I’ve become somewhat spoiled with my videogames it seems. Now when I get a new game I expect one of two things: either a tutorial of which to be critical, or a game that’s so intuitive there’s no tutorial needed. Like the stereotypical male, only once I’ve got a good feel for a game is the manual brought out to dig in deeper.
So with Paradox Entertainment’s new real-time strategy game, Crusader Kings, I found myself at a loss. Having never played the company’s Europa Universalis back in 2001, I was completely blindsided by the complete lack of a tutorial for what is an incredibly deep, complex and, by extension, an unintuitive game. And, retreating to the instruction manual, I found very little help there, as well.
The goal of our reviews is to give readers enough information for them to decide whether they would enjoy the game. In the case of Crusader Kings, it’s really very simple: if you enjoyed the popular Europa Universalis, or if you’re a history buff who loves details but doesn’t need a graphical representation of those details, you should enjoy Crusader Kings.
Crusader Kings is best described as an historically accurate European politics simulator. That would explain the steep learning curve. There is no main story or progression; instead, the game uses the events of recorded history as its guideline for what happens next. Obviously, being schooled in the trials and tribulations of this historical period will not only give you an edge in the game, it should increase your enjoyment of it as well.
At the start, players select which scenario they’d like to play. There’s Hastings 1066, The Third Crusade 1187, and The Hundred Years War 1337. Next, players choose which country or province to rule over as a king, duke or count, depending on the amount of responsibility desired. There are more than 1,000 active provinces in the game, all with historically accurate rulers (and their family trees) in place. As a result, once the character you’re playing dies, you take over as one of your heirs and the game goes on.
Rather than just focusing on governing a country with taxes and policies, Crusader Kings puts the focus on the social and political interactions between different rulers. Piety and Prestige are the most important scores in the game, both of which are influenced by the amount of control you have over the land and your favor with the Church. Making gains in these areas is achieved in many different ways, including acquiring land, managing your subjects, socializing with other kings and having your children wed the right people.
So who’s the right person? Well, each ruler has attributes to take into consideration when trying to get what you want from them, and you must also consider the attributes of your own character when deciding which decisions to make. And that’s where Crusader Kings really leaves players high and dry. What are you to do? There is no clear direction, and to make matters worse, you have little to no idea what effect your decisions will have while you’re making them, because the manual lacks any real detail. In fact, to win the game, the manual actually suggests that you make goals for yourself and decide for yourself when you’ve won.
In many respects, that’s presumably what ruling a country is all about: setting goals and determining when you’ve achieved them (or “won”). Likewise, the frequent interruptions of real-life advisers is probably akin to Crusader Kings’ use of frequent popup windows asking you to decide on various proposals and events, none of which you have any idea how to answer. And all the while, the bottom of the screen shows numbers being crunched and events happening in the background while you make up your mind. All of this has the effect of making you feel like you’ve been left far behind in a race to get somewhere, but you don’t exactly know where that “somewhere” is. All in a day’s work for rulers, I suppose.
Still, since history was my least favorite subject in school, I found Crusader Kings to be almost painful to play. Watching battles explode in front of me and having a tutorial to get me on my way are things I’ve come to expect in modern real-time-strategy games. With these things missing, I found the experience to be disconcerting. The numbers, names and attention to factual detail is astounding, but with no clear way of getting into those details, the trial-and-error method is all that remains. After hours of working with this game, unless you’re a history buff or ruler-in-training, you will likely find yourself overwhelmed and lost.
- Gameplay: 4
- Slow paced and confusing, but after a while you can see the simulation going on in the background.
- Graphics: 2
- There are only 2D maps, pictures and little looping animations.
- Sound: 8
- The orchestral soundtrack is very well done, but there’s no voice work and minimal action-specific sounds.
- Replay: 9.5
- If historical simulators are your type of game, you can play this for a very, very long time. And still find new things to amaze you.
- Overall: 5.9
- History buffs and hardcore RTS fans should give the game a try. Newcomers should stay far away.
— Robert Dusseau