Total War: Three Kingdoms is one of the first stand-alone Total War titles since Creative Assembly went full-fantasy with Total War: Warhammer and Warhammer 2. Those were massive shifts for the series and focused far more on the non-historical elements like magic, dragons and orcs.
How then does Creative Assembly tackle returning to a traditional historical title after dealing in so much weirdness? Well there are plenty of things in Three Kingdoms that have clearly been inspired by Warhammer, and this fresh historical take shows that the olden days can still be bright, vibrant and fantastical.
For this review I was primarily playing the Romance mode, which is a more glorified version of events, focused more on the heroes of the time who are larger-than-life romanticised versions. The Records mode is a more traditional Total War style experience that has each hero unit leading a retinue of soldiers, this mode is more focused on the history.
The Art of War
If you’ve never played a Total War title, it’s a grand strategy game. Each game focuses on a different historical time period and draws on events, heroes and villains as a backdrop for grand battles and political intrigue.
Total War is somewhere between the city-building of Civilisation, the political nature of Crusader Kings, and filled with battles that would make Lord of the Rings feel small.
Total War: Three Kingdoms is a pretty big departure in style from a previous Total War titles, and it draws heavily from traditional Chinese water-colour painting. The game is bright and colourful and everything from the character pages to the global map seems to flow like it’s being painted before your eyes. It’s an absolutely lovely style, and makes for some really incredible scenes. Oh, and it has the most gorgeous technology tree I’ve ever seen inn a game (it’s a literal tree that sprouts flowers when you research technologies).
Total War: Three Kingdoms will have you taking part in a grand campaign to unite China in the third century when the country is thrown into a massive civil war by a combination of scheming warlords, a child emperor too young to rule, and a populace whipped into a frenzy by a charismatic group of revolutionaries called the Yellow Turbans.
If you’ve ever played Dynasty Warriors, you might have an idea of what’s going on here. That’s always been one of my favourite franchises, and I can’t tell you how weird it is to play Three Kingdoms and already know who betrays who, who wins the war and who shouldn’t be trusted.
Either way, the game will have you scheming in political circles, growing your towns and settlements, and fighting many, many battles.
War never changes – except when it does
Fighting battles in Total War: Three Kingdoms feels more like the Total War Warhammer games than it does Total War: Rome or other earlier titles. The Records mode can give you that flavour, but the additions made to the Romance mode just add a bit of extra flair to battles.
While the average army has the usual mix of melee troops, cavalry, ranged units and siege engines, there’s a bit difference in the makeup here. Traditionally you’d have a whole army, and a few generals who were just stronger versions of existing units. However in Three Kingdoms your hero units each lead retinues that make up smaller groups within your larger force. Each hero falls into a type as well, which makes them better at strategy, or one-on-one duels, or holding points against large enemy forces.
These hero types also make an interesting change to your army makeup as well, because particular hero types will be better with certain units, commanders are better with melee cavalry, while strategists are better paired with archers and ranged units.
This means that as you grow your armies, you’ll most likely pair your hero units into strike teams and determine roles in the army by who’s best on the frontline versus who’s better to scout around behind enemy forces and attack exposed archers or heroes.
A personal touch
A huge amount of attention has been paid to hero units and how they develop as the game progresses. Each of them begins with a bit of gear and some basic abilities, but as you play through a campaign they grow based on how you use them, what you equip them with and who they spend time with.
Really it’s a far more RPG-like system than Total War has ever had before. Your heroes can find and equip new weapons that change the way they fight, and new armour that can make them stronger as well as legendary horses, retainers and more. This means that as your character grow, you can pair them with special items to improve your more important heroes, but it also means that battles with particularly strong armies have even more incentive as you’re looking for special items.
In previous games I felt like executing an enemy hero after a battle was a move saved for moustache-twirling bad guys, but when I was looking at a captive enemy hero holding a weapon I wanted, that’s a whole other story.
