Road To Empire

By James Tanaleon 28 Oct 2014 0

October is a big month for Paradox Interactive as two of their flagship titles are about to receive some major attention. Aside from the upcoming DLC for Europa Universalis IV later on this month, Paradox has just released the new expansion ?Charlemagne? for its critically acclaimed Crusader Kings II. As the name suggests, this latest expansion takes the player back even further than any other iteration of Crusader Kings: all the way to the Early Middle Ages starting in the Year of Our Lord 769 where the rise of ?The Father of Europe? Carolus Magnus or Charlemagne takes center stage. 

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Once again, Paradox has decided to push the boundaries of their Crusader Kings II title. Each previous DLC for the game has provided the player with new avenues and new characters, places, and times to play in. We saw the inclusion of Muslim characters in ?Sword of Islam,? the inclusion of Pagan characters and a time warp to the 800s with ?Old Gods,? and even the expansion to India in ?Rajas of India? which was the first major geographical change since the very beginning of the franchise. While there is no geographical expansion this time around, Charlemagne does offer a hundred more years of game time in an already massive timetable for the player to choose from. The scope in time has gotten so large that they've cleverly added major chronological bookmarks in the main menu in order to help the player choose which era to begin his or her conquest. 

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As the name suggests, however, a lot of love was showered upon the Franks and the figure of Charlemagne. Not only are cultures that were representative of Europe before such nationalities as German or French or even Dutch existed represented here - complete from the Franks to Visigoths to Picts - but also names of places and people have been localized to place and time. Don't even ask me how to pronounce ?Svíþjóð.? The major centerpiece of the focus on ?Karolus Magnus? is centralized around several events relating to Charlemagne's rivalry with his brother Carloman, the struggle with the Lombards, and the formation of the Holy Roman Empire. These major events to unify Western Europe were not only game changers of Western History, but an exciting upward goal for any player who wishes to relive the steps of this great monarch.

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I found the little campaign to establish the Holy Roman Empire and unite the Western Christian lands to be quite a bit of fun. It is relatively unique in the experience of Crusader Kings II since this is one of the first times where scripted historical events take a center stage in an otherwise sandbox oriented game. In the past, ever since the first title in the franchise, Crusader Kings had prided itself on being a thoroughly sandbox game with supreme efforts in representing the mechanics of Feudal Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, but without imposing its own historical determinism on the projects. It's true that in previous installments, Crusader Kings II had events that could be triggered or decisions that could be made based on circumstances mirroring historical reality, but this is one of the first times where a major historical event is recreated this closely to the original flow of history. I believe this is a crucial selling point for this DLC. Although I wouldn't say that these few events alone represent the totality of value for the DLC, this is nonetheless an important precedence for the Paradox team. Just as they have pushed the boundaries of what the CK II title means by including previously unplayable factions and areas, but now they are bending the rules on the very nature of the game by adding in a hint of historical determinism. By exercising this flexibility in DLC format, they are allowing the player to pick and choose which experiences he wishes, making Crusader Kings II modular in its outlook and presents a unique opportunity for Paradox to sell a product that can truly win over any kind of grand strategy gamer. 

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As a kind of enhancement to the historical focus of this DLC there is the addition of the family ?Chronicle? which is a kind of summary of the major events that have affected the lives of the persons of your dynasty that you have been following. This chronicle is found in a ledger like format that is illustrated and transcribed in the style of a Medieval manuscript. While this may be a small featurette, it once again demonstrates that Paradox is willing to let the player provide the pathos and gravitas himself. In other words, Crusader Kings II's chronicle doesn't purport to be a tome of beautiful language or epic poetry, but it does provide the player with the highlights of his reigns and allows him to add his own sense of importance or amusement from remembering those instances. Signaling the dates when my dynasty recreated the Roman Empire, for example, was a major milestone in the chronicle and fun to go through. While all of this is well and good, this mechanic is actually not new to Paradox games. Europa Universalis III and Europa Universalis IV have already this kind of system and it makes one wonder why it took the developers this long to put it into Crusader Kings. 

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While they may have engaged the player in some historical immersion, that doesn't meant that this expansion has forgotten its sandbox roots. It is now possible to create custom Kingdoms and Empires. In other words, if one has the prerequisite prestige and other factors, one can now found a whole new empire if he or she does not wish to simply assume the mantle of a de jure Kingdom or Empire. Capua can go from a lowly county to a massive Empire touching both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. This truly goes to the core of what makes CK II so great: it enhances the player's ability to customize his feudal experience and is one of the major selling points of this new DLC and update. I will say, however, that I find some of the requirements (such as the ridiculously high prestige value) to be a bit of a problem, but this, hopefully, will be something that will be tweaked and balanced over the course of the next few patches. 

