Queen of the Hill
When you have achived so much, it's hard to best yourself. Ask Tiger Woods! Victoria 2 has a steep hill to climb before reaching the heights of popularity of its predecessor (Victoria: An Empire Under the Sun).
The first obstacle in the climb is the widespread "look and wait" stance that many gamers have after the serious performance and interface issues of Paradox's Hearts of Iron III upon release. Victoria 2 runs smoother, loads faster and has far less crashes than that first version of the other game. Also, this is the best presented game from Paradox in a long time. The interface is clear and functional. The tutorials are outstanding, almost to the point where you can skip reading the manual (just kidding, this game is deep, read as much as you can). We can safely say that the first obstacle has been passed.
The second obstacle is not exclusive to Victoria 2 and has been the cause of many grand-strategy veterans to steer clear from anything Paradox after Europa Universalis III: a sandbox game design with no date-triggered historical events dumped into a virtual world that may have strayed more or less dramatically from real history. In Victoria 2, Paradox introduced back some historical events but now they are triggered according to what's going on in the virtual world. This new middle ground of game design works great for certain in-game timeframes and countries but feels deterministic for others. Sorta like "scattered clouds but it hadn't rain in a while, so let it pour now" instead of "it's humid, hot and cloudy, it's gonna rain". A great example of this is the American Civil War: you can delay it, but you can't avoid it. The question of why and when important events and wars happen in the real world is fascinating and I don't posses the intellectual stature to point fingers at Paradox, but this new design results in a perplexing game experience. If increasing the historical flavor of the game engine was an issue, Paradox could have introduced historical scenarios where you start at a certain date with a world already tuned to what history books say. Even when I like the sandbox, non-deterministic approach or all other Paradox games, I'm craving to fight the Austro-Prussian War, the Franco-Prussian War, the Crimean War, the Balkans War, the Triple Alliance War, the Russo-Japanese War ... (damn, so many wars) ... with a decent order of battle and not the mess of armies I end up building. Alas, the only possibility is to start your games at 1836. So, please fellows, I will accept your kind donations of save-games of different countries at different game dates ...
Whether Victoria 2 achieves the heights of popularity of the previous Victoria or not, Paradox is being proactive pushing itself towards the high ground and I'm ecstatic that they don't strand themselves into design stagnation. Making a living out of games is complicated and other developers who stick to perceived winning formulas are starting to get into my nerves. Kudos to Paradox for their will to experiment in their designs.
With Victoria 2, Paradox introduced a brave new model of so-called POPs (short for populations, collective units that represent population segments with a common culture, religion and profession like officers, aristocrats, artisans, etc). These POPs have been there since the previous Victoria, but now in Victoria 2 the flux of people between POPs is automatic and dependent on what each POP is experiencing (education, income, daily life needs). More realistic and one thing less to micromanage. But don't put your guard down: watching out for the needs of your people is crucial to play Victoria 2.
Even when there is a separate tab/screen for population, politics, trade and budget, socio-politics and socio-economics are networked through the POPs. Everything in Victoria 2 seems to flow from the bottom (POPs) up (politics and economics). The virtual world of Victoria 2 is fascinating to watch, almost like a living creture that breathes and tests your seemingly solid strategy with a thousand tiny kicks. How is you Hobbian experiment going to hold against "the butterfly effect" mentioned in Victoria 2's user manual?
Paradoxically (no pun intended), when it comes to socio-economics and socio-politics Victoria 2 is both too transparent and too opaque. The stats of the POPs at every corner of your empire are updated instantly and showed to you as they change, a luxury that even modern world leaders don't have. I know it's just a game, but a little "fog of POPs" would add a lot to the game experience. Since the POPs and their changing stats influence so much politics and economics, it would be great if Paradox had provided some sort of interface explaining to the player how those changes in stats contributed to the current state of affairs. Otherwise, mainly when your country is going to the dumpster thanks to general revolt, that feeling of watching a living creature that I mentioned before is replaced by a feeling of looking at the capricious color changes of a kaleidoscope. In other words, it would be great to have less info on "what" is happening with the POPs and more info on "why" things happen because of the POPs.
Post-Napoleonic Warfare is Pretty Much Very Napoleonic
I had a chuckle when one of the techs in Victoria 2 ("Post-Napolenic Thought") showed the picture of Clausewitz. In the scale of Napolenic thought, Clausewitz is second only to Jomini! Anyway, during most of the 19th century a great majority of generals regarded Napoleon as their guide through the battlefield. The problem with that was the size of the armies and their firepower were increasing dramatically. Command, control and communications became an issue. No longer a general could place himself on the top of a hill and command his entire army from there. The high operational mobility of the foraging Napolenic armies was replaced by the lightning strategical mobility provided by the railroads and by the operational stasis that resulted from huge supply vans slowly moving beyond the railhead. Only a handful of generals dealt with these problems succesfully. One of them, Moltke, would influence the German military thought all the way through World War II. Last but not least, this period of history saw the birth of modern warfare, somewhere in South Africa. The 19th century is a great period for war gaming.
Unfortunately, warfare is not Victoria 2's forte. One could argue that the historical period is so diverse in terms of warfare that is difficult to model, but Victoria 2 doesn't even try. The units available are pretty generic with the most variety of units available for the cavalry arm. This is a combat arm whose principal role (shock by charge) was becoming historically obsolete right from the start of the game, so the variety is a bit disturbing. Land units move from province to province and combat is ensued when two opposing forces are in the same province. There is a tiny bit of enjoyable operational art in Victoria 2, but the back and forth lightining swing of forces between provinces starts to feel gamey very quickly. Tactical combat is resolved automatically, with factors like terrain, frontage, cohesion, reserves being considered in the final resolution. Once a tactical battle has started, the player has no influence at all on it, which is fine as this is a grand strategy game. Naval warfare in Victoria 2 scores a bit higher than land warfare and the variety of naval units is of great use for a game where a naval empire is the premiere attraction. The ability of building better units of any type is pegged to the status of each nation's research activities. I personally never liked this "research/tech" type of things in strategy games, and in Victoria the correlation between researched techs and units available feels a bit odd.
Again, this is a grand-strategy game and the military features of it make an overall decent work. All you have to do is not to look too close. I was hoping for more warfare goodies from Victoria 2, but Vainglory of Nations is around the corner ...
In summary, this is a solid grand-strategy historical game set in a great period of history. Rich in features and more accessible for the beginner than ever, Victoria 2 is a game that has secured some serious time in my gaming calendar. Paradox's designers have not lost their mojo and I am happy to see that there are still companies out there not willing to sacrifice quality historical gaming in the altar of popularity.