africa is an open space for land grabs. Nothing more.

If you can tolerate this unpleasant stance for the purposes of the game, there is still some fun to be had. Having strategic decisions abstracted one stage away from where they would normally be in a title of this kind is a refreshing approach. Populations react to decisions taken at an upper layer, so rather than just having a direct interface with a slider for making fewer farmers and more factory workers, it’s necessary to actually shape the conditions under which that might occur. When this works out successfully, it’s very rewarding. The problem, as indicated above, is when the player is struggling to work out how to achieve something and the game is either not providing much feedback about how to do so (even in the extensive digital manuals,) or is coded in a counter-intuitive way.

Rebellions initially appear to function roughly as they should. Sections of the population get annoyed about the lack (or deluge) of reforms and rise up in anger at perceived injustices. Thinking I could use this to my advantage (having seen rebel demands imposed upon other nations) I disbanded my armies and let the anarcho-liberals take control of Portugal. This proved to be a mistake, as the aims of the anarcho-liberals were rather at odds with their in-game description. Despite being painted as freedom fighters for political reform, they actually rolled back my reforms and created a highly repressive dictatorship (albeit one with a laissez faire economy.) In this game, apparently, anarcho-liberal means libertarian extremist with more than a touch of fascism. This wouldn’t be too much of a problem, if the description of the faction actually sounded like that.

It got stranger, however. Even after creating their anarcho-liberal paradise, the rebels were not satisfied. In fact, I had more people in the anarcho-liberal rebel faction than ever before. Some 600,000 people from a population of 5.0 million were pissed off about … well, who the hell knows, because they had their perfect state in place already, and were still periodically rebelling. This was quite funny, but made no sense whatsoever.

Indeed, my late-game experience with Portugal was largely chaotic. After hauling the nation to Great Power status (which opens up a whole new meta-game of drawing other nations into your sphere of influence for global and political gain) and letting the anarcho-liberals sweep to (idiotic) power, two other great powers decided I needed to be cut down to size. Alas, I was already involved in a fools errand in Southern Africa, trying to beat down the Transvaal nation. My noble allies Spain joined the war and helped Portugal defend itself from the combined attacks of Russia and the Ottoman Empire, but all of Portugal’s colonies were lost in the process and the nation was plunged into debt. Unimpressed at having to take up arms against their fellow working man, large parts of my armed forces rebelled. It was glorious madness and terrific fun.

A lot of Victoria II’s entertainment value is self-defined, really. The in-game action is strongly influenced by the nature (great, secondary or uncivilized) of the nation you pick at the start and its literal position in the world. As a result, players should pick a nation in line with the type of game they feel like playing. Do you want the responsibility of starting with a power like the US, where you’re thrown pretty rapidly into civil war and dealing with Texas vs Mexico as well as possible incursions from European powers? Or would you prefer to attempt to build up a tiny province like Parma, unite Italy and make a play for the world stage? You might get more inventive and make your goal to be the world’s first Communist European superpower. The point is, within the limits of the engine, it’s up to you.

This is an admirable, open-ended approach for a game to have and it’s hampered only by the levels of inconsistency I’ve detailed (though I’m sure not exhaustively) in this review. Despite that succession of curious events, it’s worth stressing that I still had fun with it. Another vital thing to mention here is that Paradox titles are extremely moddable and people are already hard at work with little gameplay alterations and larger projects like the proper inclusion of African provinces. An official patch (1.2) is also being worked on at present. This is a game that will absolutely improve with time; and while that doesn’t excuse the problems with this release, it will help to ease them.

Victoria II is a complex, niche title with a multitude of curiosities and an unpleasant attitude towards colonialism. It’s also a delightful playground for those with a taste for political manipulation and classic 19th century duels for power undertaken by monolithic European superpowers. More to the point, it’s a playground that’ll only get better.

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