Review: Crusader Kings II

My first encounter with Paradox Interactive’s pausable real time grand strategy genre games was Hearts of Iron II many years ago. I haven’t looked back since, delving into the numerous expansion packs, the sequel, and even fan-made spinoffs of the game such as Darkest Hour. It’s safe to say that Hearts of Iron II stands as one of my favourite games of all time.

Despite this, I was never able to get into the other Grand Strategy games in Paradox’s arsenal. Europa Universalis II, III, and Rome were too slow, and Victoria was also too confusing. I loved the fast-paced total war approach of Hearts of Iron over the more slow-placed, diplomatic and cultural approach of its sister games. However, I had never tried the original Crusader Kings but when I had the chance to review Crusader Kings II, I hopped in and hoped that it wasn’t as slow as its Renaissance sister, Europa Universalis.

It turns out it’s quite a bit slower than Hearts of Iron… but in a good way.

Crusader Kings II
Systems: PC (Reviewed)
System Specs: AMD Athlon II X4 640, 4GB DDR3 RAM, ATI Radeon HD5770, Windows 7 64-Bit
Developer: Paradox Interactive
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Release February 14th, 2012
MSRP: $39.99

Like most Paradox strategy games, the initial loading screen to get to the main menu is long; you’ll have to wait at least thirty seconds before you can do anything in the game, but I don’t really mind this wait. Why? Because the epic music that starts the game is perfect for getting you into the scheming mood needed to be a noble in medieval Europe (and trust me, you need to bring your Xanatos skills to this game), and I never tire of hearing it. The composer for this game should be a familiar name for many people who play Paradox Interactive’s games as Andreas Waldetoft is responsible for many of the musical scores in recent titles from the company such as Europa Universalis III; Majesty 2; Defenders of Ardania; and my favourites,
Hearts of Iron II and III.

I have to admit that, for the longest time, I thought he could never outdo the Hearts of Iron II soundtrack, which I’ve had in my MP3 player for many years. However, after playing Crusader Kings II, he has done it. The musical score is one of the best I’ve heard out of any game. Period. Search for “Horns of Hattin and Aftermath” and start listening from about one minute thirty seconds in to see what I’m talking about. The best part is that, like past Paradox games, the music files are unencrypted in .ogg format in the game’s folder which makes it easy for you to convert and place them in any MP3 player out there. Thank you for that service, Paradox Interactive!

Once the game launches, you’ll want to hit up the tutorial as this is a very deep game. The tutorial is split into nine chapters with three levels each (Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced) and it took me well over an hour to get through them all, and while it’s a very good tutorial, it does skip over some very basic things. The biggest offender is the omission of construction from the tutorial, as it’s a very basic and very crucial thing in the game.
 
 
You’re handicapping yourself severely if you don’t know this, yet the game thinks teaching you how to build a whole new city—a much much rarer opportunity—is more important information.

For the uninitiated who don’t know how Paradox Interactive’s Grand Strategy series of games works, they’re pausable real time strategy. What that means is that the game runs in real time but can be paused at any time to allow you to make decisions at your leisure. The games also have a choice of nations to play that usually dwarfs other games; usually you have a choice of 100 or more historical nations from that time period, and there’s no real set goal. Just play for whatever goal you set for yourself: Want to be a Duke who eventually claims the English Crown and invades France? Sure, go for it. Want to be a Spanish King who will unite the Iberian Peninsula and push out the Moors? You got it. Or do you just want to dick around and see how much land you can conquer? That’s also an option.

As for the general game interface, if you’ve ever played any of the recent Paradox Interactive grand strategy games, you’ll be right at home here: The top right has your resources and the game clock, the top left has the different sections of ruling your kingdom (Diplomacy, Military, etc.), and the bottom left opens information on provinces and characters you’ve selected. Controlling your troops is very similar to Europa Universalis as well: all the controls to merge, split, and disband units are in nearly the same positions, and the battle interface is incredibly similar to other games using the Clausewitz engine (Vicky 2, EU III, and Hearts of Iron III).

Speaking of the Clausewitz engine, I still prefer the old days of 2D maps and sprites over the 3D it brought to the table. The map itself is very clean and easy to read, and whenever you zoom out it has this awesome effect where smaller territories merge together into larger ones so you can see “the big picture.” For example, if you’re zoomed in on all the counties in your Duchy, zooming out will erase the county borders and names and replace them with the name of your Duchy so you can see how you stack up compared to your neighbors. However, I still prefer the 2D map of the old games simply because the 3D map
isn’t very impressive looking.

Now I know that Paradox Interactive games were never about graphical prowess, and in fact, many players enjoy them due to their low system requirements which make them excellent for some play on long train or plane trips on just about any laptop. That said, I still feel that Paradox can introduce some scaling to allow stronger systems to add some graphical pizzaz into the experience. I mean, even Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI looks better than Crusader Kings II, and that game came out five years ago!

So I’ve spoken on how similar CKII is to its sister games, but what makes it different? The main thing is personal diplomacy.

In every other Paradox game, you take control of a nation state. In Crusader Kings II, you take control of a head of a dynasty, so in essence, you’re playing a character instead of a nation. Your relationship with your vassals, your liege, your family, and the pope is equally as important as your economy, military, or technological advancements, which opens a whole new game of Machiavellian scheming and underhanded deals.