There’s also a massive emphasis on duels here. In battle your hero units can challenge and be challenged by enemy heroes for one-on-one duels. These are awesome animated battles that are utterly gorgeous to watch and are full of acrobatic moves that would make the biggest Kung Fu movie fans jealous. It’s a flurry of stabs, kicks, reversals and throws that really plays up the drama of the battle going on around it.
These duels are totally isolated affairs, with the remaining battling armies giving the combatants a circle of space to do their deadly dance. You can interfere and have your archers rain arrows on the enemy, but doing so is a mark of dishonour, and can dramatically affect your standing in the political game.
These duels also have a funny Pokemon-esque feeling to them. Because you train your heroes, equip them with special weapons and choose how they develop, it’s a lot of fun to put them up against an enemy general or legendary hero and see how they fair.
Of course they can get whomped and die forever, but that only happened once or twice to me.
A couple of downsides to the battle system are that the load times can be bloody long. If you don’t have an SSD in your system, I’d highly recommend one here. I ended up transferring my game from a hard drive to an SSD after I got sick of making cups of tea during load times.
The other is that the larger battles can be really taxing on your system. I didn’t have any issues with normal land battles, but later in the campaign with larger armies involved in massive sieges my system really started to slow down, dropping from over 100FPS normally, down to 40s and 30s and fluctuating around there.
Just something to note for those on lower-end hardware.
The pen is mightier than the sword
One of the biggest calling cards of Three Kingdoms is the overhauled diplomacy options. This feels like the evolution of a number of systems Creative Assembly has been toying with for a while now. Thrones of Britannia and the Age Of Charlemagne expansion for Attila each gave more options beyond the usual “war and not war” diplomatic situations.
However, Three Kingdoms definitely feels like it’s taken a step more towards games like Crusader Kings in the breadth of diplomatic options available. When dealing with opposing factions, you have options to trade resources and food, but also to build alliances, form coalitions, if a faction is a vassal of another you can side with them if they turned on their master. You can even pledge support to another, larger faction if you need help against a particularly dangerous opponent, and declare your independence later.
This goes both ways though, as the other factions vying for China are all making the same diplomatic deals, schemes and plans as you are. Between turns you’ll see the land twist and change as larger factions swallow smaller ones, and peaceful factions grow stronger and stronger without ever lifting a weapon.
During one of my campaigns I was befriending Liu Bei, one of the starting factions who always seems to be easy to deal with. We set up a coalition and I set out target on Dong Zhuo, thinking Liu Bei could help me get over to his lands and take the captive emperor for myself.
However, I was still fighting wars at home, and Liu Bei had been sitting pretty in the corner of the map making allies and growing stronger. Over the next few turns he quietly moved two armies into Dong Zhuo’s territory and crushed The Tyrant without much fanfare, taking hold of the capital and seizing the child emperor for himself.
This meant that Liu Bei was essentially the puppet-master of all the remaining Han forces, in effect tripling his power over the land in one move, and it was all my doing.
There are a few hiccups in the diplomacy system, it can be really hard at times to keep track of what the other teams are up to, as leaders and positions can change very quickly. I’d often find myself on an opponent’s turn being offered a trade deal or a non-aggression pact by a leader I didn’t know, and whose position i wasn’t sure of relative to me. I would have loved to see a quick button or a mini-map that just shows you where they are in relation to me, as often I’d be planning to move south, rather than planning the particular enemy I’d be fighting and realise I’d actually just signed an agreement with the next guy in line to the south.
The map in Three Kingdoms has changed too. Rather than every settlement being a full town or city, the map is broken in Commanderies, each Commandery has a major settlement and one or two production facilities like a farm for growing food or a mine for gaining resources. This means that those settlements have a more specific purpose, and also that you can easily target weak points to cripple your opponents.
The new diplomacy options make it really easy to make tactical decisions on the fly, you can look at someone’s food situation, and attack their farms. Or see that they’re struggling financially so annex their iron mine.
