Diving into the world of Total War: Three Kingdoms for the first time, it’s clear that the team at Creative Assembly are keen to try as many new ideas as possible all at once. It’s a hearty feast that’s sure to satisfy the most ravenous strategy buff.
While veterans of the series will be immediately familiar with the mechanics of a typical Total War game, there is an extensive underlying management system which will test their skills. For newcomers to the franchise, there is an exceptionally steep learning curve, which can be quite daunting. However, when you break it down, Three Kingdoms is a game of simple small moves and how they work in combination. Attack, defend, trade, create alliances, break alliances and take over the known world. If you’ve never played this game before, it’s called Total War and not ‘Total Friendship’ for a reason.
In the Three Kingdoms period of China, three superpowers were vying for control of the total Chinese empire. It was a period of great turmoil which changed the shape of a nation, and the Total War: Three Kingdoms game fits perfectly into this setting.
There’s a distinctive art style to the game, drawn from Chinese calligraphy – lots of painted swishes and touches which feel natural and right at home within the context of the game. The skills tree is a literal tree, drawn with long flowing branches. It begs some inevitable comparisons to the style of the Shogun series, however where Shogun was brightly coloured, Three Kingdoms leans to darker tones. It’s a suitable switch of aesthetics that gives this game a unique and pleasing feel. However, while the style of the game is pretty, it feels like some of the in combat visuals have suffered for it and don’t run as smoothly as you would expect.
“Total War is a game that works on a simple rule, there is always something to do in every turn.”
As a strategy game, the Total War system stands with few peers. It’s a combination of turn-based strategy, resource management and real-time unit combat. The size and scope of the available options within the game ensure that you will have many hours of entertainment no matter what your preferred game style may be. Three Kingdoms is the thirteenth release in the series, and you can tell that they have learned well from the lessons of their predecessors.
You take control of one of a long list of famous historical Generals, tasked with carving out your own piece of China by any means necessary. Not only do you manage the finances for the armies and cities within the control of your faction, you are also responsible for food, supplies, diplomatic relationships, trade negotiations and the general happiness of your growing populace. Armies regain supplies while in their own province, or encamped, however will lose resources while scouting enemy territories or laying siege to a settlement. You will nurture dependence within smaller clans on your trading goods and services. They will actively seek you out to claim the trade commodities that you gain through shrewd dealings or victories in battle. You can use these items to demonstrate value of a potentially larger trade, or to increase the value of a one-sided deal. Will you use them to make peace with a neighbouring faction, or will you hold out to make a larger deal with a superpower and secure valuable trade routes? Tempting choices.
There is now also a “quick deal” function that allows you to choose from some definite quick win options. Although these might not always be to your liking, they are a way to get things moving in the right direction with some of your fickle allies. The addition of features like this can take some of the guesswork out of the diplomacy game, which helps to speed things along.
Traditionally, Total War games are slow and strategic, like a live-action chess game, and this is where Three Kingdoms does separate entirely. Combat is much, much, faster than previous iterations of the game. There’s an almost arcade-like quality to how quickly things move. You’ll need to be ready to react quickly to changes in the battle. It’s another game where the horse units feel overpowered – the speed and ease with which they move and harass enemy units make loading up your army stack with epic equines an essential tactic. It would be nice to see a more balanced unit spread in future updates to this game.
Formation management options are also streamlined in this game. You’re now able to select from a list of standard tactics which will allow your army to set up in your preferred style. Starting positions for units are natural and allow you to quickly enter battle if you don’t have the desire to mess with things. It’s comforting to see that the engine logically picks a more suitable, well-rounded tactical setup for you to start with.
The ‘Duelling’ function between enemy generals is a fun feature which will see your key characters go head-to-head without those pesky grunts interfering. In the lead-up to combat, the Generals will shout taunts to each other across the battlefield, sometimes out of context, but they add colour to each battle. When they finally engage physically, the animations in combat are fun to watch. The mobs will clear a space for them to fight each other and, while these can be fun to watch, they are more than a little distracting from the main combat management. Winning a Duel will help your Generals to inspire hope amongst your units and cause waves of fear in your opponents. The tide of battle can turn quickly, and landslide victories are standard.
Managing the wellbeing of your Generals is another matter entirely. Treating htem well by using them in battle, filling their armies with units, or offering them positions in your government will increase their loyalty to you and ensure your empire expands. Neglect them emotionally, by leaving them out of the action, and they will turn on you – possibly taking their armies and valuable resources with them to rise in rebellion against you.
Total War is a game that works on a simple rule, there is always something to do in every turn, and Three Kingdoms is no exception. The depth of simple moves that you can choose from means that you should be constantly managing every aspect of you Empire. If you’re not expanding your borders, you should be licking your wounds and expanding your armies in preparation for the next assault. For seasoned fans, there is a lot to like about this next addition and it feels at the same level as last year’s release, Thrones of Britannia. Both are nice pieces of history in the franchise, however they are still a small candle to the mighty flame that is the Warhammer series. If you’ve not played Total War previously, this is a solid entry point into THE strategy franchise.
Total War: Three Kingdoms is available May 23 for PC.