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Crusader Kings 3 review: Spy, seduce and murder your way to victory in the best grand strategy game yet

Recently, I threw a party for my nearest and dearest, plus a few special guests. There was loads of booze and I put on an incredible spread because I just wanted everyone to enjoy themselves, you know? Instead, I got absolutely shit faced and stabbed my cousin in the face, then pressured a witness into lying and covering for me. I got off scot-free; nobody ever found out.

When I visited the Paradox Interactive studios in 2019 to preview Crusader Kings 3, I was told that they’d spent a significant amount of time fine-tuning the historical and cultural elements of each country and their rulers, but I didn’t expect them to portray Scotland with such wild accuracy.

Crusader Kings 3 is just as bonkers, unpredictable and enthralling as its predecessor. Random encounters have increased and you’re often faced with dilemmas, some straightforward choices and, on occasion, a simple notification that you’ve done something unexpected, like the aforementioned stabbing.

The UI has had a complete overhaul, making it much simpler to navigate and better to look at. I no longer feel like I’m straining my eyesight trying to read tiny text or find menus. One very exciting new element that’s been added is the character customisation option, which comes with a choice of over 10 beard styles to create the Viking-esque king of your dreams and add a touch of pure elegance to your female rulers. If you really wanted to, you can customise the look of your entire family, which I definitely didn’t spend over an hour doing instead of trying to rule a dynasty.

Crusader Kings 3 feels lighter and more humourous which isn’t to its detriment. When you’re warring with nearby leaders, managing your spymaster and seducing the pope, things can start to feel a little heavy, so having the option to yell “The Scots are superior!” at an English king is a fine and welcome addition.

Grand strategy is not an easy egg to crack, and Crusader Kings 2 was known for being the gaming equivalent of Fort Knox. Fortunately, you won’t need to watch 20 hours of YouTube tutorials to get your head around the key aspects of Crusader Kings 3 thanks to the stellar tutorial and handy tooltips that let you find definitions with ease. There’s also the Encyclopaedia if you fancy a more in-depth read or need to refresh your memory.

What sets the Crusader Kings franchise apart from other grand strategy titles is that there’s no real “win” state - it’s a marathon that truly tests your perseverance as your leader can die and be replaced by the heir in a heartbeat. Maybe you developed that heir’s skills to match their parent, or maybe you set them on a different path, which changes the narrative direction almost instantaneously. While having high Intrigue is good, if your Martial skill is shit, you won’t be winning any crusades.

Back when I spoke to the game’s director, Henrik Fåhraeus, he described how the team were keen to engage with new players - whether they’d played any grand strategy titles beforehand or not - without “dumbing down” the Crusader Kings experience and estranging the established community. The RPG elements - from customising your leader’s looks down to Lifestyles and traits - have all been expanded upon in such a way that makes the gameplay far more immersive and enjoyable.

None of the charm or seriousness from Crusader Kings 2 is lost despite the more cartoony look of characters. The frequency of random encounters lets you build a unique narrative in your head about what your leader is like. In the case of King Malcolm of Scotland, he was a pretty straightforward, friendly yet firm leader, but don’t piss him off or get him drunk.

Crusader Kings 3 takes the best of nine years worth of DLC from the previous entry and the results are clear to see. After embarking on a Holy War with the Pope, I was able to choose a close relative, Isabel, to be my beneficiary in the war. The Holy War was won, but unfortunately, my leader died. The beneficiary outcome wasn’t explained very clearly, so I wasn’t sure what would happen should we win.

One unexpected outcome of this win and death occurring at the same time was that I was faced with a Dynasty decision. I could carry on as Malcolm's son, Donald, and lead Scotland for another generation, or play as my beneficiary, Isabel, who was crowned the Catholic - and female! - leader of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

The chance to play as a woman so early in on the game - around the 1066 timeline - is pretty rare, and the circumstances of her victory led to her being hated by the surrounding leaders. Plus, you can't really get more of a win in Crusader Kings than taking Jerusalem by force - even unknowingly - so I declare myself the ultimate victor ahead of its release. Sorry, medieval history nerds.

From there, my game took a darker twist as I enhanced Isabel’s Intrigue skills and chose a Lifestyle that gave her high fertility and the penchant for extramarital affairs. Combine this with her being the only female and Catholic leader for a few thousand miles, and I was constantly at war and fought two more Holy Wars during her reign.

One key feature in Crusader Kings 3 is Stress, which builds as your leader faces various scenarios, like all of their children dying during a pandemic or at war. When playing as Isabel, she racked up an enormous amount of stress after several children died due to the fact I had a Lifestyle perk active that made her a family-orientated leader. At first, I was able to make a choice that offset her stress with no repercussions, but as the deaths kept coming, I was faced with the unpleasant task of deciding on a permanently negative trait that was potentially congenital, therefore inheritable. This trait would negate her stress levels, but the choice wasn't ideal; she could become sickly with a small appetite or an alcoholic, both of which would affect her longevity.

Crusader Kings 3 is all about interlocking systems, and you’ll need to balance the needs of your people, your court, your family and beyond to stay afloat. But it doesn’t have to be needlessly complicated. You can choose to war with one small duchy at a time, waiting months or years in between each battle. You can focus mostly on building up your rep with your religious leader or meticulously choosing who you build alliances with through marrying off your many offspring. Playing to your characters strengths is simple and you wouldn’t be incorrect to choose one playstyle per Dynasty member. I’ve never been particularly interested in fighting endless wars and prefer to talk or spy my way out of it, but choosing a Martial-minded leader makes the experience more enjoyable as the mechanics take care of themselves.

There are a few issues here and there - dead guys wanting titles to your lands or heirs suddenly becoming unavailable despite being very much alive - and fans will be disappointed to hear that there are no plans to allow you to have a horse leader any time soon. That one-eyed, lunatic eunuch, though? He can stay.

At launch, you'll be able to start in either 867 and 1066 with access to almost every ruler across the entire map. There are hundreds of leaders to choose from, with each continent and region facing unique war time scenarios, adopting various religions and having different rules of succession. More are likely to be added in the future, but there's definitely enough variation to satiate your grand strategy appetite.

All in, Crusader Kings 3 is my Game of the Year so far. If you’re looking for a new strategy title with some RPG flair that will suck you in for 500 hours or more during this endless lockdown, then it should be on your wishlist already. Better still, future support is already assured - there's one expansion already in the works plus a few flavour packs coming soon if the huge base game isn't enough for you.

Crusader Kings 3 comes to Steam and Xbox Game Pass for PC on September 1.

Version tested: Steam for PC. A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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