However, other teams can be greedy when there aren’t many diplomatic options available, always wanting cities in exchange for nothing much at all. I can’t count the number of times I refused to become a vassal of Dong Zhuo, or didn’t recognise Yuan Shu’s claim to be emperor. They can be incredibly persistent, and apparently no doesn’t always mean no in ancient china.
Romance, war and story time
If you don’t know the story of the Three Kingdoms era of China, Creative Assembly has gone to quite a bit of effort to make sure there’s a lot of story and character peppered through every moment here.
There are cinematics throughout that show you who betrays who, who’s secretly working together and which tyrant was just assassinated by his son-in-law. But on top of that, there is character dialogue on every loading screen where your generals will banter back and forth, encourage each other or just have a verbal sparring match with the enemy leaders.
On the gameplay side, as you progress through the campaign, each faction has a series of major and minor events that guide you either along their story, or let you make your own decisions at pivotal moments.
There was a point in the mid-game where I really started to hit my stride as Cao Cao, he’s the great manipulator, and is able to change the opinions of other character both about himself and other factions. He can even incite proxy wars and pit two nations against each other for his benefit.
I was setting up my alliances, and working towards an objective to retake the old capital of Luoyang. I was in a coalition with Yuan Shao, and planning an attack on the bandit queen who ruled the mountains to the north-west. However, before I took the fight to them, I wanted to secure my position at home, so I could safely leave without worrying about getting backstabbed.
A nearby governor Tao Qian had been causing trouble for me for a number of turns, and as a part of Cao Cao’s story I needed to shut him down anyway. Unfortunately he had recently lost a battle, and there was another faction between him and me.
So there are two options here, I could brute force my way through the second faction between us, or I could befriend them and use them as a way through to Tao Qian.
There are plenty of ways to sway the smaller factions to your side, and beyond having help in battles, simply having another faction protect your borders is incredibly useful, even if they only control one or two regions.
So, using Cao Cao’s ability to manipulate opponents, I spent some of his special resource to befriend the minor faction and gain military access through their lands.
I swanned my army over to Tao Qian’s major settlement, as he probably thought he was safe with another faction between us, and promptly lay siege.
After the battle I had this one settlement sitting out on its own, so decided to gift it to that minor faction to gain some sway with them, and offered them protection as my vassal. Seeing the terrifying display of fire and steel that just slapped Tao Qian, they accepted straight away.
The Three Kingdoms
Eventually, as the campaign progresses, different nations will continue to grow and once one of them increase in rank enough, the three major factions in the game will each declare themselves Emperor of China, and begin the Three Kingdoms Era in earnest.
It’s a nice change of pace, and in a previous Total War game this king of power struggle might happen naturally, here it’s a natural part of the progression and changes the way the end-game operates.
To win you essentially need to take the capitals of those other leaders, and declare yourself ruler of China.
This makes the late game feel like a massive tug-of-war with a stalemate on either side. Once three factions declare themselves emperor, the remaining smaller teams all have to pick a side or get out of the way.
I did feel towards the end that I was banging my head against two large rocks, as I slowly pushed into enemy territory, only to be pushed back out again. But that’s where diplomacy and the spy system really started to help me out.
In the late game, undermining your opponents behind closed doors can be as effective as crushing them on the battlefield. I found myself spending as much time trying to undermine alliances and turn smaller factions against their masters and inciting proxy-wars as I did commanding my troops on the ground.
Total War: Three Kingdoms does a great job of making you feel like a ruler, both on and off the battlefield. There’s a great variety to the teams you’ll be leading and the battles you’ll be fighting, and plenty of options for diplomacy.
Yes, Total War: Three Kingdoms takes the Total War series out of the fantastical and back into the history books, but I’m so glad they did, because Creative Assembly are great at what they do – bringing history to life.
Total War: Three Kingdoms Review