THE THREE KINGDOMS
The Total War series has built a reputation upon adapting important periods of history, whether Medieval Europe, Shogunate Japan, or the Roman Empire. But as time has gone on, we’ve seen these periods become more specific. The Total War Saga series has focused on fleshing out smaller periods of history that might otherwise have gone untouched, and DLCs have focused more on exploring specific periods as well, Rome 2’s Rise of the Republic and Empire Divided standing as testament. We’ve also seen fantasy added to the mix, with the incredibly popular Total War: Warhammer and Total War: Warhammer 2. Now you may be thinking, why is he telling me the history of Total War games? I’m only mentioning these two trends of fantasy and specific period history, as I believe Three Kingdoms is the culmination of both. I have wondered about this for a while — how do you go back to making the same old historical games after Total War: Warhammer? After a game which worked so hard mechanically to deliver rich and diverse playable factions. And I’ve realised, the answer is, you don’t. Why have history or fantasy, why not both?
Three Kingdoms is based upon the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, an epic, fantasy-esque retelling of the events around the fall of the Han dynasty in ancient China. It is a period well known for great heroes, battling Warlords and a whole host of scheming and treachery. As you might expect, you take the mantle of one of such Warlord. In the wake of the Han’s collapse there are many opportunities to grow, snapping up territory and crushing or vassalizing lesser Warlords. You will eventually become powerful enough to stake your own claim as the Emperor, and so the Three Kingdoms period will begin, with you facing off against your biggest rivals, in a winner-takes-all conquest for China.
There are of course many ways to make it to the top of the pile. Enter the diplomacy and spying system. To replicate the court intrigue of the period, diplomacy has become a lot more intricate and complicated. It feels more akin to the diplomacy system of a 4x than any previous Total War game, allowing for coalitions, in-depth trading, intimidation, vassalization and a whole lot more. The spying system also goes a step further than any previous Total War. You will essentially send a character from your faction to infiltrate another faction, and they will travel to the region and enter the global recruitment pool. If they are hired by the select faction, they will become an agent, and as their power and position grows, they will be able to undertake specific actions against that faction.
You have to be careful though, as if they like the enemy faction too much, they might defect permanently, and this also means that any character you recruit could turn out to be an enemy spy as well! It’s a terrifying system, especially as spies can lie dormant for years, but both the new spy and diplomacy system are something Total War games have been needing for a long time. On top of these, new empire management means Three Kingdoms is a game in which you’ll spend almost as much time on the campaign map as in battles, which while good, is weird for a Total War game.
ROMANCE OR RECORDS
That’s not the only change either. With Three Kingdoms comes two game modes: Record and Romance. Record reflects a more classic historical experience, giving generals units as opposed to having them as lone heroes, and focusing more on tactics/less on the power of heroes. Not to imply that Romance mode isn’t tactical too. If anything, Romance mode is more of a unique Total War experience, allowing characters to engage in amazing cinematic duels with enemies, and also to be used as units in their own right, taking down missile units or holding the line. And while you can play either way, I honestly think that Romance mode better reflects the combination of both history and romance, in the same way the source material does. It makes your characters the most important resource, their items, their abilities, their recruitable retinues, their relationships with others, all effecting your campaign.
I’ll give you a brief example. I began a campaign as bandit queen Zheng Jiang. After some very tough initial battles, most notable of which, my second in command, Congquin killed the tyrant Dong Zhuo and took his sword (a super powerful weapon), he and Zheng became rivals. While they disliked each other, it actually drove them to greater feats of combat. I stoked this further by marrying them, which further increased their weird bond of hatred, making them an unstoppable domestic killing machine. You’ll see this frequently in Three Kingdoms, kill a sister and the brother will go on an unstoppable rampage, or face two rivals together and sparks will fly. It’s an incredibly intricate system of relationships and past encounters which makes every battle interesting. The only issue I have with it, is it seems like you become so powerful so quickly, enemy characters rarely want to duel your heroes.
HISTORY AND FANTASY
Three Kingdoms is the most divergent Total War I’ve seen since Total War: Warhammer. I would in fact call it the first post-Warhammer historical installment, taking what is good in fantasy and using it to compliment the historical components of the game. On top of that, it revamps both diplomacy and spying, two aspects of the series that desperately needed updating. The diplomacy is now more in line with 4x standards, and I would actually consider the spying system to be pretty experimental, considering how extreme its results can be (your agent could end up being leader of an enemy faction). It also just feels epic — in basing Three Kingdoms on a romantic account of history, Creative Assembly has created a game which is somehow both history and fantasy. And that’s pretty special.
Amazingly dynamic character system, everyone’s probably a spy, new diplomacy and empire management also make it an in-depth campaign experience.
Lots of units, but many are fairly similar, diplomacy can be a tiny bit overwhelming at times.