Crusader Kings 2 was released in February 2012 and was, in a sense, the title that marked Paradox’s new approach to the genre, and to business in general. But what interests us is that Crusader Kings 2 brought to fans of the ‘grand strategy’ genre, in addition to a fairly new theme (the Middle Ages and the Crusades), a way of doing strategy completely different from the usual one.
It was a paradigm shift. The anonymous units that conquered territories to enlarge empires were replaced by something much more personal: the management of a dynasty made up of people and relationships that worked with the ‘mathematics’ of RPGs or with more or less good stat, skills and relationships (always on a numerical basis). From here came a very different gaming experience, in which conquests were only part of the experience, flanked by the management of relationships with the people around our ruler.
For this idea, and for how Paradox implemented it, critics and public decreed an astonishing success: today there are 2 million and 900 thousand copies sold, an incredible number if you think about the complexity of such a title and what it requires, in terms of commitment, to its players.
Now the time has finally come for Crusader Kings 3 , a title that has the huge task of keeping fans of the original game playing by giving them even more. Actually CK2 is still very much played and, thanks to the infinity of DLC available, it has become a title so deep and varied that it guarantees hundreds of hours of play, if not thousands. But what Paradox showed in the months of approach has aroused enthusiasm and great expectations, and we tell you immediately that these expectations have not been disappointed, not even remotely.
The first thing you notice in Crusader Kings 3 compared to the original is the total change in graphics and interface. The map is now much more detailed and lush, even more detailed than other recent Paradox titles (such as Imperator). But the strongest impression is made by the characters who are now real 3D models (and not portraits as in CK2) very detailed, slightly animated and equipped with many variations, including situational ones. Clothes, features and accessories are very varied and cared for even in historical details. Now, if this may seem like a minor detail, we assure you it is not.
One of the difficulties of CK2 was trying to remember the faces of the characters you were dealing with. Among vassals, courtiers, advisers, allies, enemies and family members, we quickly reach dozens of people and remembering their names was (and is) practically impossible. Thanks to these new models it is now much easier to use the very effective human visual memory and also, honestly, to become a little more attached to the various characters.
Staying on the technical aspect, the other big step forward is in the interface. CK2 struggled to show the massive amount of information that the game produces for its players; to do this, a rather small font and very crowded screens were used. CK3 has solved everything by rationalizing the space and hiding much of the information in much drier and more effective tooltips. The very useful ‘nested tooltips’ have also been introduced, that is tooltips that open in succession by clicking on highlighted words within other tooltips.
Much of the thematic nature of the interface has been eliminated (textures and artifacts that communicated ‘medievality’ but weighed down the view) and the windows are now clear, very legible and intuitive, both in the positioning of the most important information and in the use of icons. This is a major improvement to a ‘grand strategy’ and in this respect the CK3 team has a lot to teach modern strategy game developers.
Music has also taken a step forward, especially on the side of dynamism. There are new very thematic and exciting melodies and the game manages to correctly interpret the events to accompany them with the right soundtrack.
Very important is the improvement made to the contextual advice system. There is now a list where the game notes the clearest dangers and opportunities you have to do something useful for your kingdom. Arrange a marriage for your heir, increase control in a region, imprison a criminal and much more. CK3 is a game where things to do abound and having a pre-filled list, at least on the most obvious activities, is a great help that does not detract from the player’s personal initiative.
In terms of gameplay, the team seems to have followed a very specific line: maintaining the gameplay of the previous title, enriching it with possibilities and greater detail; all while insisting on what were the strengths of CK2. The RPG dynamics have been reinforced at the base, increasing the possible characterizations of the characters. Let’s see some examples.
The stat and skill system has remained the same and lifestyles (introduced in one of the CK2 DLCs) have become essential to improve the performance of your character. Stress has now become a factor to watch. On the occasion of particularly traumatic events (such as the death of a brother, for example) your character will undergo a marked increase in stress which, if you exceed one of the three progressive thresholds, triggers a multiple choice event.
Here the psychological defense mechanisms come into play, or negative traits that you can choose to give to your character to deal with the traumatic period, such as throwing yourself on food or increasing your irritability. In case you don’t want to, you can always opt not to give him any negative traits, but in this way the stress will increase further. In the long run, penalties for stress are more severe and can dramatically shorten the character’s life.
This mechanic is splendid, not only because it offers interesting strategic choices, but also because it slavishly mimics the functioning of the human brain. Coping mechanisms are one of the ways we humans use to deal with the very traumas and situations that our brain recognizes as dangerous.
Obviously then there are a number of other ways to lower stress, each with a specific cost … such as organizing parties, hunting trips, finding a lover and much more, also linked to impromptu situations and random events.
