Since its inception, Swedish game developer Paradox Interactive has been carving out a particular niche of the PC gaming market: historical strategy games that have so much depth and scale that they play like history simulators. Paradox Interactive's own term for this brand of titles is 'grand strategy games', and whether you find that claim a bit self-aggrandising or not, you have to at least admit that the company's outings are ambitious. Case in point: Europa Universalis III, the 2007 instalment of one of Paradox's oldest franchises that reaches back to 2000. The numbers alone are intimidating enough. More than 250 nations to control over a period of 330 years from 1453 to 1789, and an immense number of economic, military and sociological factors that players can influence to steer the fate of their empire. Fortunately, critics agreed that Paradox Interactive did a good job at presenting this wealth of options in a sufficiently streamlined and accessible way, turning Europa Universalis III into the franchise's best reviewed game. The release of four expansion packs in the following years underscored the title's popularity.
The game's soundtrack came from Andreas Waldetoft, who has established himself since 2005's Diplomacy as Paradox Interactive's go-to composer. Europa Universalis III was the first work of his that received a dedicated soundtrack release, if only as a bonus CD that came with the game's Collector's Edition. Soon enough, the score's popularity made the CD indeed a collector's item that was difficult to track down. In 2012, Paradox Interactive finally decided to release the game's music as a digital download, just a few days before Europa Universalis Rome and Victoria II two other Waldetoft soundtracks were made available in the same format. The differences between the digital and the physical releases of the game are slim, as the bonus CD is only about three minutes longer.
Scoring a game like Europa Universalis III and preparing its music for an album release is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, with a game that encompasses as many geographic locations and time periods as the one, the composer gets a chance to paint on a vast canvas and dabble in numerous musical cultures and orchestrations. On the other hand, how to put together the resulting swath of music for the album release do you turn it into an eclectic, colourful collection of sounds, or do you focus on one particular style of music to give the album some coherence? This soundtrack tries to steer somewhat of a middle course between these two options, but that approach delivers mixed results.
The album begins like an whirlwind trip around the world. The album opener "Battle of Damascus" introduces some Near Eastern touches through its woodwind orchestration over resonant, rhythmically quite simple brass and string accents, before the female choir introduces a gracefully ascending melody that opens up the piece and makes it decidedly more fetching. "Choose Your Path" and "Emperor of These Lands" travel much further east and make use of Chinese and Japanese solo instruments, including shakuhachi, erhu and guzheng, hybridised with Western orchestral forces, particularly strings. Like the whole of Europa Universalis III, these pieces are stylistically conservative, but well-crafted enough to easily satisfy. "Choose Your Path" is short but sweet and intimate, while "Emperor of These Lands" shapes its Far Eastern influences into a much more monolithic sound driven by hand and wood percussion, and a commanding deep string ostinato. Despite the composition's more minimalist approach and abstract nature, the music remains approachable, as it layers enough elements together including a shakuhachi melody as counterpoint to the heavy rhythms to retain the listener's interest. The track also showcases the effective, if ultimately predictable structure of most pieces here. A large-scale opening is followed by a quiet, melody-driven mid-section, which in turn prepares for a surge in the composition's last third, carrying the piece to its big conclusion.
Bookmarked between these excursions to China and Japan, the listener finds a range of material. There are two brief short Mozart(-inspired) interludes ("Eine Kleine Night Musik", "Dies Irae Intro"). Another trip to the near East now intriguingly balances competently deployed ethnic instrumentations with a soft female choir that underscores the location's spirituality ("City of Jerusalem). "Conquistador - Main Theme" meanwhile is a lavish piece for full orchestra that acquires the necessary period touch through its use of elegant Medieval dance rhythms, which carry a surprisingly elaborate melody the main theme alluded to in the track's title. Don't expect to hear it much though, as it will only return on "Para Bellum". Mixing romantic orchestral stylings with Medieval influences is an age-old strategy deployed on many period film scores, but Waldetoft has inspiration enough to surprisingly let the full choir perform the sprightly theme. Not only does this add some freshness to the music's expression, but it also communicates the game's scope and weightiness without wallowing too much in grandiosity.
While the description of Europa Universalis III's first third might make it sound like a barely organised hodgepodge, it all actually works quite well, as long as you ignore the two very short and superfluous Mozartian interruptions. The strengths that apply to the game in general are already obvious on these early tracks and help them congeal better then expected. Most of these well-developed pieces benefit from detailed, colourful orchestrations and expansive melodies. And while these melodies tend to sound a bit samey in their slow-moving, roaming nature, this consistency actually helps to glue these stylistically disjointed cues together. These pieces feel like they're cut from the same cloth, clad only in very different orchestrations.
Interestingly enough though, after this globe-hopping beginning, Europa Universalis III decides to settle on the sounds of European instruments for the remainder of its running time. This turns the Mediterranean and Far Eastern tracks into additions that feel like they have been tacked unto the main body of the score. Had the title continued to visit musical styles from around the globe and given them all equal space on the album, this might have ironically resulted in an album that felt more unified then what we ultimately get. Instead of unity in diversity, the title breaks into two quite distinct sections.
However, this is an issue only in the context of the album as a whole. Taken as on their own, most of Europa Universalis III's pieces more than satisfy listeners looking for their fix of broad orchestral music. Waldetoft writes the kind of finely detailed, rich compositions that make good use of the (synth) orchestral forces at hand. The orchestra's lines are shaped with care and layered with an assured hand to give the music sufficient depth beyond its surface sheen. As mentioned, the melodies that Waldetoft writes tend to be not vastly different in nature and fall into one of two categories. However, Europa Universalis III's melodies are strong enough to overcome this hurdle, and sometimes they're even downright spectacular. All the better then that Waldetoft often structures his pieces as satisfactorily developed variations on one melody.
