Empress Hamam accomplished a lot in her 71 years. Hailing from a meager tribe in what would be modern Sudan (eastern Africa), she restored the organized worship of the ancient Egyptian gods and cemented the rule of a new pharaonic dynasty in the medieval Nile Valley, finally ending centuries of foreign rule. Her passion in life, however, was her 12 children, some of whom would go on to rule in their own right. Raising that many kids is stressful, though, which led her to develop a drinking habit and a taste for elaborate feasts, ultimately ingratiating her in the eyes of her more revelrous subjects even further. This is just one of the countless human stories that emerged organically over more than 100 hours I’ve already spent in Crusader Kings 3. And its marriage of the personal and the political, the grand and the intimate, is nothing short of glorious.
Crusader Kings has always been a series about how individual characters, and their interactions, shape history, and this third installment finds new and intriguing ways to portray that. Like its predecessors, Crusader Kings 3 lets court drama, dynastic feuds, and marriage alliances underpin the more familiar grand strategy game tasks of constructing castles, researching technology, and waging war. A personal slight between two neighboring rulers can plunge the entire region into bloodshed and chaos worthy of a great historical fiction novel, while a well-planned betrothal can forge a mighty alliance and eventually unite kingdoms under one crown. Fundamentally, it’s a game more about people than things – and that focus is what makes it truly special and memorable.
Paradox Development Studio has deepened and expanded upon most of the key elements that made Crusader Kings 2 work. The stress system, which led our merry matriarch Hamam to find solace in the bottom of a bottle, is emblematic of this. In Crusader Kings 2, characters have personality traits that affect their stats, but they didn’t do much to guide your behavior. In Crusader Kings 3, a cruel character will build up stress if you often offer your enemies mercy, while an honest one will chafe at dark dealings in the shadows. This encouraged me to roleplay the traits of my characters rather than just seeing them as numerical modifiers, or live with the consequences of denying their natural tendencies, which I really enjoyed. Understandably, Crusader Kings 3’s system doesn’t feel as broadly fleshed-out as its predecessor’s, which has had the benefit of seven years and hundreds of dollars’ worth of expansions, but it’s well on its way.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Stress%20encouraged%20me%20to%20roleplay%20the%20traits%20of%20my%20characters%20rather%20than%20just%20seeing%20them%20as%20numerical%20modifiers.”]Stress never felt like it railroaded me into a specific kind of behavior, though. Accumulating too much leads to a mental break, which offers you the choice of a couple different coping mechanisms you can adopt to deal with the strain of ruling a medieval realm. Whether it’s drinking, fighting, or frequenting the brothels, each of these provides authentic-feeling character development and introduces new opportunities for drama and conflict. Hamam’s love of booze led her to make new friends with other magnates who shared in her favored pastime. But developing a temper could lead to you punching out a priest and upsetting the Pope, which is generally a bad idea in this time period.
Of course, due to the in-depth, free-form new religion system, you can always bid farewell to a religious doctrine that no longer suits you. You can create a new heresy of Catholicism that, for instance, exalts cannibalism, believes in reincarnation, and allows only women to become priests. Everything is customizable, from the role of the clergy to views on witchcraft and homosexuality. The possibilities are practically limitless, and allow you to customize your experience and leave your mark on the world in very satisfying ways that were never possible in the previous games.
Master of Whisperers
Medieval dynastic politics would be nothing without a little cloak and dagger, and this is another area where Crusader Kings 3 has gone all out. A new system of secrets and hooks allows you to gain leverage over other characters by, for instance, discovering and threatening to expose an extramarital affair. It feels rewarding and viable to work solely in the shadows, building your base of power through trading favors, manipulating the careless, and assassinating those too inconvenient to your schemes. Most of the same results were achievable in Crusader Kings 2, but the way you get there is so much richer and more hands-on now.
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Warfare has some strong new ideas too, well beyond the advantage bar that clearly shows you who’s winning a battle at any given moment (a huge improvement over Crusader Kings 2’s arcane and inaccessible number-crunching). While combat is still fairly simple and hands-off, from a tactical perspective, the ways it can have repercussions after the fact have been greatly broadened and deepened beyond simple success or failure. The addition of Knights gives individual, named warriors a bigger role to play in turning the tide, and more opportunities for personal stories to emerge from the din of clashing steel. What’s more, the risks of bloodshed now include consequences that can be more shattering to a ruler than losing an entire army. A lover serving in your personal guard might sacrifice themselves to save you from a stray arrow. A close but bloody battle, even if you emerge victorious, could end with all of your adult children, your most trusted counselor, and your best friend dead or maimed. The survivors will be left to return to a completely changed political situation and atmosphere at court while possibly sending your current avatar into a depression spiral full of angst and debauchery.
The logistics of conducting a campaign of conquest could still use some work. In an effort to cut down on the micromanagement that bogs down Crusader Kings 2 at times, Crusader Kings 3 has all of your armies arrive at a designated rally point as a single force, rather than raising dozens of small stacks from their home counties and having to merge them together. The problem is it doesn’t always send troops where they’re needed, this often leaves you without the fine control you need to stage your invasion efficiently. Setting up multiple rally points is supposed to split your forces somewhat evenly when you call up the banners, but I’ve never found this to work properly in practice. Usually one rally point would spawn a small contingent of troops, while the entire rest of my army showed up at the other. This is pretty annoying, because having too many troops in one spot will cause you to lose men and supplies to attrition, and in a war with multiple fronts it leaves one or more positions woefully undermanned. The end result is that you end up doing almost as much work micromanaging your soldiers, manually splitting them into smaller contingents and marching them halfway across the realm, as you would have under the old system.