Speaking of Empires, there are now some startling new mechanics associated with large realms. The first is the concept of a ?vassal limit.? Similar in the way that demesne limits work, vassal limits represents the capacity of your monarch to sustain and manage vassals. Going over the vassal limit gives horrible penalties including the inability to levy any troops. This limit is governed through technologies and laws in the kingdom and forces the monarch of a large and sprawling Empire to learn how to delegate properly. One rather interesting tidbit is that the greater your dynasty prestige, the more vassals afforded to you. This simulates, of course, the natural wish of people to be retained by your glorious dynasty the more its star rises in the world. There are also ?viceroyalties? which helps to alleviate this issue. Appointing a Kingdom or Ducal Viceroy allows a monarch to designate someone to be ?King? or ?Duke? of that territory but the title returns to the monarch upon death. I find this to be one of the most exciting dynamics of the game as it represents a real and honest intention by Paradox to revamp the Empire experience. Empires are no longer simply massive feudal Kingdoms but have the opportunity to form into whole new kinds of states. To that end, other mechanics have been added to bolster this new emphasis on Empire building. Centralization, for example, allows a monarch to increase his demesne limit at the cost of vassal limit. I find this particular function, however, to be almost completely useless unless one has a relatively small Empire. Any Empire of decent size, however, is going to require a lot more vassals than relying on the efficiency of demesnes. Despite this, the viceroy option is an exciting feature which truly allows any Imperialist such as myself to revel in the resurrection of the Roman State. It is no wonder that Charlemagne is the name of this DLC, then, since just as Charlemagne pioneered the way in which a Medieval, ?barbarian? autocracy can transform into an Empire, so can the player forge a new path from his feudal past to his imperial future. 

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Aside from these features that are implemented through the purchase, there are ?free? aspects that are going to be patched into Crusader Kings II. Some are relatively small yet give profound implications for the way gameplay is exercised. One relief is the ability to choose a designated Regent for when one needs to go on pilgrimage or is otherwise incapacitated. This, thankfully, allows an individual to finally choose a regent trustworthy enough for the role. How many times have we toiled under the insidious eye of an unscrupulous regent who steals our money or otherwise plots for our demise? 

One of the most major changes coming to the base game thanks to this DLC is the addition of ?tribal? holdings. These are ?primitive? holdings designed to be present in the Early Middle Ages that simulate the way in which many settlements after the fall of Rome were more akin to tribal villages than they were to any cities or castles. These holdings can be destroyed and replaced with an actual barony or city if the holder has enough gold for it and, for Tribal governments, they can spend prestige to build buildings in it instead of gold. I'm a bit ambivalent on this mechanic. On one hand, it seems to hinder the technological development of the world. I think if they implemented a system whereby these settlements upgrade themselves after a certain amount of time instead of having to save up so much money for it, it would more accurately mirror the development of the world. Perhaps if they pegged it to technological drift it would help to make it more realistic. On the other hand, however, there is something to be said about customizing what the main holding of a particular place may be. One might choose to establish a usual barony in one place, sure, but new grand cities can be created or new archbishops can be installed. In the very least, it provides an interesting new mechanic to Tribal Nords or Hordes. 

There are plenty of other mechanics and tiny changes which contribute to the release of the patch, but I also wanted to focus on something in particular: the changes to assassinations. Assassinations in the past could either be done through a plot that one initiates or can be done through clicking on the ?assassinate? button in the diplomacy section of a character. The developers have now taken out the ?assassinate? button and the player is forced into plots only. In the beginning, when I had heard of this mechanic, I was very excited about it since I thought it would allow the player to finally have a more elaborate system of assassinating individuals, but, instead of an opportunity to fully bring the assassination system to fruition and include byzantine and draconian methods of murder, there was no real addition to the assassination plots. They remained completely the same. Not only that, but now one cannot kill his or her own children (a hilarious tendency among many CK II gamers)! I thought that Paradox really missed an opportunity here unless they?re planning on unleashing some kind of ?Age of the Hashashin? type DLC in the future that will overhaul the assassination systems. 

Overall, despite the great additions and flavour that this DLC added, the mechanical changes are hit or miss. The road to Empire is so much more exciting, but the changes to assassinations was a major disappointment. While I have been rather enthusiastic about the DLCs in the past, this one did not seem to live up to the high expectations set. Nonetheless, it will probably still continue to be a must have for those who are truly seeking the prestige of the Imperial Eagle and is a necessary for all of us world conquering megalomaniacs. 

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