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Crusader Kings II: The Old Gods Review – Bearded Berserkers

As a fan of Crusader Kings 2, and a longtime follower of Paradox Entertainment, I was very eager to dive into the newest DLC, “The Old Gods”.  Somewhere between an expansion and a DLC, The Old Gods adds new content for Crusader Kings 2 by adding considerable flavor to the pagan faiths in Medieval Europe (and the Near East), with special attention given to the Norse and to a lesser extent the Zoroastrians.  Additionally, and not to be overlooked, the DLC also adds a new start date, ____AD, though you cannot choose to play between ___AD and 1066 AD, the original earliest start.

My initial playthroughs of The Old Gods sought to explore the headline aspect of the DLC – the Norse pagans, who have been granted considerable flavor events as well as the ability to raid and pillage their heathen enemies across the seas.  In order to raid, all one needs to do is toggle an army as “raiding,” from which point on the army will immediately begin sieging and looting any non-Norse territories they occupy without needing and declaration of war, gathering gold in neighboring ships to be added to your treasury, along with some prestige, upon returning home.

This is extremely satisfying and lucrative, as well as devastating on your enemies (or innocent bystanders), and make for some exciting military campaigns as far as your ships will take you.  Captured prisoners from these raids can later be sacrificed at the great Blot every nine years for more prestige and piety, capturing the brutal reality of the Viking age in a way that meshes well with the game mechanics. There are a number of other events unique to the Norse that can occur while raiding or while at home, some of which are integral to the game and can provide considerable benefits, while others serve only to demonstrate Paradox’s great sense of humor.

the old gods raid pic
A particularly profitable raid ends with great success.

Those seeking to reshape history, and forge a new and longer lasting future for the Norse, will be satisfied by the new religious and casus belli mechanics.  Norsemen can adopt ambitions to unite the constituent Kingdoms of Scandinavia and gain free casus belli against all the Kingdom’s other inhabitants, making conquest very quick and easy. This will please those who grew tired of waiting for their claims to be forged against other rulers, but may frustrate those who enjoyed the slow and gradual expansion, who now face stiff competition from an increasingly competent AI.

Each religion also now has five “holy sites”, the control of which, along with the relative success of the faiths’ various crusades and other events, drive moral authority.   High enough moral authority, combined with control of at least 3/5 of the religion’s holy sites, allows pagans to “reform” their faith, creating a new centralized head of religion (your King), many of the perks of the centralized states (religious casus belli), and resistance to conversion by the more traditionally powerful states, as well as an improved ability to proselytize.  Reforming the faith also allows pagans to increase crown authority and be rid of gavelkind succession laws – making reform for bigger empires vitally important.

norse conversion
After reforming the Norse faith, there are still some who cling to the old ways and must be converted. I suffered at least one rebellion of traditionalists already.

In addition to these much advertised changes, two other important, and arguably much more needed and better executed, changes were made with the new DLC.  The first is an entirely new start date, which provides greater opportunities for the expanded pagan lords, as well as providing some new and varied starts even within the Christian world.  England is in a state of complete disarray, and even France and Germany are more divided than in the 1066 AD start, which alongside some interesting semi-nomadic pagan groups such as the Magyars (Hungarians) in the Near East, ramp up the replay value considerably.

Even more impressive, and somewhat unexpected, was the complete revamp of the technology system, a horribly unnecessary and uninteresting dinosaur that remained almost entirely unchanged since the original Crusader Kings.  Instead, it has been molded into something more along the lines of Europa Universalis III, in that your leader slowly accumulates points for future investment, which are spent in one go to speed up technological advancement, with certain factors increasing or decreasing the costs.  This change marked the first time I actually bothered paying any attention to the technology screen since I first learned the original game’s lack of depth in the area, and is a much welcome change.

While the DLC introduces an array of new features and content, I do have a few minor complaints.  The new DLC focuses a great deal on military features, with raiding and organized invasions (essentially Norse crusades) featuring prominently in the new content, but does not do anything to revamp the somewhat shallow military mechanics of the game.  Winning wars still essentially amounts to constructing the bigger “doomstack,” with other things such as terrain or leader skill largely serving as tiebreakers or irrelevant given the importance of simply having a larger army.

random event
Paradox humor at its finest. This is one among many random events that can happen during raids.

While the other changes were welcome, something to address the boring and largely secondary military aspect of the game would have been much welcome and would have complemented the other changes well.  Some of the new Norse features, such as invasions and Kingdom-wide casus belli, make the Norse states a bit too easy, and playing their potential competitors a bit too difficult.  Norsemen can gain any coastal casus belli at will, as well as organized Kingdom-wide casus belli in invasions, making conquest extremely rapid and not particularly challenging.

On the whole, however, the Old Gods is the best DLC yet released for Crusader Kings 2, and is the first to truly be worth every penny of the twenty dollar asking price.  The new start date, revamped tech and religious systems, and pagan flavor and playability all outweigh the few balance issues.  Combine this with the fact that it opens up so many new features to the modding scene, which can and will address balance and other issues very soon, and The Old Gods represents an enormous improvement over the base game.

If you are a fan of the Crusader Kings series, The Old Gods is a must buy, and if you haven’t already, check the Paradox forums over the next few weeks for patches and mods to improve the game yet more.

This review was based on a digitally downloaded PC version of the game provided by Paradox.

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