Someone (not the typical Paradox fan) coming to Victoria’s sequel a full seven years after the original and not having played any of the intervening games would have good reason to think that the credits screen was a prank – this can’t be the same dev team, and this can’t be the same company, can it? Victoria was in dire need of serious patching on release, and the necessary expansion pack didn’t come until a full three years later. It’s difficult to imagine how players put up with such a long wait; my guess is that they didn’t and simply shelved the game until it was fixed.
"…Victoria 2 is an executive summary of the past seven years of grand strategy development at Paradox…"
It isn’t just the quality of the code that has improved (more on that later, though). Victoria 2 is an executive summary of the past seven years of grand strategy development at Paradox, and it incorporates nearly every significant innovation developed for the new installments to the Europa Universalis and Hearts of Iron franchises, which have been developed in the meantime. It isn’t perfect (we’re on the cusp of the second patch already, and we’ll need more) but it provides a better experience already than Europa Universalis III and Hearts of Iron III did at release. Part of the success of Victoria 2 is the winning formula it had to build on from the first game. But the additions to that formula have been skillfully integrated and enrich the experience tremendously. There are some people who claim to enjoy the second Europa Universalis game better than the third, but I can hardly imagine someone preferring the original Victoria to its sequel.
So what is actually going on here? If you’ve played the latest Europa Universalis with all the expansions, then you will recognize a lot, and if you’ve played any other Paradox game you will recognize at the very least the basic framework. You are in control of a single country out of hundreds on every continent from the late 1830’s until the interwar era. You control, to varying degrees, what is produced in your country, who out of the myriad ethnic groups and social classes enjoys dominance, who you are friends and enemies with among the nations, which technologies are researched in your country, and a whole slew of miscellaneous details such as where your border forts are strongest and how big your navy is.
You take the reins via an interface which gives you quick access to screens showing all possible trade goods, with their prices and rates of production, screens showing your budget and population, screens showing all of your factories, and screens showing other things such as your ships and regiments and, of course, a ledger which allows you to compare the size and prosperity of your empire with everyone else’s. The game is real-time, pausable, and advances day-by-day. There are keyboard shortcuts but most of the work is done with the mouse. You spend a lot of time staring at what some of the less enlightened might mistake for spreadsheets. It’s tons of fun.
Changes from the old Victoria are so numerous that it’s better to list what hasn’t changed rather than what has. The pop-based economic and social system (provinces are filled with individual agglomerations of specific cultural and social groups, such as “French soldiers” or “Zulu bureaucrats” with specific sizes, wealth, religious and political affiliation and so on) that was the heart of the original game is retained here. You can examine every single pop in your nation and find out, for instance, exactly how many of your Algerian noblemen in Oran are being driven into poverty by your high taxes, and how angry this is making them. Come up with any other bit of historically relevant information you’d like to know (which religion your soldiers in Syria are practicing, how many Sikhs are immigrating to your colony in south Africa) and chances are you can dig deep enough to find it. Of course you don’t have to, but knowing never hurts.
Other holdovers from the past game include the variety of economic systems your country can operate under: if you’re under laissez-faire capitalism, you (as the state) cannot build factories and are best advised to make sure your capitalist pops have enough money to invest so that some can be built. In the most drastic example the other direction, under a planned economy, none of your pops can build factories or railroads on their own, and the state budget must provide for all the costs of constructing factories, buying their inputs and paying their workers. There are, as before, a number of options in between.
"Basically everything else has changed."
Basically everything else has changed. The diplomatic game is totally different, as the top eight powers in the world can now drag other, lesser powers into their diplomatic sphere and gain favored trading status and a number of other benefits. World trade now operates on a rudimentary supply-and-demand structure, so the actual total of world demand for, say, canned goods, influences the profit of your factories. The military system now resembles that of the Hearts of Iron games more than it does Victoria’s. Revolts and insurrections are handled via the In Nomine system, whereby rebels are not of a single type but have diverse aims: nationalists want to secede, fascists want to take over the government, Jacobins want to force your country to adopt certain reforms, and so forth.
Reforms are another issue. You can no longer pass social and political reforms at will but instead depend on the support of your upper house, which is elected from whichever franchise you select (anywhere from no voting to universal suffrage). Refusing to pass certain reforms can lead to unrest, whereas passing some (for instance, moving rapidly to universal suffrage) might release too much political pressure at once, which can sweep your government away and force you to deal with a new one. In the unpatched version of the game, this, along with many other things, is somewhat broken. But the outlines of an interesting system on the model of Rome’s senate is emerging.
The interface, graphics, and modding capabilities have all been dramatically altered. The interface which accompanied the first Victoria was notoriously bad (I got used to it, though) and the interface which accompanies the second is much cleaner and better organized. Things that were previously shoved to one side of the screen are now presented front-and-center, which means the weird tab system is gone. The map looks much better (3D!), and even though the unit icons and buttons are generally the same, everything looks much smoother and more professional. My rig remains modest, and it managed to keep up with the game easily.
Considering that this is so early in the likely years-long post-development patching cycle of this game, it is remarkably stable and coherent. There were a few boneheaded errors (a missing bracket somewhere meant that everyone got major rebellions every 20-30 years regardless of what they did), but they are being fixed, either by patches or by the community, since Victoria 2 is more easily modifiable than any other Paradox game. Waiting for more patches (and maybe a price drop) is smart, but waiting too long is pointless. This one doesn’t need three years in the oven.
If you got bored of the franchise babble in the first couple of paragraphs and skipped to the end for the final word, I understand, and here it is: Victoria 2 is already better than anything Paradox has done in a very long time, and it has potential in all the right areas: all that’s really needed is some tweaking of formulae and the fleshing out of some weak spots on the map. Saying that it stands head-and-shoulders above all of the scant competition for grand-strategy kingship almost goes without saying.