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Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Paradox Interactive
System requirements: Windows XP/Vista/Win 7, 2.4 GHz Pentium IV/AMD 3500+ CPU, 2 GB RAM, GeForce 8800/Radeon X1900 graphics card, DirectX-compatible sound card,
2 GB free hard-drive space, DirectX 9, Internet connection for multiplayer
ESRB rating: Teen
Release date: February 14, 2012
It’s hard to find something new when it comes to strategy games. Part of the reason so many of them are formulaic is because those formulas work. An examination of sales for games such as Total War: Shogun II reveals that no matter what strategy gamers say they want, they really want the ability to drive their virtual enemies before them in gameplay that is difficult, but not too difficult. They want big battles, economic things to manage, and special perks that are unlocked through strategic choices of some sort. Crusader Kings II is not that kind of strategy game. Yes, it has armies, an economy to manage, wars to fight, and all the other elements you might expect, but it’s really about building up your dynasty and interacting with people. To play Crusader Kings II is to spend time pondering potential marriages for your children, worrying about your in-laws fighting you about claims to your titles, plotting against your liege, ingratiating yourself with the church, making sure your spouse isn’t trying to kill off your older children, and, when all that is accomplished, maybe going on a campaign to conquer your neighbors.
At the heart of its gameplay, CK2 is about managing your family and its titles. You don’t play a nation-state or faction; you control your lands and vassals. Your personal lands generate troops and revenue, giving you an economy to manage. But your vassals owe you taxes and troops in exchange for your protection as their liege. And if you have a liege, you owe him or her taxes and revenue, too, in exchange for protection. Thus, you might be an emperor with a hundred vassals or a duke with both a liege and a few vassals, even if you are both a part of the same empire. But because you’re not playing nation-states, personal relations are all important. Even if your vassals legally owe you a certain amount of troops and taxes, they might shortchange you if they hate you. If you and your liege have a good relationship, he might just give you additional lands and titles. Your sons might desire titles; if you grant them their own lands, your sons are now both your children and your vassals, further complicating your relationship with your children. And just because your neighbor is also a vassal of your own liege, it doesn’t mean you can’t fight one another. There are provisions that allow vassals to fight their own independent wars, sidelining their liege as they settle their disputes on their own. This ensures that whether you play as a minor earl or a major king, there is always something to do and important things to manage. It also means that you are never really totally secure. There’s always someone who is mad at you for some reason.
And there are plenty of things to manage. Paradox has borrowed their plot mechanic from Sengoku and has taken it to the next level. Plots allow you to interact with the hundred or so NPC rulers and characters in the game to work towards common goals. Obvious plots you can initiate or join include things such as deposing your liege or modifying the ruling laws of your realm to something more to your liking. You can also plot to kill people (getting those close to your target to join the plot makes it much more likely to be successful) and even plot to change the succession of your realm. And since Paradox has programmed the AI to plot and scheme with the same gusto as a human, it’s not uncommon to see five to 10 plots occurring simultaneously in any major kingdom. Plots, combined with the character traits system, ensure that the AI behaves in a fairly rational way and in a way in which human players can work together. Instead of the AI randomly declaring wars against its liege or vassals, you see it plotting in such a way that the ambitious NPCs team up against their enemy and invite humans to join them. There’s never a moment when you say to yourself, “What is the AI trying to accomplish?” It’s all very clear, and since you only know about plots you detect, it’s always possible to wake up one day and suddenly find yourself being blackmailed by a coalition of enemies who have every reason to want to see you brought down.
Warfare becomes the continuation of politics by other means in CK2, as it fits fairly well with all of the plotting and complex interpersonal relations that occur. You don’t tactically control your armies. Instead, you direct them to march around the strategic map, and when battle is joined, your character and his/her vassals and courtiers take the field, fighting the battle for you using all of their competence or incompetence. Further regulating war is the need for a legitimate reason to go to war. That reason determines what you can demand when the conflict is finished. You can’t just attack and conquer France without either having a legitimate claim to the throne or having the head of your religion sanction such an action. Wars between fellow Christians tend to be limited affairs, since claims are required to fight. If you’re looking for a game in which you can just annex Christian states quickly and efficiently, this isn’t the game for you. For those interested in fighting wars of expansion, you need to attack non-Christians, as infidels aren’t given the same political status. Reflecting the nature of warfare in the period, aggression under the pretext of religious conversion is acceptable. But it works both ways, so it always pays not to overextend. While you can indiscriminately fight with non-Christians, they can do the same thing, and the last thing anyone fighting in the Reconquista or defending the Kingdom of Jerusalem wants to see is a coalition of well-armed Islamic powers banding together to wipe you from the face of the Earth. The AI isn’t stupid, and things get even more hectic when the Mongols show up, since they can attack everyone.
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