For example, the only way to secure an alliance in the game is through marriage, but be careful how you marry your children or their inheritance may pass through to another dynasty. You can even completely absorb another duchy or even a whole kingdom into your realm through marriage alone without a single drop of bloodshed.

Military is further de-emphasized by the fact that, during the game’s time period, there were no standing professional armies. All armies are levies from your own lands as well as your vassals, and you cannot declare war if you have any troops raised. In addition, when you raise troops, your income starts being funneled into maintaining the army (feeding and paying an army isn’t cheap), and your vassals will start to hate you the more you keep their troops raised for your own wars. In addition, you must have a valid claim or Cassus Belli (Cause of War) to be able to declare war in the first place, and those can only be gained through inheritance, marriage, or intrigue. You cannot simply raise your army and stomp anyone in your path.

All this makes Crusader Kings II a game for schemers and backstabbers, which utterly differentiates it from similar titles where might makes right. It’s excellent and I love it, especially since I’m swept in the whole Game of Thrones fandom and this basically is how I’ve imagined a GoT video game adaptation to be like. Here’s an example from my gameplay:

As the Duke of Toulouse in Southern France, I enacted a plan to assimilate the much more powerful Duchy of Aquitaine to the north. The Duke of Aquitaine held more power than the King of France, so this was not an easy task. I decided for the time being to marry into their house so that they wouldn’t turn on me. Many years later, one of the Dukes of Aquitaine died with no heir, so his daughter took the throne. As his daughter was married to my third son, this meant that, since he wasn’t my heir, he joined their house… and if I died, it meant the lands he inherited from me would pass to the Duchy of Aquitaine.

I had to act fast as I couldn’t afford this setback, and in my dark mind a plan surfaced: I assassinated my own son.

The story doesn’t end there. I noticed my daughter-in-law only had a daughter and no male heir, so I did what any good ruler in medieval Europe would do: I married my grandson to my niece because it wouldn’t be medieval European royalty without incest. This ensured he would become both the Duke of Aquitaine and the Duke of Toulouse, uniting the two duchies through marriage and not war. In a final twist to this Machiavellian tale, my grandson had the “‘Attractive” genetic trait while his wife has the “Ugly” trait. To ensure the purity of my bloodline, she would have to be assassinated as well.

Yes, I’m sentencing someone to death for no reason other than they’re ugly. This game has turned me into a cross between Xanatos and Adolf Hitler, and I love every single minute of it.

So I’ve waxed poetic about this game, but what are the downsides?

From the moment I booted up the game, I immediately wanted to pick one of the Muslim factions, but the game wouldn’t let me despite their being in the game as characters. Okay then, one of the Italian republics (memories of Assassin’s Creed on my mind)? Can’t pick republics, either? Or Pagans? The only characters you can pick are medieval Christian Europeans (Orthodox or Catholic) and no one else.

This is a huge disappointment because this is the first time I’ve had this limitation placed on me in a Paradox Interactive game. I was always free to pick whatever nation I wished in other games from the studio, so this seems almost like a ploy to sell DLC because they’ve said they’re adding the Muslim and Republican powers to the game later and making them drastically different from the European dynasties in an upcoming expansion. But did they have to make it DLC? Couldn’t they allow me to play Muslims with no difference from the Christian nations but added features in a DLC pack to differentiate them later on?

Speaking of DLC, you can purchase the emblems for fifty of the noble houses in the game for $2 as well as faces for the Mongol invader characters for another $2. The Mongol invader DLC I kind of understand since portraits aren’t standard pictures; they’re 3D models which grow old with age and wear different clothes depending on the duty the character is doing. But the Dynasty shields pack? You’re literally paying $2 for what is basically fifty small icons that should’ve been in the game in the first place.

These aren’t small families, either. They’re huge ones like the Hapsburg family, the very same Hapsburg family whose heir was assassinated in 1914 and started World War I!

Another problem with the game is empires. There are two in the game at the beginning: The Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire. In reality, they were very unstable and prone to dissoultion at any time, but in the game? They’re towering behemoths of unparalleled might that will never go away. That kind of sucks since they control large swaths of the map that are basically off limits to everyone, and they’ll become even larger as time goes on. It’s funny because the final year of gameplay, 1453, is the date when the Byzantine empire fell in real life to the Ottoman Turks. In the game, though, the Seljuk Turks will most likely be annihilated by the Byzantines far earlier than this.

Despite these small complaints and misgivings, Crusader Kings II is another excellent entry in Paradox’s repertoire. If you loved Europa Universalis or Victoria, then chances are you’ll fall in love with this game as well. If you’re a newcomer to Paradox Grand Strategy games, then Crusader Kings II is an excellent title to jump in with its good tutorial and smaller scope.

PROS
* Excellent music
* Deep, non-military focused gameplay
* Intuitive GUI
* Good tutorial
* Near endless replay value
* Easy to mod and excellent fan-made content

CONS
* Graphics are unimpressive
* Empires are unbalanced
* No ability to play as Pagans, Muslims, or Republics
* Tutorial leaves out some crucial elements

FINAL SCORE: B+

Disclosure: The writer was given a review code through Gamersgate to review this game. The versions of the game used were 1.03 and 1.04. At the time of writing, the reviewer had played two half games as the Duchy of Toulouse with both games ending in the midway point of the game (early 1200s in the in-game calender).

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Mohamed Al Saadoon

About Mohamed Al Saadoon