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This is partly alleviated by the fact that there’s so much to do besides marching armies around, and all of that is done so well. But it’s the one major thing I’d really want to see improved, and I take comfort from the fact that Paradox has a rock-solid history of polishing its games for years after launch.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=This%20is%20easily%20Paradox%E2%80%99s%20best%20looking%20game%20to%20date%2C%20across%20the%20board.”]The graphics don’t need any polishing though. This is easily Paradox’s best looking game to date, across the board. I couldn’t have anticipated how much having fully 3D, animated character models would help the world and stories come to life, but it makes an absolutely massive difference over Crusader Kings 2. And it’s more nuanced than you’d probably expect, in that you get to see your characters age gradually year over year in complex and realistic ways, rather than suddenly getting gray and wrinkly at a pre-set age like in the previous installment. On top of that, the new DNA system allows children to be a believable mix of their parents’ features, with the ability to pass on everything from hair color to nose bridge width to ear lobe size.
The historically-inspired clothing is a joy to look at, from the roughspun tunics of a Swedish commoner to the elaborate, embellished court dress of the Byzantine Emperor. I do wish there was a little more regional variation – my pharaohs were stuck with fairly generic Arabic-looking outfits, for instance – but that’s something I’d bet strongly on getting more of in updates, mods, and DLC down the line. And the portrait system can even model things like scars from battles, weight gain from too much wine and feasting, athleticism, and the signature buboes of everyone’s favorite plague. Characters have always been the mechanical heart of Crusader Kings, but making them its visual focus in so many new and effective ways elevates everything else substantially.
The map is gorgeous to look at as well, fading seamlessly from an era-appropriate parchment mode at higher zoom levels to highly detailed and striking close-ups of terrain at the lowest ones. It’s very easy when maneuvering to see where features like hills, swamps, and forests start and end without having to rely on the UI, which is a huge boon for tactics and immersion when on a campaign. And using zoom levels instead of discrete map modes that must be toggled on and off (though there are a few of those) allows you to access the information you need much more quickly and intuitively at a moment’s notice.
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The interface is generally clean and well-organized, using a dusky but not depressing color palette that’s easy to look at and feels decidedly medieval without casting a sense of gloom all over everything. Hand-painted backgrounds on events and character pages enhance the atmosphere and sense of place, from a chieftain’s smoky tent on the Eurasian steppe to a Sultan’s elaborate, ostentatious palace grounds. It can get a little busy at times, though, due to the fact that Crusader Kings 3 seemingly wants to avoid overlapping menus as much as possible. If you open the intrigue screen, for instance, it shoves everything that’s normally along the right hand side over to the left instead of covering it up. If you have a lot of menus and notifications going on at once, you can be left with what feels like basically a postage stamp of the map left to peer at and it sometimes made me feel very claustrophobic. Too much information at a glance can be a bad thing, so you have to learn to manage it.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Every%20music%20track%20is%20excellent%20and%20effective.”]The soundtrack and sound design is also a new high for Paradox Development Studio. Ambient sounds like a bustling market or the clash of swords in battle at the lowest zoom levels are crisp, layered, and effective at reinforcing that sense of place. Every music track is excellent and effective, whether it be a serene and ambient bed of strings or the bombastic, energetic contextual stings that play when you declare war or being a crusade. Even little things like the clicky feedback noises you get from clicking on menu options are great. Subtleties like that can go a long way.
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All of this is sealed with the slick, regal wax of the new lifestyles system, which takes the ideas of Crusader Kings 2’s best add-on, Way of Life, and expands on it excellently while folding it into the base mechanics. Characters can choose to focus on one of five areas: war, intrigue, learning, diplomacy, and stewardship. Each of these has three distinct and rich sub-focuses within them. Does your scheming duke want to get his way through murder or seduction? Both can accomplish the same goals, but in very different ways. And each is loaded with new events, almost none of which are repeats that those of us who played Crusader Kings 2 to death will recognize. And since so many of them are specific to one focus within one lifestyle, I imagine it’s going to take a very long time to see them all even once. At around 100 hours played, I’m still getting tons of novel events pop up at my court and it feels like I’ve only scratched the surface.
Power and Progression
Lifestyles also come with three talent trees that don’t only give you boring, flat modifiers to your skills, but actually open up entirely new playstyles. A skilled diplomat who is a vassal to a higher ruler, for instance, can unlock the ability to claim the throne of their liege lord even if they have no right to it by blood. Seedy schemers can gain the ability to abduct other characters and take them prisoner, up to and including kings and popes! On top of this, you’ll be accumulating Renown for your whole dynasty, which can unlock bonuses like making everyone in your line longer-lived or more likely to inherit positive genetic traits like Strong and Intelligent. This means that while each new ruler you inhabit might be a fresh start in terms of lifestyle points, you’ll always be accumulating dynastic progress that never goes away. It’s really satisfying, and one of those things I’m now realizing was painfully missing from Crusader Kings 2.
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The new technology system is another great example of improving on this idea of long-term progression. While Crusader Kings 2’s system was full of more of those boring, flat modifiers – a small bonus to prestige here, an increase to the fighting effectiveness of heavy infantry there – almost all of Crusader Kings 3’s historically-inspired innovations give you something new and exciting to play with. It’s how you unlock new succession laws that allow you to consolidate power under one heir, rather than having the kingdom split between all your kids when you die. The latter system makes the early game very chaotic and challenging, and by the time you get rid of it, you feel like you’ve really earned it. It will also unlock new buildings and culture-specific military units and abilities for just about every corner of the map. Mongols get deadly horse archers. Norse longships will allow you to sail along major rivers, not just the open seas. In a tapestry where regional variation is one of the few colors that isn’t as bright, these little touches really help each region in Crusader Kings 3’s feel somewhat new and different.