Fact. Crusader Kings II is the best game of 2012.
Alright, it's an opinion, and one that I cannot 100% support until I have played more of the acclaimed games released this year. Many would say that one could not crown a game as the best of the year until they have played The Walking Dead, and while I have not yet played Telltale's zombie magnum opus, I own it and it's probably the game I'll play next.
But you know what I say? I say that no one can crown a game as the best of the year until they've put at least...let's say 30 hours into Crusader Kings II.
Also on the list of games I own but have yet to play are The Darkness II, Darksiders 2, and Mark of the Ninja. I have played enough Borderlands 2 and Torchlight 2 to know that those are both good games - TL2 is actually very good. I have beaten XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and I am very close to beating Dishonored; XCOM is pretty amazing, and Dishonored is good but hasn't quite hooked me as much as a GOTY candidate should. Journey is probably the most magical experience I have ever had with a game, but it being 90 minutes long holds back its GOTY potential. Civilization 5: Gods & Kings is an excellent expansion to a phenomenal game, and has consumed almost as much of my gaming this year as CKII has, but one cannot in good conscience endorse an expansion pack as one's GOTY.
But fuck all those games because Crusader Kings II.
There are plenty of games from 2012 that I will almost certainly play at one point, but have not gotten around to: this list includes Sleeping Dogs, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, Mass Effect 3, Forza Horizon, Far Cry 3, and maybe Assassin's Creed III, if I ever get around to playing Brotherhood and maybe Revelations. I'm pretty comfortable with the fact that I'll probably never played Diablo III, and Halo is not a series I am into at all, and I never played either of the games that preceded Max Payne 3.
So in hindsight I didn't actually play that many games in 2012, or at least games that were released in 2012. Why? Because I was playing Crusader Kings II.
Because Crusader Kings 2, as a video game, is nearly perfect.
CKII is a remarkable refinement of the grand strategy game that Paradox has been making for years, and it's one of the best designed games of this entire generation. It was my first experience with the Paradox grand strategy games, and the excellent quick look earlier this year led by Dave Snider, combined with my love of strategy games and my interest in history, was what led me to pick it up - it's just one of many reasons for me to be thankful for the existence of the Snide One.
CKII is a game that is purely mechanical, but creates drama and narrative purely through said mechanics, which it achieves by focusing the game on characters, not countries. EUIII felt pretty sterile and tame, the same problem with the Civilization games. The Total War games do an admirable job of making the experience more personal and character driven, but CKII absolutely nailed it. CKII is a great generator of anecdotes, and many people that I know, regardless of their level of interest in games or history, were regaled with the adventures of my digital Medieval dynastic avatar.
Probably my best story is when I started a game as the Duke of Austria, and I controlled one little holding in the Holy Roman Empire. Through political marriages and effective manoeuvring I earned enough prestige for one of my rulers to be named Holy Roman Emperor. My dynasty's claim on the HRE lasted for only 15 years, but during that reign I was able to create for my dynasty the hereditary titles of King of Germany and King of Italy, and I was able to use the claim I had earned to conquer the Kingdom of Hungary and include it within the vassal lands of the HRE. Thus, when my dynasty imploded and I lost the Imperial crown, my heirs still inherited the titles of three major kingdoms. Successful crusades then led the Pope to grant to my dynasty the kingdoms of Sicily, Frisia, and France, thereby making my dynasty the holders of six major European kingdoms. With Spain in the hands of the Muslims, the only Catholic ruled kingdoms in Europe that did not bow to me were the Scandinavian countries, England, and Poland. At that point, I still wasn't Holy Roman Emperor, but I was so powerful that if I wanted to revolt, gaining independence would be a trivial matter; I did successfully revolt against the Emperor to lower the crown authority in the realm. Invading Mongols and threats from the Levant led me to the decision that it was probably better if our lands remained united, but we ruled from our original holding in Austria, controlling six kingdoms, safe in the knowledge that the HRE existed because we allowed it.
Crusader Kings II is a very deep and intensively crafted game, and the detail in presenting a historically accurate world for you to start in is pretty damn cool, especially since the game does a great job of drawing you into the atmosphere of the Middle Ages. I'm an atheist but I'm tolerant of other people's religions; CKII turns me into the most zealous champion of my faith - be it Christianity or, thanks to DLC, Islam - hell-bent on crushing all those who pray to false gods.
