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Impressions: Crusader Kings II Beta

I’ve probably spent more time playing Crusader Kings than any other strategy game released in the last ten years. In all those glorious hours and days, I’ve raised mighty dynasties so envied by the wider world that they have felt the need to grind the bones of my children to dust and I’ve nurtured quiet island kingdoms, so inadequate in comparison to my neighbours that they have felt the need to grind the bones of my children to dust. I’ve loved almost every minute of it. Now, with Crusader Kings II on its way, is it time to move on?

When the sequel was announced I was overjoyed, although there were doubts in my mind. I'm genetically incapable of trust. I hoped this heir to the throne would be filled with virtue and of such striking qualities that his grizzled father (the first game) would be forced to the do the honourable thing and poison himself to death (be deleted) allowing immediate succession (purchase). But perhaps he would be filled with visible and inner defects so damaging (bugs) that it’d be better to pop him in a tower and dispatch him (Edward V, Richard of Shrewsbury - the metaphor has essentially collapsed). I’ve been playing the beta for a while now so thought I'd share some of my findings.

By their nature, betas are expected to have technical problems and missing features, and with a game as complex as Crusader Kings II it’d be fair to expect more problems than usual. However, I haven’t run into many problems at all and certainly none that have seriously affected my enjoyment. Commands all seem to work as they should, resulting in the eventual reduction of my children to dust, and even though the developers are currently adding more events and flavour to the world, there’s already plenty going on. There are many robust tutorials, each more in depth than 87.6% of actual games, and not a single crash has blighted my experience!

Proof of a kindly God - tutorials, loads of them

For those who don’t know the series, Crusader Kings is similar to Sengoku in that it puts players in control of a dynasty rather than a kingdom or nation. It’s grand strategy with an emphasis on characters, requiring not just handling of armies and territories, but families, friends and allies as well. In my experience, this makes the game thoroughly enjoyable when dealing with a kingdom that spans Europe, keeping underlings friendly and engaging in dangerous political games with the Papal order, but also ensures it’s fun to play an insignificant count in the British Isles, working for a powerful liege and attempting to meet his demands, ready to strike should he show weakness.

Although there are a huge amount of characters to keep track of, micromanagement is rarely a problem in terms of controlling either people or territory. That’s because Crusader Kings presents a believable world, one in which power must be delegated not only to reduce the number of plates you have to spin, but also to keep friends friendly. As your personal holdings increase, you’re expected to share the wealth and if you don’t, even your own family may see you as a threat and decide to cut you down to size.

The biggest change I’ve noticed in Crusader Kings II so far is that there seems to be even more happening than in the first game but it might be a case of the game simply presenting those things to me in a way that makes it clearer that they're happening. It’s rare that I don’t have several decisions to make or a few hangers-on demanding my attention in some way. It can be overwhelming at first, until I just accepted that I couldn’t deal with everything and did what I could.

Dogger Bank and a man with a sword, proving that Crusader Kings II is actually a very British action game

Unlike some games of this scope, Crusader Kings II doesn’t allow the player to break it, or at least not that I’ve managed. There’s no inflation to keep an eye on and no way of sinking an economy into a hole due to decisions made decades ago. That’s not to say it’s easy; there are plenty of ways to end up weak and wounded but failure doesn’t come about because of a misunderstanding of an arcane and ill-explained game system, it comes about because you pissed off the wrathful Duke of Cornwall or plotted against the King of France with a bunch of brown-nosers who told him every one of your treacherous words.

I can’t think of any other historical strategy game that offers a more convincingly living world and I already expect the full release to suck me in completely. I was initially concerned that the interface seems almost identical to that used in Sengoku, which I felt had streamlined some options into oblivion. They were literally so streamlined that they didn’t exist. Crusader Kings II brings back the complexity of its prequel, providing much more control over character interactions, military doings and territorial upgrades than its Japanese cousin, while retaining the generally pleasing layout of the new interface. The more I play, the more that interface makes sense and I have indeed accepted that I’m finally ready to move on.

I have noticed occasional erratic behaviour from the AI but nothing that’s disrupted the experience too much. In fact, nothing that I couldn’t put down to the AI simulating the erratic minds of men and I’m happy to see it as that provided entire kingdoms don’t start disintegrating overnight because there are mechanics that the computer simply doesn’t seem to understand. Nothing of that sort to report, gladly, although it’s impossible for one man to test all possibilities in such a short time.

France is somewhat purple and complex to conquer

So far I haven’t controlled a huge amount of subjects for a long time, concentrating on starting small, and it may be when there are more things to track with direct player involvement that mechanical problems arise. But, remarkably, I don't have lists of errors to report. What I do have are plenty of stories to tell and that, for me, is what Crusader Kings is all about: not trying to achieve any particular goal, but taking the canvas of history and daubing fresh tales across it.

The extra details and greater accessibility in this sequel are shaping up to make it a damn fine heir. And accessibility does not mean dumbed down, not in the slightest, it means more accessible. Making choices is less convoluted and the results are more apparent, putting an evolving and dynamic history right there on the screen.

I’m feeling very good about this.

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