james debate
james debate

Saturday, 24 October 2020

Developed by Paradox Development Studio
Published by Paradox Interactive
Genre Grand Strategy
Platform PC, Mac OS

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So I finally conquered Europe. It took more than a century of carefully planned marriages, more than a few strategic assassinations, and a faustian bargain with an old mystic, who in hindsight may just have been a crazy person. Either way, it's done. Now I just need to keep my greedy siblings from ganging up to overthrow me and find a way to defang that one powerful vassal of mine who's always an asshole just for the hell of it. Plus my beloved horse died after some dozen years and it's sending me into a mini-mental breakdown. 

This is the world of Crusader Kings III, the latest in a series of strategy games quite unlike anything else you will have played. The specific genre is grand strategy and what sets it apart from other strategy series like Total War or Civilization is its focus on people rather than factions or states. You don't play as, for example, England or France, but the king of those countries. If you fancy it, you can play as a lowly count or duke in charge of a more local province instead.

The significance of this focus is twofold. One: the political mechanics of this game are far more robust than what you would normally see in a strategy game. Rather than a single united entity, each country is a melange of different leaders, nobles and other assorted characters, each of whom has their own talents, interests, and ambitions. Two: by playing a specific character, your focus is less on painting the map and more on developing your character's skills, reputation and dynasty (characters marry, have children, and create huge branching dynasties - spreading your dynasty to seats of power across Europe can be as rewarding as actual conquest). In that respect, the Crusader Kings series is as much of an RPG as a strategy game and the newest iteration of the series leans heavily into that aspect.

Many of Crusader Kings III's features are a matter of evolution more than revolution from its predecessor. This ensures that the game feels immediately familiar to long time fans of the series. At the same time it is clear that a great deal of effort has gone into streamlining and simplifying at least the interface, if not the actual mechanics. In particular, the addition of an actual in-game tutorial helps introduce newcomers to the myriad of basic features that can otherwise seem daunting. It's not perfect; I can recall a few occasions where I (an experienced player of the series) struggled to find how to execute important functions because they were inexplicably and illogically placed in the interface, or mapped to unclear and easily missable random buttons. No doubt this will improve further as the game is patched. 

The result of these efforts is that this is easily the most accessible game developer Paradox Interactive have yet put out and should be both familiar for longterm fans and easy for newcomers to pick up. Once you've played a bit more, however, it becomes clear that Paradox have actually added quite a lot of additional depth that reveals itself over time. 

Many of these new features are ideas taken from the previous game's expansion packs that have now been rolled into the base game, notably alliances, religion customisation, ruler "focuses", and the more complex interpersonal relationships brought in by later expansions. CK3 adds to the formula with a number of bold additions of its own, particularly with respect to the RPG-like features of gameplay, which now includes full blooded skill trees to further develop and fine tune your leaders/dynasty. However the most significant (and brilliant) new feature has to be the stress system. 

In previous games, ruler personality traits were little more than a skill point modifier. Players still ultimately had total agency in the game, meaning that a leader with cruel or arrogant personality traits could still just go ahead and act in kind, humble ways if the player so chose. The stress system fixes this apparent incongruity, with leaders now generating stress any time they act in such a way that is contrary to their personality. Accumulate enough stress and your character can have a psychotic break, with bad things happening as a result.

There have also been substantial improvements in presentation. Previously characters in this game were depicted in static portraits that would only change at certain age points (birth, 16, 30, 50), leading to numerous memes of cute children suddenly metamorphosing into fat, hairy men in a single day. In CK3, portraits are animated and dynamic, constantly changing and reflecting not just age but weight, health and other traits. In-game events are also depicted through more than just text and an image, with the scene fully depicted using the animated portraits and various backdrops. These might seem like minor, superficial changes, but cumulatively they really do make a big difference to immersion, whether its actually seeing the scars and bruises of my warrior-knight, the silver radiance of my albino warlord, or simply seeing the characters actually in a bar or royal hall when the story calls for it.

My criticisms mainly relate, perhaps unfairly, to features from the game's heavily expanded predecessor that have not been implemented here. Most notable is the lack of the ruler designer that allowed players to create their own characters and dynasties rather than use one of the pre-existing ones in the game. This had become such an essential part of the Crusader Kings experience that I was honestly surprised to recall that it had not always been a base feature of the game, and I was additionally surprised not to see it rolled into the base game for this sequel. There is also currently a general lack of flavour for characters in settings other than the classic European Catholic leader, which becomes more apparent if you try playing as someone in Africa, the Middle East or Asia. These are all things that will undoubtedly be fleshed out further in future expansions, but for the time being it results in a game that is undeniably lighter in depth than its predecessor.

In fairness, it is always difficult making a sequel to a game like Crusader Kings II that has been so heavily expanded over the years. No matter how much work you put into the sequel, there is no way it will have as much content as its predecessor with ten years' worth of expansions and patches. This dilemma is what leads to the much derided "Sims" model of development, where each iteration strips back to the same barebones base game, and then sells players the same handful of expansions over and over again. Crusader Kings III definitely has this issue and it can be jarring right now to switch from the old game to the sequel and realise just how many of the predecessor's features come from expansion packs, but at the same time it is clear that Paradox have made a concerted effort to include many of the expansion features of CK2 into the base game here and they should be applauded for that. 

The Crusader Kings series has always been, at its core, a story generator. In this newest iteration, Paradox Interactive have created one of the greatest story generators in gaming. The story events are richer and more vividly presented, while the sense of place and character generated by the game's clever mechanics mark a substantial evolution from what has come before. While there are plenty of features still to be fleshed out, the base game here is arguably the most impressive they have yet put out in terms of features, and welcoming both to experienced players of the series and newcomers alike.

