Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Crusader Kings II Review

Crusader Kings II, developed and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Detailed character attributes and relationships, military size and income tied with vassal relations, varied tasks for council members, lots of semi-random events, an assortment of provincial improvements, competent AI takes advantage of vulnerable neighbors, laws that determine succession and levy and tax levels for vassals, decent tutorials, multiplayer, easy to modify
The Not So Good: Not enough plots, only a couple religious-based options
What say you? This role-playing grand strategy game is full-featured and highly interactive: 8/8

The Middle Ages was a time of transition between the glorious Roman Empire and Disco Fever. This period was not known for great technological advances (the Internet, for example, was not invented until Amerigo Vespucci found TCP/IP buried deep within the jungles of Brazil), but it was a time of constant small-scale conflict between the family dynasties of Europe. Rather than countries uniting on a national level, nobles tried to expand their personal dynasty as dukes fought dukes, kings fought kings, and counts fought over chocolate breakfast cereal. Crusader Kings II takes the grand strategy design used in several Paradox Interactive products and applies a layer of role-playing, where you control specific characters within Europe and attempt to survive the harsh conditions and testy vassals. Is this marriage built to last?

Crusader Kings II continues the refined graphics exhibited in previous Paradox products Victoria II and Sengoku. The map, while not as detailed as the one featured in Sengoku, it is still an improvement over Europa Universalis III, with better textures and terrain. Mountainous regions look imposing and forests are lush, striking a balance between realism and illustration. Your councilors have distinctive character models if you zoom in far enough, and unit sprites carry colors of their lord (identifiable if you are nerdy enough and have the coats of arms memorized) along with exact counts of the soldiers involved (you can also click on the soldier shield to find which province they hail from). I also really like the use of stained glass icons, putting you into the setting of the game. That said, I did experience some minor map bugs with my NVIDIA 560 Ti (borders flashing each time a day passed), but when I rolled back to the latest non-beta drivers, the problem was solved.

While a pretty map makes for good screenshots, the real meat of a strategy game lies in the interface. The user interface continues to progresses towards perfection, placing important messages as alerts and filing less pressing information appropriately: every in-game event is displayed in the bottom window, stuff in your realm is placed into high and low priority messages along the right, and things that need your action come in at the top. The outliner continues to offer handy quick access to your units, demesne, and council members, and the ledger presents randomly thrown together bits of information they couldn’t find a better place for. Tool-tips are pleasingly detailed, showing exactly how relationships values, tax income, and traits (among many other things) are calculated. The comprehensive map modes display pertinent information such as independent realms, diplomacy, religion, de jure duchies, provincial income, revolt risk, and dynasties. Overall, the interface of Crusader Kings II provides easy access to almost everything.

The sound design is pretty standard fare, with repetitive effects when units are selected and battle begins. There is background music for each interface page that some might find annoying, but I didn’t have a problem with it. There are distinctive sounds for each notification type (call to arms, peace treaty, guardian needed), so you know exactly what kind of news is incoming before you even glance at the top of the screen. Although I wasn’t expecting it, it should be noted that there is no voice work for events or notifications. The music is not as period-specific and instantly recognizable as in some other Paradox titles, so overall the sound design lags behind previous efforts. Still, the overall presentation offers no significant shortcomings and is solid overall.

Crusader Kings II allows you to take control of any European count, duke, or king starting on any date between September 15th, 1066 and January 1st, 1337, with the game ending in 1453 or when your dynasty ends with no heirs. It's impressive that all of the national, character, family, and relationship data are present for every date for almost 300 years of history. Difficulty can be customized somewhat by choosing more difficult characters to play (such as a count that owns only one province). Your game score (calculated by adding the prestige and piety of all the characters you played) is then compared against historical dynasties, although these families use rounded numbers for their scores; it would have been more interesting to compare your results against the other families actually in your specific game. Learning the potentially complex game is made easier by using the somewhat interactive tutorials (using the same system as Victoria II) that cover all the aspects of the game through twenty-seven multi-level lessons. The tutorials are done well and serve as a nice introduction to the game mechanics. Multiplayer makes a return, for those who aspire to leading the greatest family in Europe online against thirty-one others. Finally, like most Paradox grand strategy games, most of the game files are simple text entries that can be easily modified by aspiring designers to adjust or add a wide range of content.

