Sabotage and espionage in Total War Three Kingdoms

How do you feel about grand-scale espionage?

Planting spies behind enemy lines and pulling the puppet-strings of a major civil war? If you said yes to either of those, the new Total War: Three Kingdoms trailer has some great new features to get hyped about. 

The latest content trailer from Creative Assembly shows the revamped espionage and spy system for the latest historical Total War game.

The most exciting part here for me is that the new trailer shows how players will be able to control, influence and manage enemy factions without resorting to all-out war, something that has been missing from previous Total War titles. Because not everyone wants to win by throwing hundreds of troops against enemy gates, sometimes the subtle art of espionage can win the day when swords cannot. 

Let’s break down the new features highlighted in the latest gameplay walkthrough, and you can check out the full video at the bottom. 

Total War Three Kingdoms

Spy Vs Spy

The trailer highlights the relationship between Cao Cao, one of the more shrewd and manipulative leaders of the Three Kingdoms era, and Dong Zhuo, a power-hungry tyrant who held the emperor hostage until he was defeated by a coalition of leaders. 

In Total War: Three Kingdoms, players will be able to create spies by releasing members of their own faction into the global recruitment pool, allowing them to be snapped up by opposing factions and positioned as double agents within enemy armies. This opens up a swathe of new tactical options within the enemy ranks. The player has done just this by allowing Lu Zhi, a leader within their faction to be recruited by Dong Zhuo and eventually given governorship of a local province; all the while reporting back to Cao Cao and waiting for further instruction. 

Characters can be sent to infiltrate enemy factions, where they will wait for employment in court or as an army leader, both of which will give different options. However, even before taking a place within the enemy ranks, the spy can still provide valuable information about the enemy faction, leader, strengths and weaknesses. 

This sort of information can be crucial for understanding the intentions of an enemy leader, especially when the power of a faction can change hands through succession or civil war. Although the video doesn’t go into detail about the succession system, it does highlight how a change in leadership can drastically affect your relationship with a faction, and change existing agreements with them. 

Embedded spies who are adopted into enemy families by proving their loyalty over the course of a campaign even have the capacity to assassinate and overthrow their host, taking control of the enemy faction themselves and eventually handing power to you as their true leader. 

Feeling resourceful 

There are two resources that are used to manage the spy network within Total War: Three Kingdoms, these are Undercover Network points and Cover points. Undercover Network points are global to your faction and are indicative of the strength of your spy network including allies, safe houses and resources for your spies. While Cover points are specific to the spy in question and highlight the strength of their secret identity within the faction they’ve been planted. 

These resources are spent on spy actions that vary depending on the spies skills, and the level into which they are ingrained in the enemy faction. Court Noble actions are the first tier and highlight how the spy can make relatively simple problems for the enemy faction or slight improvements for you. Actions such as countering enemy spies, empowering trade, or discrediting characters or factions fall in this area. You can even encourage specific units within an enemy force to incite a civil war and break away to create their own faction. 

General Actions are open to units who are undercover managing troops or armies, they include placing units within other armies to gain line-of-sight for that army, leaking and falsifying marching orders to hinder the army’s movements, or even poison army provisions or cause a shortage to starve the forces.  

The third area shown in the video is Administrator Actions, available because Lu Zhi is currently managing a region for Dong Zhuo. These powerful skills allow you to effectively cripple that settlement by damaging public order, inciting an uprising, opening the gates for an attack or just handing over the entire settlement to your faction. 

All of these actions cost a number of Undercover Network and Cover points, depending on the value of the action. Whenever you enact a plan, there’s always the chance it will cause a dilemma for the spy, which is a choice you have to make that can result in the failure of the plan and capture of your spy, or success. These dilemmas cost more resources for the spy, so it’s wise to always have some spare in your back pocket when enacting large plans. One example is that Lu Zhi is caught by an enemy diplomat while trying to hand over power to Cao Cao, though Dong Zhuo releases the spy, it causes more complications to the wider conflict which we’ll touch on more below. 

On the wider map, Cao Cao is even capable of using his own influence to incite proxy wars between rival factions and cause unrest between enemy leaders. During the course of the walkthrough, Creative Assembly cause Huang Zhong, a nearby friendly leader to begin his own war with Dong Zhuo, effectively drawing the attention away from Cao Cao’s plan and pulling the tyrant into more conflicts than he can handle. 

The cost of espionage 

Beneath this whole system is the constant threat of AI intervention and the subversion of your carefully laid plans. From the outset, Creative Assembly points out that Lu Zhi always has the option of converting to Dong Zhuo’s side for real, and taking knowledge of your operations as a bartering tool. He might also take the power Dong Zhuo has given him and look to secede from the tyrant’s lands and form his own faction. 

The same is true of any of the generals and leaders within your own faction, each of them has relationships, friends, family members and allegiances, depending on where they were before entering your service. So you need to maintain scrutiny of anyone looking to join you, or any members of your faction who could be secretly working for an enemy faction.

The video highlights how the dilemma caused by Lu Zhi trying to hand over a province to the player landed him in hot water with Dong Zhuo, meaning he could now be acting as a double agent for the tyrant, making him less reliable and more worrying when you’re using him to enact your master plan.

By giving Lu Zhi too much power, you could theoretically be increasing the spy capabilities of his master if he is secretly working for Dong Zhuo. However, if he isn’t and is really loyal to the player, then not rewarding his hard-won efforts behind enemy lines could cause him to rebel and leave or spark a civil war within your own faction. 

This whole system is built into an expansion of the traditional tech tree called Reforms, which seem to be different focuses for your faction over the course of the game. It seems as though you’ll need to invest heavily into the spying and espionage layer to unlock the full potential of the new system, which will likely pull research and support away from more traditional war research. 

But all things considered, I can’t wait to battle it out with spies, double agents and triple agents. No one can be trusted it seems, but it’s a spider’s web I can’t wait to climb into. 

Total War: Three Kingdoms is set to release on PC on March 7, 2019. Stay tuned for more news and our full review when the title is released. 

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Nathanael Peacock
Nathanael is a gamer and writer in Melbourne, Australia. You'll likely find him either up to his eyeballs in RPG lore, or spending way too long in any character creator. In his spare time he also rides motorbikes and sword-fights competitively.

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