With the old game on its last legs, it's finally time for an heir to claim the throne.
Reviewing Crusader Kings III has been a little bit like reviewing a new FIFA game in the sense that while I've got almost sixty hours logged at the time of writing, I don't think I'll have a true sense of everything until I've been playing for several months. Such is the depth offered by the new dynasty simulator from Paradox Interactive that it's practically impossible to give you a full and detailed rundown of its many intricacies, so I'll do the next best thing and tell you about what I've encountered over the past couple of weeks, and then I'll slap a score on at the end to reinforce my inane ramblings.
In Crusader Kings, the aim of the game is to steer your family through the annals of history, taking the rough with the smooth as you navigate both the highs and lows of ruling over the peasantry from your thick-walled castles in Europe, Africa and into the East. You can take on the role of a king or queen, or further down the pecking order, maybe a duke or a duchess, and then advance through the years, pausing only to make decisions that affect your standing with both your vassals and the peasants. There's a lot going on, and everything is controlled via a huge and detailed map, surrounded by menus filled with important information for you to sift through. So far, so CK2.
One of the major differences between this third game and it's long-supported predecessor is the quality of the visual interface. The old hand-drawn portraits have been ditched in favour of a fantastic new 3D system that recreates your characters on-screen, blending parents organically to create believable children and siblings. I wasn't sure I liked it at first but now I'm sold on the idea and its implementation, with characters ageing naturally, showing scars, and getting fat. It's a huge improvement and it helped to better connect me to my characters.
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It's characters - plural - because in CK you don't just play as one ruler and lead them through the ages á la Civilization, but rather you take on several different family members across multiple generations over the course of a playthrough. When the head of a dynasty dies, you go on to become their heir, according to the laws of succession that govern your corner of the world. It's not just a case of all family members working towards a solitary goal either; this passing of the baton gives you great opportunities to role-play different characters according to their own unique traits and their individual circumstances.
There are two key things that define who you are: your inherited traits and the lifestyle that you choose for each new character. Inherited traits come from good breeding, so make sure those cousins keep their mitts off each other even if it is a tempting way of consolidating your power. Physical features and personality traits are inherited and pass down between the generations so it's always a good idea to keep one eye on who you're proposing to marry and take into account them as a person and not just what they bring to the table in terms of influence and power.
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The lifestyle system sees Paradox lean into the role-playing aspect by giving players five different paths that you can take a character down: Diplomacy, Learning, Intrigue, Martial, and Stewardship. Each one has a selection of short skill trees that you can work your way through over the course of each character's life. The range of upgrades ensures not only a deeper connection with your characters and greater differentiation, but it also gives you more meaningful decisions to make on a regular basis, and this is only enhanced by an additional upgrade tree that impacts not just your current character but the whole dynasty.
Another area of the game and one that will affect any attempt at role-playing is religion, and it's a core part of life at court, particularly in medieval Europe (which is where nearly all of my games will take place, although you can head east or south if you prefer). As the name of the game implies, you'll regularly be invited to head out on crusades by the Pope. It's up to you whether you join him in declaring a holy war, help him fund it, or give him the cold shoulder, but there are certainly benefits to being pious and keeping your local church leaders happy. On the other hand, you might choose to shun the church and set up your own version of a popular religion, although going it alone can be extremely risky and it's not a decision to be taken lightly.
A good king or queen will also make sure that their lands are well looked after, and that's easier said than done. I thought that realm management was cleaner and easier to navigate in CK3, and just like you develop your character in a number of different ways, you can upgrade and enhance your holdings to maximise their output and increase your levies, which is important if you plan on waging war against your neighbours in order to expand your borders. You can spend a lot of time and money upgrading your castles, cities, and religious institutions, so it's important to keep track of them and keep those titles close. Don't be like me and upgrade a bunch of stuff and then have to give it away because you've got too many titles; Crusader Kings puts a cap on how much influence and control you can wield and careful management of your lands, vassals, and finances is just as important as marrying the right partner or avoiding a fight with a powerful rival.
War is another fundamental part of life in medieval times, and if you're not making up reasons to take over a weak neighbour, or following his Popeness to the Middle-East, you'll likely have to defend yourself from threats from both within and outside of your borders. The levies I mentioned before are the troops that you and your vassals can raise, and you can supplement these soldiers with mercenary armies (if you've got the cash spare). Combat is not the focus in CK3, although you do have some control in terms of military leadership, army composition, and unit placement. Mostly it's a case of intercepting an enemy force with your own at which point a little pop-up window gives you all the stats until one side is declared the winner.
A more subtle way of turning the tide is to use your spymaster and put in place plans that rely on your ability to scheme. Intrigue is perhaps my favourite part of CK3 and you're constantly encouraged to be a total toerag. This is done by undermining your rivals, dispatching your enemies, and even stabbing your own family members in the back if they get too big for their boots. You can plot in secret, kidnap or imprison your enemies, maybe seduce them, or even send them poisonous presents. On top of that, you can exert influence using the new 'hook' system, which lets you call in a favour and make someone do something that they might not normally agree to.
As you will have no doubt surmised by now, there are a lot of moving parts in a typical game of Crusader Kings III, and it can be easy to miss an important detail or fail to understand something's significance. Paradox has done a good job of better signposting key information and making things more accessible, but despite an improved tutorial and more clarity across the board, it's still a tough nut to crack. Despite some clear improvements, more could be done, in particular around explaining the laws of succession, which can be hard to penetrate at the best of times. These laws and others relating to your authority over the realm are important as your family's legacy often hinges on you having a good understanding of how things work, and it can be frustrating when something happens and it's not clear why.
Thankfully, the new-look UI makes everything a little bit easier to keep track of, and the new encyclopedia is helpful, although it didn't answer all of my questions. The map itself is cleaner and easier to read, and there are useful filters that you can select to help give you a better overview. My only relatively major criticism is that I noted a little bit of repetition around certain events, particularly the assassinations and social activities. However, given the depth on offer elsewhere, I'm prepared to accept a bit of repetition in the footnotes, even if I would like to see the developers go back and add more diversity to this scripted sequences. After all, there's only so many times you can read the same story about a fellow noble being sick on you at a party before it takes the lustre off the whole subplot.
During the last couple of weeks I noted one or two minor bugs, but beyond that and a little repetition across certain story events, there are no major flaws to report, inherited or otherwise. All in all, Crusader Kings III appears to be relatively polished and fully-featured at launch (although you can bet your royal posterior that Paradox will be back with a series of expansions) and I was most satisfied with what was served up in this long-awaited third iteration. Like its predecessor, CK3 manages to create player-driven stories and emergent moments like no other. In fact, it's one of the few games worth sticking with even when it all goes horribly wrong, such is the quality of the drama that this medieval sandbox is able to create.
The king is dead, long live the... deformed, inbred, deceitful king. Pfft. You didn't want to be a goody two shoes this time anyway!
9 / 10
Huge sandbox stuffed full of emergent possibilities; a cleaner interface and more accessible; new changes bring RPG elements to the fore.
It's still got a steep learning curve; there's a bit of repetition in terms of scripted events.