Crusader Kings II is focused on characters. Each person in the game is rated in five key areas: diplomacy, martial ability, stewardship, intrigue, and learning. In addition, values for fertility, health, culture, and religion define a person. A considerable number of traits can also be earned through events, which further adjust the player attributes: brave, content, cynical, genius, ill, poet, proud, shy, stutter, wroth, and zealous are just a few. When a character becomes an adult, a career is assigned that adds even more changes to attributes: a thrifty clerk gets additional stewardship points, while a tough soldier excels in military matters, for example. The amount of variety in the traits and careers makes relationship values quite varied (as opposed to Sengoku, where you basically had the same relationship values with everyone), and subsequently the inter-personal dynamics are much more interesting. Each character also has amounts of wealth, prestige, and piety the game tracks over time. Crusader Kings II provides dynasty, family, and kingdom trees to track others within your realm, and childrens’ appearance is based on that of their parents. Finally, the interface gives one-click access to potential partners in marriage, which can be sorted by rank or attribute; it would be nice to have the same feature for finding matrilineal marriages, too.

To assist in running your province/duchy/kingdom, a five-member council can be appointed, and each member can conduct one task (unless they are currently leading troops) in one province. The chancellor can improve relations, fabricate claims for land, or sow dissent between a vassal and his liege, the marshal suppresses revolts, trains troops, or researches military tech, a steward collects taxes, oversees construction, or researches economy tech, the spymaster uncovers plots, builds a spy network, or studies technology, and the court chaplain converts religion, researches cultural tech, or improves religious relations. Between these five people, you are given a good variety of tools and decisions must be made on which activity to undertake at the moment; it’s comprehensive without being unwieldy. Like in Sengoku, you don’t have direct control over all of the lands in your duchy or kingdom. Rather, the size of your demesne (the provinces you do have control over) is determined by your ratings (instead of being fixed at five, as in Sengoku) and there you can send your council members and construct new buildings. Your wealth is primarily spent on building new things in your demesne, like moats to improve the fort level, increasing the city size for more tax income, constructing a keep for increased levy and garrison sizes, or erecting new military buildings (archery range, barracks, stable) for additional troops of a specific type. There are many more options in Crusader Kings II than in Sengoku, which consequently increases the strategy. You can also pay a hefty sum to construct a new castle, church, or town in one of your provinces. The options in managing your provinces are deep without being overwhelming.

Laws determine the…uh…laws of your realm. When changed, they are voted upon by your vassals, so only popular changes in the customs of the region will ultimately be approved. The first kind of laws deal with succession: who’s getting what when you die. Settings include primogeniture (the oldest son gets everything), seniority (the oldest male in the dynasty gets everything), gavelkind (titles are evenly divided), and elective. Each law can further be customized to involve only males (agnatic), females if no males are available (cognatic), or females on equal footing (true cognatic). Additional laws involve the level of crown authority, which determines the amount of control the king can have on his vassals. You can also dictate whether the king or the Pope determines which bishops are employed within your realm and the levies and taxation that are drawn from your feudal lords, cities, and churches. While most options won’t be changed during the course of a game, the availability of these choices allows you to potentially alter the kingdom to better suit your dynasty.

Want to change a law but can’t fight the king alone? Start a plot! You can select from an assortment of options, like altering the succession laws or tax levels, and then recruit like-minded individuals (clearly indicated with green “thumbs up” icons) to back your desires. You can also assassinate fellow characters in the game, although Crusader Kings II does a really poor job saying who these people are when presented in the potential plot list. You can use your spymaster to discover the plots of others, and then throw them in jail for being such a jerk. Even with these options, I feel that the plot system in Crusader Kings II could use more depth (can you say “future expansion”?). I’d like to see a lot more options for plots, such as non-marriage alliances against a common liege, manufacturing claims on territory, and a wider range of assassination attempts (especially against vassals with whom you have poor relations). The game also does not combine existing plots, so you could have five AI characters all attempting to assassinate the king but in five different plots, with none of them able to execute the plot because potential backers are all doing their own plot against the same person. In addition to killing others and getting new territory, you can choose less violent ambitions like earning money, becoming married, or having a son. Crusader Kings II also gives you some decisions like inviting new people to your court, asking for land from your liege, or holding an event such as a grand tournament or summer fair. More direct, traditional diplomatic options are also available: declaring war (you must have a reason, such as a holy war, claim on a territory, or the target has been excommunicated), giving titles, sending gifts, educating children, and offering vassalization. While shortcomings in the plot mechanics are disappointing, the potential for underhanded mayhem is certainly there.

While religion was a big deal during the Middle Ages, its role in Crusader Kings II is surprisingly minimal. Sure, you (obviously) have crusades against heathens, which grant you a casus belli for declaring war and a ton of piety if you succeed, but the Pope’s influence on the day-to-day activities of your realm is minimal at best. You can request the Pope to excommunicate an adversary or allow for an invasion, and he’ll occasionally send some money if you’ve been a nice Catholic, but that’s about it. That said, excommunication is a death sentence in the game, as large nations won’t hesitate to gang up on you and defeat means losing the throne to your heir. It’s also relatively inexpensive to request the excommunication of another character if you have good relations with the Pope, and it’s a strategy the AI employs somewhat frequently. Still, I expected a bit more interaction with the Bishop of Rome.

