Developer: Paradox Development Studio
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Forgive me if I haven't been myself recently.
Instead, I've been William The Conqueror. An obscure Polish Prince-Bishop. A Hungarian Duke. A widow queen. I've sired bloodlines that lasted a hundred years, waged brutal crusades, schemed my way to power, challenged the Pope and died, heirless, in ignominy.
And all that without suffering from multiple personality disorder. Crusader Kings II is a historical sandbox: over 400 years of real medieval history is our playground and its myriad families are our playthings. Paradox Interactive's latest grand strategy epic is easily their most ambitious project thus far, and though it's not going to recruit any new followers to the cause, it's easily their best.
Crusader Kings II may superficially appear to be a standard grand strategy title (not helped by its reliance on the same engine that powered Europa Universalis and more recently Sengoku), but rather than focusing on nations and countries, it's very much about people. Real people. Rulers who actually lived, squabbled, rose to power and eventually died between 1066 and 1466. Paradox Interactive have painstakingly pored over royal family trees to create a staggering list of hundreds of nobles, from the lowliest vassals to the mightiest of Christian Emperors.
As well as reseaching out their heirs, birth dates, cause of death and territories, Paradox has also imbued almost all of them with their own character traits: some are lustful and ambitious, others meek and mild and yet more capable of cold-blooded treachery at the drop of a hat. Even diseases and hereditary problems Crusader Kings II is a veritable encyclopaedia of European history complete with Wikipedia links where available... and it drops you right into the fray as any one of its characters. Once you go off script and start forging your own legacy, you'll literally change history and watch the world react around you; events changing like ripples on a pond. Anyone who has a more than passing interest in medieval history will find this a thrilling experiment if nothing else.
Much like most Paradox grand strategy games, you're presented with a 2.5D view of the known world and charged with carrying your noble to greatness in accelerated real-time menu management. Various new technologies can be researched. Armies massed and deployed. Alliances made and summarily broken if necessary. Kings must be appeased, revolts must be crushed, peace must be forged and Popes must be obeyed (or replaced by a puppet Antipope if you so choose, which is hard but well worth the effort). But Crusader Kings II is a much more personal experience than the likes of Europa Universalis and Hearts Of Iron, making for a thoroughly compulsive experience whether you play as an Emperor or a lowly vassal.
Accruing prestige and score is the aim of the game - and you'll primarily acquire it through advancing your status within your country, engaging in subtle diplomacy with other nobles, pleasing the Pope and, most importantly, securing tactical marriages for yourself and your offspring. Your game won't end so long as your bloodline prevails, so ensuring that you marry into strong alliances and prestigious families is absolutely paramount. Making love, not war, tends to be the path to success. Choosing from potential eligible partners and gaining their affections is an engaging and exciting minigame in itself; a compelling virtual soap opera.
On top of that, your character's traits manifest themselves in various unexpected ways. For example: lustful nobles sometimes pursue affairs that can massively damage prestige if not handled correctly - or worse, become ripe blackmail fodder for ambitious vassals to exploit without mercy.
Treason and plots are a fertile breeding ground for truly open-ended gameplay. Counts and Dukes aren't just submissive vassals to their monarch, instead, they're actively encouraged to discredit, scheme and assassinate their way up the pecking order; countering their lord's influence and standing at every turn. Or chipping away at their family with court intrigue or a poisoner's dark craft. You can rise from a lowly lord to a mighty Emperor through fair means or foul... or support the Crown if it suits your ends. No two games are ever the same and there's no right way of dealing with any particular situation - just your own judgement and the thrill of plotting your own course through history.
In fact, Crusader Kings II has more in common with a truly open-ended RPG than a traditional grand strategy game.
Bizarrely, though, playing as a Crusading King isn't actually much fun. The crusades themselves occur so far away and take so long to complete that they're actually the least exciting part of the package, especially compared with the soap opera- style shenanigans and skullduggery that lesser noblemen can indulge in. Moreover, there are only a couple of genuine Emperors to choose from, thus making the crusades little more than a excuse to supply your king with a few troops and taxes from time to time if you don't want to play as the same old faces. Dealing with peasant uprising and international diplomacy is much less interesting than scheming to wear the crown in the first place.
But there's more. So much more, so much depth, that the first draft of this review resembled a 2500 word FAQ. I haven't even mentioned the finer points of combat or the ravening Mongol hordes yet! I can't adequately explain all of it here and I'm not going to try. It's not my job. All I do need to say, and say emphatically, is that Crusader Kings II rewards every single minute you put in and every brave decision you make.
All this depth will be confusing, obnoxiously so, to new players. But it's not for want of explanation. Crusader Kings II contains one of the most comprehensive tutorials of any Paradox Interactive strategy title to date - and though its multiple parts take the best part of an hour to grind through, you'll learn by doing rather than ploughing through lengthy manuals. The GUI is also relatively intuitive and lays out most of the important features and information at a glance... though has to compromise by showering players with dozens of bitty icons. Tooltips are your friend, and if you're not a fan of trawling through menus, I'm afraid that Crusader Kings II isn't actually for you.
Multiplayer is easily the highlight of the package as it supports up to 32 simultaneously scheming, conniving, warring, rutting, assassinating players. This naturally adds a thoroughly unpredictable edge to the already-competent singleplayer AI... and multiple players can even choose to become nobles serving the same king... who is also a real person. Politics pivot on a knife edge, and tactically working with others to supplant your own ruler becomes a compulsion that's difficult to resist - if difficult to pull off thanks to their military clout.
My one major criticism of Crusader Kings II isn't going to matter to fans of Paradox Interactive's lineup, but it might raise a few eyebrows. Though the personal, character-driven gameplay is refreshing, the visual style is so jarringly reminiscent of Europa Universalis, Hearts Of Iron and Sengoku that many players will likely wonder whether it's worth a full-price purchase. The lack of non-Christian monarchs is also a rather disappointing omission, and though DLC is forthcoming, it's a shame that they weren't included.
At the end of the day, though, there's so much to Crusader Kings II already that we're happy with the overwhelming basics. For now.
- Compelling personality-driven strategy gameplay
- Infinitely deep, replayable and open-ended
- Exceptional multiplayer
- Lack of non-Christian monarchs without DLC
- Crusading isn't actually much fun
- Can we have a new look soon please, Paradox?
The Short Version: Crusader Kings II isn't just the best grand strategy game that Paradox Interactive have published, rather, it's probably the best grand strategy game in years. New players may be turned off by its staggering depth, but veterans and history enthusiasts will revel in every minute, every sleepless night and every new sunrise they experience while caught in its thrall. Majestic and historic in any sense of the phrase.