I'll never know what it is that makes Vikings so indisputably cool. I suppose the freedom, success and strength associated with the term are all valid reasons; but there's something deeper, essentially ingrained into us, that makes them such a point of interest. So when Paradox Interactive announced that they'd be bringing a Pagan themed expansion to their fantastic grand strategy title Crusader Kings II, I, and many other fans, jumped with joy. With The Old Gods now available on Steam; I dusted off the crown, stretched my mouse hand, and jumped back into the whimsical world of CK2.
Crusader Kings II: The Old Gods brings new features that all centre on the new playable characters and new, earliest ever, start time. Set at 867 AD, during the peak period of Viking raids from Scandinavia, this is a time period and a world torn up by war and ever present death. The other new features stem from this new setting; for instance you can now loot provinces, attack any territory so long as you're connected to it as well as muster invasion forces outside of your retinue. These are all great additions to the game that essentially make Pagan nations ideal for war mongering players. These abilities, particularly being able to attack anyone without Casus Belli, mean you can essentially always be conquering new lands. In fact, as a pagan, you are actively punished with low civil and feudal order if you stay at peace for long periods of time.
As you might expect, playing during the early time period is therefore quite hectic. With a collection of Norse nations constantly raiding and declaring war, it can be a bit of a handful, particularly for those who prefer to focus on the more tame aspects of CK2. Even when playing as a Viking nation, you really want to get the larger powers on your side as they can grow to huge strengths with the pagan ability to easily invade. However, this same ability makes it very tricky to play as one of the petty kingdoms that faces the Viking threat. Playing as Wessex, Mercia, Pomerania and the other small pillage-ripe kingdoms is a challenge for even the most experienced CK2 player. You'll find yourself facing up to huge hosts of invaders which your small force will stand no chance against. Your only hope is the other Christian nations, but even these are typically too busy to help out your small kingdom.
Of course, not all of your time spent with The Old Gods will be focused on this early start time. The later dates, from 1066 all the way up to the end of the medieval era, offer a selection of new factions and characters to lead. The Eastern pagans offer a slightly different experience. Fighting against the Rurikovich dynasty provides a change of pace which strikes a nice balance between their group power and your pagan attacking strength. Although for many this expansion is most enticing for the ability to play as the Mongol hordes. Their dominance during this time period is actually a hard feat to match, but as with the Vikings you're given the attacking-focused tools to bring an onslaught on to the western world. Playing as these powers is more similar to the base game, largely due to the fact that most CK2 players will have played each time period to death already and therefore know the nuances associated with them. The excitement of playing in what is essentially an entire new world is removed, making it somewhat less appealing than playing from 867 AD.
Moving on from gameplay, the new User Interface that appears when playing as a pagan faction is a neat touch that helps to set the tone. The older feel with darker, more natural, colours helps to define the link between the various pagan religions and nature. Other than this, there are very few visual or aural updates to the base game. As before, you can purchase little extras (Viking unit sprites, Norse songs and Viking Portraits) to accompany the expansion. These add a great sense of time and place and do a good job of setting the time period away from the others. It's a shame, therefore, that these aren't included with the expansion itself. They're almost necessary additions to The Old Gods, so it feels a little unfair to have them available as additional DLC. For only a small price each, however, this is only a little niggle.
With these extras in place, the 876 AD time period really takes on a life of its own and, as mentioned, feels very distinct to the other start times available. Personally, as a big fan of Bernard Cornwell's Norse novels as well as the History Channel's Vikings, I loved being able to play as the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok, or as King Æthelred and Alfred the Great after him. There's a lot of famous history during this point in time, so for a lot of players the familiar characters and events will only increase the sense of immersion. In fact, it all links back to the fact that almost every history nut out there loves the Vikings. So to play as them, in their relatively realistic form, is a joy for any CK2 player.
There are other touches that further develop the pagan theme. New events, such as sacrifices, curses and some strange 'Ragnarok' themed instances, are scattered in to pagan play. So too are new titles, buildings and council members. Rebels, as a force, have also received a facelift. They're no longer bands of random peasants that are easy to put down, but instead are now lead by specific characters who can rally the ever-adventurous Viking people to their cause, making them a much tougher threat than before. So long as you stay at war, however, it's unlikely you'll encounter this new force.
To say that Crusader Kings II: The Old Gods is brimming with new content would be highly inaccurate, as there's ultimately not a whole lot of new stuff here. If anything, the v1.10 update released alongside the expansion for free actually brought more new content. Playing as the Viking nations is still great fun, however, and if you consider yourself an aggressive player then this is undoubtedly the expansion for you. Those looking for a challenge will also find a point of interest in the tricky petty kingdoms. Beyond all of this, however, if there's one major reason to download the expansion, it's that The Old Gods gives you a reason to get back into CK2 and lose another 100 hours into a Viking campaign.
Crusader Kings II (Reviewed on Windows)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.
To say that Crusader Kings II: The Old Gods is brimming with new content would be highly inaccurate, as there's ultimately not a whole lot of new stuff here. However, if there's one major reason to download the expansion, it's that The Old Gods gives you a reason to get back into CK2 and lose another 100 hours into a Viking campaign.