Last year, I randomly stumbled on an old, graphically ancient medieval strategy game called Knights of Honor. It's a fairly simple game to master, as you spend 90-100% of the time staring at a map of Europe, essentially only managing the "strategic map" portion of the Total War games. I played the hell out of that game, and came away enjoying it more than most full priced, modern games. When Crusader Kings 2 came through the pipeline, I initially declined to take it on, but after checking out the screen shots, my irrationally hopeful mind taunted me, "What if this is a better version of KoH?" I decided to give it a go, but sadly, my hopeful stab in the dark didn't exactly pay off.
The first misconception I had to get over regarding Crusader Kings 2 is that it's a strategy game. It's not, not in the traditional sense, anyway. Yes you form and move armies around occasionally (far less than other strategy games), and you do manage town growth and such, but it would be much more accurate to call the game a "Lord simulator". Most of the play time is spent shoring up your royal family tree, creating alliances and marriages, keeping vassals and other lords subservient to you, and generally role playing a lord in a royal court. On the face of it, I actually kind of dig that idea; it's sort of a more complex version of The Sims: Medieval. But while the premise may be unique, the execution is pretty limp.
First, let me ask you a question: do you like menus? "Like" may be weak of a word. To enjoy Crusader Kings 2, you must love menus, to the point of sexual arousal. Because man-oh-man has this game got you covered in that department. From beginning to end, menus litter the interface, showing everything under the sun, from character info sheets to province build menus. Of course, any fan of the Total War series would ask, "Yeah, so what?". Well, imagine that that was all you looked at the entire game. Family trees, government appointments, diplomacy screens, financial balance sheets, aspirations lists...the menus seemingly go on forever. The ironic part is that when you actually want a certain menu, it can be damned hard to find, given how much is buried in the interface. And for the rest of it, you may even forget some of the actions available to you because that menu you saw in the tutorial is forever out of sight, out of mind.
This is also a game that requires you to use, almost exclusively, your imagination. Battles are not animated, cities on the map never change shape and even in the menu, the pictures of the towns don't upgrade; you simply increase number values. Indeed, if the controls and interface are entirely menu-driven, then the drama and action is entirely number-driven. There are enough stats and math in this game to give the most ardent D&D-er an explosive nerd-gasm. There may have been a time, in the early nineties, where I could have been satisfied solely in watching my stats slowly increase as I played. But even for a smaller developer/publisher like Paradox Interactive, there just needs to be more eye candy and "Oh that's cool!" moments to keep the interest level buoyed.
If I had to name an unreservedly positive aspect of Crusader Kings 2, it would have to be the attention to detail. When I was first choosing my starting province and lord, I was amazed that Paradox had mapped out the politics and people of all of Europe and part of North Africa and the Middle East from the years 1066 to 1337, down to the day! Ever wanted to play as Count Hevré of Léon on February 16th, 1287? Well today is your lucky day! You can even click a button on most characters' info sheets to link directly to the Wikipedia article detailing his or her life, which is a great touch. I literally spent an hour manipulating the date and watching countries expand, recede and splinter, like an interactive history lesson. Would that the rest of the game was an interesting as the setup screen.
You may have noticed that I used quite a few of allusions to sex during this review. The reason for that is because if I was ever going to get this review out, I had to make it interesting for myself somehow; the game itself simply wasn't going to do that. I realized in the first ten minutes of starting it just how low the enjoyment ceiling was and another twenty hours of playing it did nothing to alter that first impression. Perhaps this game would have been a blockbuster back in the days when all games required you to use your imagination to fill in the gaps where graphics and processing power weren't up to the task yet. And indeed, for those "gamers" who still pine for their Commodore 64's, Crusader Kings 2 may provide everything they would ever need. For those of us gaming in the year 2012, however, there just isn't enough here. It's like playing with the pre-alpha-build skeleton of a game before anyone starts the real programming, art rendering or engine building. Sure you can see what the developers are going for, but only if you turn your head, squint and imagine. When I'm doing all the creative work for a game in my own head, I think I would rather just skip the "game" and save my $40, instead. Going forward, I'll just keep hoping for Knights of Honor 2, and stop listening to that gullibly hopeful voice in my head.
This review is based on a digital copy of Crusader Kings 2 for the PC provided by Paradox Interactive.