Let’s move on to another very powerful novelty, hooks, and secrets. Some of the character traits are now secret, as are some relationships. Obviously, these are the roughest things, like lovers, illegitimate children, bizarre sexual practices, loss of religious faith and much, much more. If discovered, these secrets can be used to create hooks, or, say, ‘motivational incentives’.
You need an ally and that doesn’t hear us? If you have a hook you can blackmail it: either accept it or the secret will go public. You want to marry your daughter to that old orc of your king and she can’t hear us? If you have a secret to leverage, it will be child’s play. Secrets can also be used, if you have the right skill unlocked in the relevant lifestyle, to get money. Hooks are achieved by making the correct decisions in certain events, or by using your spymaster.
Speaking of spymasters… your advisors are always in their place and help you manage the kingdom through their actions. The spymaster has this new fundamental ability, while you will have to maintain good relations with the minister of worship on pain of not receiving troops and money from the parishes (or relative outposts of other religions). There is now a whole new place for your character’s wife. Depending on her abilities, you can decide to request her help in managing the kingdom in one of the six stat (diplomacy, economy, war, studies, intrigue) and this is fundamental in the choice of the consort.
The heraldic and land management system has also remained virtually unchanged. Each county can have a city, a castle or a parish (or all three together); the larger counties often also have empty land on which you can decide yourself to start a new settlement of one of these three types. Counties, duchies and kingdoms continue to combine as in medieval reality and the interface manages to explain a little better this system that can be decidedly intricate.
The system of buildings that you can build is now presented in a much clearer way and each territory has more slots; in the case of castles there is also a slot dedicated to ‘ducal’ buildings, or special improvements that you can access if you also have the ducal title to which the county in question belongs.
Going back to the RPG part, Crusader Kings 3 fixed a design flaw that undermined a bit the ability to immerse players in the story of their characters in CK2. We are referring to the fact that, although the characters had particular traits, it was always up to the player to decide what to do, and this could turn CK2 into a min-maxing game, rather than an RPG.
Now, while you can always make choices that are contrary to your character’s set of characteristics, if you do so you incur a heavy penalty of stress and effectiveness. If you have the ‘Compassionate’ trait, for example, it will be particularly difficult to assassinate your enemies; if you have the ‘Just’ trait (fair, impartial) you will struggle to unfairly imprison an opponent. Last example: if you are ‘Greedy’ (greedy) sending gifts in the form of money will create stress, like bestowing noble titles will be difficult for you if you have the ‘Ambitious’ trait.
Where diplomatic acumen does not arrive, simple terror can often arrive and this is also a path that you can take if you have the right traits. The score of ‘Dread’ (fear) is a strong disincentive for your opponents, especially those who have not yet revealed themselves; it reflects their fear of retaliation and escalates by engaging in assorted brutalities.
War hasn’t received any major changes and is sadly still the game’s weak point. Too often a conflict boils down to two armies foolishly chasing each other around the map until different territories, geographic bottlenecks, or simply a wrong click results in a clash. The clashes are decided above all by the quantity of forces but the generals in command, the conditions of the terrain on which they are fought and the quality of the troops also count. Particularly disappointing is the fact that it cannot coordinate with allies.
The armies have been improved with the creation of regular troops that you can hire and join the classic volunteers who come from your vassals. Even the knights, who instead come from the pool of characters you have at court, help a lot in deciding the outcome of the clashes. You will be able to micromanage the knights by deciding who can go into battle and who, instead, must stay at home … we understood how essential this option is after a battle in which half of our advisors have died under enemy blows.
Crusader Kings 3 comes to players without, of course, the jumble of DLC that CK2 had benefited from. This means that, outside of Europe, the other factions all look a bit like the gameplay of the European ones. There are still no dedicated mechanics, outside of the different religious rules that dictate some important differences and raiding for tribal civilizations.
The game recommends some factions as ‘interesting’ at startup and they are all located in Europe; we expect the Paradox model, not really universally appreciated, to do the same splendid job done on CK2, deepening, and making eternal a game that, however, alone is able to guarantee an infinite number of hours of entertainment.
Crusader Kings 3 is a masterpiece of progress, not of disruptive innovation (as was its predecessor). CK2’s rock-solid gameplay has been honed, deepened and dressed with premium manufacturing values that represent the best the strategy genre has to offer today.
CK2 veterans may find this sequel a bit empty when compared to how much its predecessor had been expanded, but here we are faced with a base with enormous potential that is capable of multiplying fun and involvement exponentially in the moment. to which new mechanics specific to particular cultures will be added.
This is a must for all strategy enthusiasts; thanks to the advances in attractiveness this is a title that is now recommended to everyone, even to those who found the heraldic system and the RPG component difficult.