While the Middle Ages was not a time of dramatic technological advances, improved technologies do occur. You can focus on research in military, economic, and cultural areas, improving light armor, siege equipment, fortifications, church tax levels, keeps, popular customs, spiritual art, and a number of other areas. A map mode shows the current tech levels of all other provinces, so you can scout good areas to send your spymaster to steal higher-level knowledge in areas you desire. New techs unlock additional buildings for your provinces and improve other aspects of your empire, so while it’s usually “set it and forget it,” research can play an important role in your realm over time.

Rather than slowly building up and maintaining a standing army, military units are instantly recruited from your demesne and the lands of your vassals. The amount of troops you get to use is determined by the buildings in each province, the laws of your realm, and the relationship values you maintain with each vassal. This makes it important to recruit vassals who like you based on compatible traits and then maintain those positive relationships over time. Because of this, while a larger empire will usually get more troops simply because they have more provinces to recruit from, this might not be the case if the king has poor relationships with his vassals. This use of relationships makes Crusader Kings II a lot more interesting because smaller, better run kingdoms might prevail in war. You can also recruit expensive mercenary troops, both in terms of the initial cost and monthly upkeep, to supplement your levies if you have the cash (if they are available: the AI does use them and I ran into situations when they were all hired out). But mercenaries can be very powerful if you can afford them, easily taking out traditional levies that stand in their way. Holy troops can also be summoned during crusades against heathens, costing piety but no upkeep.

Automated battles consist of three phases, each of which involves a different type of unit: light infantry, pikemen, archers, heavy infantry, light cavalry, horse archers, and heavy cavalry. First, the ranged mode lets ranged units have at it, then the sword-and-pike-wielding melee units have a turn, then the mounted units gallop in pursuit. All of the numbers are clearly displayed using tool-tips during battles, so you can see exactly why units are routing and then formulate a strategy (constructing specific buildings in your provinces to alter levied troop types, for example) to combat this next time. In order to mount a successful siege against an enemy city, castle, or church, you must have more troops than the usually significant defending garrison and levy, making it much more difficult for small, annoying troops to successfully take land (a great feature, in my opinion).

The AI in Crusader Kings II seems to be a competent opponent/ally. They accept diplomatic proposals when appropriate, attack suitable targets when they are most vulnerable, recruit mercenaries, engage in plots, and play the game intelligently as a whole. The AI does like to raise armies in territories that are under siege (handing you warscore points), but I never experienced any outlandish behavior from AI-controlled characters. Overall, Crusader Kings II delivers a varied, interesting experience. The semi-random events keep you occupied, even if nothing major is going on. The constant adjusting of vassal and liege relationships, the threat of war, keeping succession within the family, and deploying council members give you a lot to do. Certainly, I’ve done less “sitting around” in Crusader Kings II than in any other Paradox title. Playing as a vassal gives you a different perspective, as your liege raises your troops and sends you the upkeep bill. Crusader Kings II also features less automation than Victoria II, while offering more depth than Sengoku. Plus, the role-playing elements make for great stories.

Crusader Kings II is an engrossing game that successfully combines grand strategy pageantry with role-playing intimacy. It starts with the characters: complex relationships based on a large variety of traits drive the game, determining how many troops you can recruit from your vassals, the income you generate, and who might revolt against you. Your five-member council can be used to improve your provinces, suppressing revolts, increasing tax income, recruiting more troops, or improving relations. Gold can also be spent upgrading the provinces under your direct control (the maximum number of which is determined by your attributes), increasing tax rates, defenses, and military levies. Laws enacted in your realm can also determine how many troops and taxes you collect from your vassals. Diplomatic actions are varied, allowing you to align yourself with others through marriage, give land to vassals, and educate your children. However, the plot system, where multiple characters can join a single cause like lowering crown authority or killing off a rival character, doesn’t offer enough choices for my tastes. Religion is also a bit underdeveloped: the Pope can start crusades or excommunicate others, but that’s about it. While the Middle Ages wasn’t known for its great technological leaps, you can conduct (slow) research, improving various aspects of your realm. Like previous Paradox titles, military battles are completely automated, but the level of detail is high and I like the fact that character relationships directly impact the number of troops you’ll recruit from your vassals. There are also a lot of events that will crop up; they become a bit repetitive, but most offer interesting choices for your character. Games can produce drastically different results even if you start with the same character on the same date, increasing replay value because you just don't know what's going to happen next. The AI is good, asking for alliances through marriage and striking enemies while they are weak. Crusader Kings II lets you start on any date during the time period, taking control of any prominent character, and you can also ruin peoples’ lives online. Crusader Kings II is Paradox’s best game (and certainly the most accessible), as it presents more than enough to keep you busy as you attempt to become the greatest family in Europe.