It looked like Creative Assembly was running out of historical settings for its Total War games; after sequels like Total War: Rome II and fantasy settings in Total War: Warhammer II, it seems like the acclaimed game developer was stuck in a rut – however Total War: Three Kingdoms isn’t just refreshing in that it presents a new historical era, but it overhauls game mechanics and features in such a way that it could well be the best Total War game yet made.
Total War: Three Kingdoms is the best new Total War game not because of its tight mechanics, impressive production design, or any of the other features that makes every Total War game solid – instead, it’s the best because it’s the most novel, bringing shedloads of new mechanics and functions that builds on the base Total War style without alienating the fundamentals.
Total War: Three Kingdoms is set in the Three Kingdoms era of Chinese history, around the years 220 – 280BC, in which three states formed after the end of the Han dynasty, to try and seize ownership of the whole of China – it’s a period rife with as much political intrigue as it is bloody combat, and both are present in the game in droves.
As with all Total War games you can take control of one of many factions and lead them to victory, ranging from the states themselves to governors, pretenders and rebels. Each has a little storyline to follow, based on historical events, and this increased emphasis on missions shows the first major change for the game, as others have had little in the way of in-game narrative – of course you can ignore these missions if you can, but they provide an interesting new way of playing the game.
Closely linked to this is the new Romance Mode, which is easily the biggest change from previous Total War games. In Total War: Three Kingdoms generals aren’t just a useful addition to an army, but they’re the base layer you build an army on. Armies can be recruited as part of a general’s retinue, and you can’t have troops that aren’t acting under a general, and in and out of battle these generals have increased usefulness, as items you equip on them provide bonuses, and they’re also incredibly competent fighters.
This increased focus on heroes, rather than the basic troops, is a massive change from other Total War games, but it pays off in bounds. Having a face to attach to armies makes them more personal, and the adventures they go on and adversities they face endears them to you – in this regard generals are like soldiers from XCOM: Enemy Unknown games, and you care for their fate. In battle, generals can challenge enemy generals to 1-on-1 combat, in which they can’t be interrupted – this makes battles far more cinematic and personal, and even when not in duels, generals’ incredible stopping power makes a huge difference to army battles.
For those not sold on Romance Mode, there’s also a standard mode which resembles other Total War games, but generals present such a novel and exhilarating change that it’s worth playing with them.
One valid criticism could be that the whole point of previous Total War games was the empowering of your everyday soldier, as opposed to the generals and figures that dominate history books. By making generals a focus, the interesting angle is lost, and soldiers seem less important – not just because a lot of in-game time is spent micromanaging the generals, their skills and their items, but because generals are so powerful in combat that they can wipe through legions of enemies easily.
Generals aren’t the only overpowered troop – as with all Total War games, in Total War: Three Kingdoms, cavalry are still far, far too powerful. One squad of riders can easily flank and destroy any number of enemy archers, two squads can surround and wipe out anti-cavalry units, and three or more squads can rout an entire army if used well. The incredible power a cavalry charge has, makes other troops a little redundant, although arguably cavalry isn’t as overpowered as it is in other Total War games, which is some consolation.
Like Total War: Shogun 2 there isn’t a huge pool of different troop types to choose from, so it’s even more tempting to let certain strong cavalary types dominate your front line, although the increased emphasis on generals does mean army makeup isn’t as pivotal to winning battles as it was.
These balance issues are far from game breaking, and they’re smaller in Total War: Three Kingdoms than they are in other Total War games, but they’re still an irritating aspect of gameplay.
An aspect of the game that initially seemed a weakness is the map – China isn’t like the wiggling coastlines and islands of Europe depicted in most of the games, instead it’s one blob of a landmass, which makes the overworld seem a little less ‘tactical’ and nuanced, reducing the number of strategies and different options you have in moving troops. However Creative Assembly has done a great job using other geographic elements to dictate the map – rivers might cut through a province, alienating one area, or mountains might cause an army to have to take a winding route from one point to another, increasing the time it takes to move.
Total War: Three Kingdoms also presents a small overhaul in the way regions are owned by factions – like Empire: Total War, each area has one main seat of power and several other resource-creating buildings, but in this game different factions can conquer, hold and use these buildings without requiring control of the main city. This is a little confusing at first, and the effects of a contested region aren’t made clear, but it does add an extra layer of tactics to the game.
On the topic of new tactics, Total War: Three Kingdoms has an increased emphasis on diplomacy than previous Total War games. This doesn’t manifest itself in extra options when communicating with other factions, but in the way factions themselves behave – alliances, trade routes and wars will pop up between non-player factions a lot more than in other games, leading to the sense that you’re just one player in a wider web of teams as opposed to each faction only interacting with you.
It’s not just Total War: Three Kingdoms’ mechanics that are solid: the art style, menu designs, music and overall production design all perpetuate the romantic Chinese aesthetics of the game.
Total War games are the pinnacle of real-time strategy, and Total War: Three Kingdoms is the best new Total War game in a long time. It builds on the series’ existing features in interesting and novel ways, while maintaining what makes the originals.