Friday, 9 October 2020

America is (quite literally) burning. The nation has never been more divided, weaker and less influential. Its officials self-deal and abuse the vital services of government for their own personal enrichment. For a hundred years it has not been so wracked by economic crisis and never in its history been brought to its knees by so rampant and ill-handled a health crisis. The people take to the streets for justice while unshackled armed vigilantes sow murder and carnage. Enough is enough, the chaos must end.

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I have been thinking a lot lately about the novel Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, a key theme of which is the extent to which people adapt to and normalise even the most horrific of circumstances. The constant threat of nuclear war in the 1960s, the threat of terrorism throughout the early 2000s, even something as fundamental as the inevitability of death, all things that from another perspective might seem horrifying and unacceptable, and yet we accept as simply an ordinary part of life. 

I was thinking about this the other day while watching A Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Instead of the usual grand auditorium, there was Colbert filming his show from an office with a cheap handicam, chatting with his wife off-camera and interviewing his guests via intermittent Zoom connection. What struck me as odd (aside from the obvious) was how no one was mentioning just how unusual this arrangement was, it has simply become a normal way of doing a late night talk show. Four years seems like a long time ago. It is easy to forget that things were not always this way. That the America of 2016 was a stable and functioning nation seems almost unthinkable. 

Economic crisis, hundreds of thousands dead from an uncontrolled pandemic, a never ending circus of scandal and corruption, and civil unrest tearing the country apart. This is the "normal" in Donald Trump's America. Let's be clear, Donald Trump absolutely deserves criticism for all of this. 

In 2017 Donald Trump entered took the reigns of a healthy country with a robust pandemic response infrastructure, one that had successfully kept the ebola outbreak of 2014 at bay. He gutted that infrastructure and the result is a nation in chaos with millions of known cases and hundreds of thousands dead. He inherited a booming economy and record low unemployment rate, now we have an economic crisis and unemployment that hit double digits (and yes, there were economic problems even before the pandemic: record inequality, high regional unemployment, market instability). 
In 2016, America was a stable, prosperous nation and a world leader.  Now it is a pariah state, isolated and quarantined from the civilised world, beset internally by flames and carnage. 

When it comes to the man himself, so much has already been written that really what more is there to add? I could talk about Trump's moral failings, his racism and sexism, his rampant dishonesty, his petulance and ill temperament for the job. I could talk about his scandals, the abuse of power for which he was impeached, the obstruction of justice described in the Mueller Report, the well-documented campaign finance violations with respect to Stormy Daniels, and the alleged tax improprieties for which he is currently under Federal investigation. 

I could write a whole piece on all of these points and still only be scratching the surface and frankly what would be the point? Everyone already knows all of these things, they've been discussed to death over the past four years. By this point everyone in America has already heard these things and either decided that this behaviour is abhorrent or totally fine and will vote accordingly. I won't waste any time rehashing these things. Instead I will simply focus on one key point: the most abhorrent legacy of Trump is his corruption of America's institutions. 

Over the last four years this country has transformed into one where every facet of Government exists solely to benefit the ruling party (and in particular its leader). An FBI Director forced to make a loyalty pledge, an Attorney General chosen to act as the President's personal fixer, IRS directors whose sole purpose is to protect the President from investigation, a President who insists that criminal charges should not be filed against members of his party, NASA directors who conjure up phony and impossible moon missions timed conveniently for immediately after the election, a postal service whose directive appears to be to disenfranchise voters. 

Every part of Government, even those which historically have been completely apolitical, has been corrupted for the sole purpose of serving the personal interests of the President. Gradually America is being transformed from a nation of law and democracy into a sham mafia state that more closely resembles the petty autocracies of nations like Belarus and Russia. Such things have no place in America.

Let's be blunt. There is no good reason to vote for Donald Trump. There are a million reasons to vote for anyone who runs against him regardless of who they are. But equally as important as why Donald Trump needs to be removed from office is why Joe Biden is the best man to guide us out of this mess.

What America needs right now is a calm head. Someone who will do what is right even if it doesn't directly benefit them. No election is going to magically make the pandemic or other crises vanish, but at the very least the country needs a leader who won't exacerbate our problems further with their ego and desire for attention.

That Biden is an experienced set of hands goes without saying. The man has spent years in the highest halls of power. He knows Government and he already knows the key players and world leaders personally. He is ready to hit the ground running on day one and pick up from where the country left off four years ago. But it's not just experience, it's good experience. As Vice President, Biden was part of an administration that shepherded the country out of our last national crisis into an era of record prosperity. He was part of an administration that established one of the most robust public health and pandemic response systems in history, which successfully held both swine flu and ebola at bay, and most likely would have significantly mitigated the tragedy of Covid-19. Joe Biden is a known quantity, and one whose track record shows that he perhaps more than anyone else is capable of handling the problems that currently wrack the country.

But most importantly, Joe Biden is a good person. An authentic everyman in a world of political cynicism, for decades he has been a tireless fighter for working families. His commitment to bipartisanship and unity may seem naive in today's America, but it is a view that he is right to advocate. He represents the lost ideals of America, the ideals that we want the world to see in our country once again. 

Four years does seem like a long time ago. That the America of 2016 was a stable and functioning nation truly seems unthinkable. But it was, and it can be again if we do the right thing. This isn't a difficult decision guys. This administration has been a failure of historic proportions. Vote this laughing stock out of office so that America can rebuild and get back on track.

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