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The RPS Advent Calendar 2020, December 10th

Ten doors down already! A veritable empire of games.

You can hear sinister whispering through this door of the calendar; skullduggery is afoot. Whoever is back there, you are fairly sure, is arranging for mortal harm to befall you. A believer in doing unto others before they can do unto you, you surge through the door with a dagger in hand, only to find yourself plunging into the breast of your uncle, the nine foot tall devil-worshipper who raised you. He had been praying to Satan, it seems, for your success in the upcoming war against Moravia.

Crusader Kings 3,” he mouths, figuratively and literally heartbroken, as he expires.

Cover image for YouTube video

Nate: Usually, calling something “competent” is praise so lukewarm it is in fact an insult. But in the case of the byzantine RPG-in-strategy-game’s-clothing CK3, I mean it with sincere respect.

In the lead-up to CK3’s September launch, I was beginning to feel like I was waiting beside an open grave. Don’t get me wrong: I wanted it to be brilliant. But predecessor Crusader Kings 2 is one of the best PC games there ever done has beened. This sequel had to match up not just to its basic quality, but to its appeal after approximately twelve decades of meaty DLC. And all while living up to the fervent, often contradictory, expectations of its various sects of fans. Tough brief.

Well, speaking for myself at least, CK3 was great. I don’t think it was “better” than Crusader Kings 2. But neither was it “worse” - and with the famously long active development lives of Paradox games, it was easy to see how it could eclipse CK2 in time. Crucially, it generated a lot of the same feelings during play, but it mixed in just enough in the way of new ideas that it couldn’t be dismissed as a mere visual upgrade. It was exactly what it needed to be.

Hence ‘competent’, then. Because for all the creativity that went into its design, CK3 struck me as a flex of analytical skill, more than anything else. Paradox thought long and hard about what a sequel needed to be in order to float, gave it just the right amount of hype, and then delivered a game pretty much exactly to brief.

To me, that was impressive, especially from a studio with a rep for taking big ideas and running with them. It would have been tempting, I suspect, to build CK3 around some wild diversion from the established model, but it also would have been a huge risk.

A narrative window describing the outcome of a successful murder plot.

Possibly the smartest bit, I think, was the subtle lowering of the game’s barriers to entry. As soon as it became apparent that Paradox were keen for more people to find the game approachable, fans began practising their accusatory cries of “dumbing down!” But this tightrope, too, was deftly navigated, and CK3 just feels more intuitive, rather than simplified, as a result.

So, as I said when I reviewed it: if you’ve always been tempted by a bit of fifteenth century powermongering, but felt a bit shy of CK2’s reputation for being impenetrable, this is your moment. And indeed, with this being a Paradox game, it’s already had a vast number of tweaks and tune-ups made since launch - and I suspect it’s only going to get better in the new year.

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The all-seeing eye of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the voice of many-as-one.