Another great aspect of the game is that it starts in a very historically accurate base, and just devolves into complete anachronistic chaos where the Pope is a Muslim, Ireland is ruled by the French, and Jerusalem is controlled by a Russian. It kinda undoes all of the game's historical accuracy, but it's also beautiful to behold, especially since it can go in so many different ways - in one game, Spain and France can be ruled mostly by Muslims and the Byzantine Empire is having a rough time of things, and in another the French can rule Spain and into North Africa while the Byzantines rule the entire Middle East. But they bring some great historical accuracy into the game by forcefully including events like the Mongol Horde arriving in the mid-1200s, which will happen regardless of how the rest of the world looks; if the Russian duchies are united and the Persian and Byzantine Empires are strong, then the Horde will have a tougher go of it, but if Russia is disunited and the Muslims are wrought by civil war, then wave goodbye to pretty much all of Eastern Europe, as well as the Persian Empire.
It's such a knife-edge experience: despite how annoying it can be, one of the most engaging parts of the whole game is building up a huge kingdom with your super badass ruler with high stats and great traits...only to see it all crumble into rebellion and invasion when his incompetent, arbitrary, gluttonous, harelipped son takes the throne. This is a historical reality that CKII captures perfectly; in the 17th century, Oliver Cromwell destroyed an entire monarchy and made sweeping changes to the culture and politics of Great Britain, one of the world's major powers, and in just one generation, all his work was undone. His son, Richard, could not match the energy or ruthlessness of his father, and there was no effective base for him to retain the power that his father had earned, so the monarchy was restored. Oliver Cromwell died in 1658, and Charles II was crowned in 1660. Two years, that's all it took for Cromwell's power to crumble. And that's exactly what can happen to you in CKII if you are careless - although the reality is that almost all players, including myself, simply say "fuck this shit" and reload. Same when your character just randomly dies in battle. I'm not sure if the game would be better if it actually forced you to live with the consequence of all these random events, because that would be pretty ballsy but quite infuriating - it would make Dark Souls look like a cakewalk.
Yes, the game requires a certain investment of time in order to figure out and become comfortable with its mechanics, but I think this part of it is probably overstated. Yes, my passion for this game is probably strongly effected by my interest in history - playing CKII has led me to many, many Wikipedia articles, and through personal reading inspired by the game I have learnt more history than I did from pretty much any history teacher I ever had. Yes, it's a niche genre, but the Total War games experience a certain amount of wider acclaim; it helps that those games actually contain real-time battles, whereas combat in CKII is click to send army to fight other army and then watch as meters drain.
I understand that all of these caveats are why almost nobody is championing Crusader Kings II as the game of the year, not against the frontrunners like The Walking Dead, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Dishonored, and, according to the recent reviews, Far Cry 3. But it's very important for us all to realise that the game of the year as a concept is entirely subjective and extremely limited. We often defer to the enthusiast gaming press as they play more games than pretty much any of us can manage, with the time restraints of work, social life, and other interests - I could have played more games in 2012, but that would have meant I'd have read far fewer books, and my having read more than 10 books in 2012 is a great personal achievement, since I probably read 10 books between the years 2006 and 2009 combined. Still, even games journalists can't possibly play every significant game that comes out in a calendar year; such an expectation is ridiculous.
Our minds should be open to the possibility that the "real" game of the year is a game that you missed, one that flew under the radar, one that didn't quite catch your attention, one that was even more indie than the games that are being championed as indie darlings in this year's GOTY consideration. Mass Effect 1 is a game I didn't play until early 2009, and only when I beat it did I realise that it could stand up with The Orange Box and Forza 2 and Eternal Sonata as one of the GOTY runners-up for 2007 - nothing beats BioShock that year. Mount&Blade: Warband would be very high on my 2010 GOTY list if I hadn't played it in 2011; same goes for Total War: Shogun 2 being one of the best games of 2011, but me not having played it until earlier this year.
So let's all remember when we champion our games of the year, it comes with a large asterisk. It's the best game that we played that year, and there is no rule that states that once a game is crowned, it holds that title forever; since 2007, all of my games of the year have been games I played in their year of release, but my mind is very open to the possibility of this happening in the future. There are so many games that we game enthusiasts get exposed to but never play, for various reasons, and somewhere in the world somebody is championing that game as the game of the year. There are people in this world who if I asked their game of the year, they'll respond with the name of a game I've never even heard of. Of this I am sure.
You might have not played Crusader Kings II in 2012, and if you did, there's a good chance that you could be turned away by the awful tutorials and the learning curve, and even if you overcame those you still might not like the game's mechanics. Crusader Kings II is almost certainly not your game of the year: as far as I'm concerned, that is your fault, not the game's fault. If you haven't played Crusader Kings II, you cannot call yourself a gamer, and if you played it but didn't care for it, then you need to have a good long look at who you are as a human being.
So what I'm saying is that you guys are assholes. You hereby have my permission to go fuck yourselves.
*drops the mic and walks away*