Also, while Waldetoft makes sure to communicate the game's immense breadth through dense, symphonically-styled compositions, he's intelligent enough to find other means outside of orchestral grandeur to convey a sense of scale. All these strengths come together at their most convincing in the album's middle-section. For those who like their orchestral pieces full-bodied and vigorous, there are many moments where the full orchestra crescendoes gloriously, led by majestic melodies. The uillean pipes mixed with the orchestral bombast of "The Highland Wanderer" gives the track's grandiloquence a warm, anthemic quality. "Mare Atlanticum"'s climax is solemn rather than ardent, but no less intense and gripping. "Land of Glory" features the album's most massive choral sounds and is rousingly triumphant in its jubilant moments. "Para Bellum" takes the main theme's light dance rhythms, puts them into the more intimate environment of soft hand percussion and brass fanfares, before the music nicely builds over an increasingly martial background into an effective reprise of the melody from "Conquistador". There's even a bit of modern-day rambunctiousness, as "Swashbuckling Privateers" sounds more like Pirates of the Caribbean than Korngold in its boisterous, catchy rhythms and brass progressions, although the piece retains a more historical, organic feel through its violin motif on top of the orchestral ruckus.
These sweeping moments are balanced with more introspective episodes, both elements often combined in the same piece. In a show of his compositional prowess, Waldetoft manages to convey the score's 'grand' nature through these quieter passages as well. The uillean pipe solo at the beginning of "The Highland Wanderer" may be expected, but that doesn't render its lonely melody any less touching, particularly when paired with strummed acoustic guitar chords. "Mare Atlanticum" captures an even more imposing sense of vastness and isolation through its pan pipe melody over a double bass drone. When both these tracks move into their stirring climaxes, they never feel overly theatrical, as their more introverted, but no less expansive opening episodes have prepared the scenery so well. The same pull-and-release pattern works its magic on "Discover New Lands" and "Land of Glory". These cues equally benefit from Waldetoft's penchant for lovely woodwind melodies and his decision to couple the orchestral outbursts with prominently placed solo instrument lines, usually contributed by a violin or various woodwinds. This way, Waldetoft stops those moments of orchestral bravado from becoming staid and keeps the music vibrant and fresh.
A few compositions focus exclusively on more delicate tones. These include "A Song for the Merchants" with its achingly beautiful solo violin harmonies, along with the French horn-led, poetic calm of "Night Falls Over Our Empire". "Prologue - Europa Universalis", which takes the mysticism inherent in the opening of "Mare Atlanticum" and magnifies it, moving from an ominous, incorporeal beginning into a melody line with an Antique shimmer that may not be scoring the game's time period quite correctly, but once more captures the necessary sense of gravity.
Unfortunately, towards the album's end, its structure once more becomes an issue, although this time it's a matter of (relative) quality rather than disjointed stylings. On the last four tracks of the album, the music's martial side takes over, and while it's still aptly balanced by more peaceful moments, the bellicose streak of "Travel South", "A Cruce Victoria", "East vs. West" and "To Constantinople" isn't as convincing as earlier orchestral displays of force and feels relatively flat and unimaginative. Still, 'relatively' is the operative word here, as these cues are still entertaining and rousing enough to satisfy, and of course they also get their fair share of rich melodies (and "A Cruce Victoria"'s opening string ostinato interestingly foreshadows Victoria II's beginning). It's only when compared to their impressive predecessors on the album that these compositions fall a bit short. Ultimately, Waldetoft would do march-driven bombast more convincingly on this soundtrack's follow-up Europa Universalis Rome.
One reason why these closing pieces don't pack quite as much punch as they could is because of the album's sound. As is often the case with dense synth orchestral scores, there's a lack of clarity and immediacy that makes the music sound muddled at times, if never to a distracting degree. But it's particularly the choir that tends to merge into the overall soundscape and simply becomes another layer, instead of charging forward and lifting the music upwards. Again, Europa Universalis Rome would improve on this issue
Over the years, Waldetoft's scores for Paradox Interactive games have attracted a dedicated fanbase, and Europa Universalis III shows why. True to the game's aspirations of grandeur, Waldetoft's score is a multi-faceted, exuberant orchestral work that delivers in spades through its abundance of immensely attractive melodies and colourful orchestrations. It's a work that captures the game's sense of vastness and majesty, but is smart enough to not only rely on well-crafted orchestral swagger to achieve this goal. Instead, Waldetoft mixes in enchanting, touching moments where particularly the solo woodwinds get to shine and evoke a quiet sense of breadth and scale. Contributing to the album's charm is the skilful integration of various non-Western elements from both the Near and Far East, adding even more shades to the cornucopia that is Europa Universalis III.
Despite its eclecticism, the soundtrack is more coherent than one might think, but its album structure still remains a problem. Due to the album's focus on Western sounds in its later two-thirds, the game's more ethnically-tinged opening cues feel a bit lost and tacked on, although they're quality compositions in and of themselves. The martial tones of the album's finish aren't fully convincing, although this is also a rather minor complaint just like the album's sound, which would benefit from improved clarity, but rarely actively distracts. In the end, these issues add up to make Europa Universalis III the least of Waldetoft's published scores for historical strategy games. But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't seriously consider this album it's mid-section alone will be reason enough for many aficionados of orchestral game music to grab a copy of the album.