I’d be hard pressed to find another historical time period covered more in video games than Three Kingdoms period of Chinese History. Ok, now that I’m thinking about it, I can come up with a couple more, but that’s not the point of this. The point is that the Three Kingdoms, or more specifically, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, is linked to video games in a way that most other stories, especially those of a historical nature, are not.
With Total War: Three Kingdoms, Creative Assembly has done some of their best work in capturing the spirit and tone of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, setting up some truly amazing battles amidst a beautifully realized China. Not every addition to the game is a hit, but there’s enough here to make it easy to dig into for veterans and newcomers alike.
For those not familiar with the Three Kingdoms period, which honestly included me before both playing and writing this, it begins with the deterioration and fall of the Han dynasty in 169 AD and ends with the conquering of Wu by the Jin dynasty around 280 AD. Three Kingdoms does its best to lay out the landscape, with most campaigns starting with Dong Zhuo in power and the Yellow Turban Rebellion in full swing. The two campaigns I played into, one led by Cao Cao and the other by Liu Bei, were immediately considered at war with both the Rebellion and the Han Dynasty.
From there, history is kind of what you make it. One of the best parts about the Total War series, even and especially the fantasy Warhammer variant, is the ability to make what you want with the historical backdrop. History may say the Jin Dynasty eventually wins, but my Liu Bei may have something to say about that. In Romance, Cao Cao was written as one of the villains, but that’s nothing a little PR and a good undefeated streak can’t change. To help achieve this, the campaign can be set up in one of two modes. Records feels more like a traditional Total War experience, with armies suffering from fatigue during battle and increased focus on tactics. Romance shifts the focus onto the field generals, really playing up their prowess in battle, even going so far as to allow for duels between generals with the morale of their armies hanging in the balance.
The duels are the centerpiece of the battle changes, and the first few times, it’s thrilling to see your general ride out to the center of the battlefield, eyes set on his opposing counterpart. The fight itself is beautifully animated, with both combatants charging at each other on horseback, fighting with polearms and swords on the ground, and just savagely beating each other until one turns tail and runs. After the theatricality wears off, though, the system itself breaks down a bit. It’s very easy to manipulate it, and I found myself declining more duels then I participated in, especially when it looked like I wasn’t going to be victorious. The ability to cheese the duel system feels a little exploitative, especially in the higher difficulties, but then, I guess since this is war, you do what you have to.
For those of us normies who like to play outside of Legendary difficulty, Romance mode can be a little too easy, especially if you have previous Total War experience. The generals tend toward the hardy side of tough, and the AI loves to just throw arrows at them. Multiple times I was able to win engagements by just marching one general forward, riding back and forth in front of the enemy line, and laughing maniacally as the arrows just blanket the field. Is it dumb? Yes. But that doesn’t make it any less effective.
This tactic was especially useful during sieges, when, confronted with hunting an army down through the somewhat tight streets of a bustling city, I could draw fire with my mounted general while moving the rest of my army into position. Much more than just battles featuring walls, the sieges in Three Kingdoms felt more exciting than others I have played. This could be due to map variety, the impact of siege equipment like trebuchets, or the fact that instead of using ladders, soldiers whip out ropes and grappling hooks to climb walls.
Outside of combat, Total War: Three Kingdoms resembles Thrones of Britannia more then Warhammer in its use of the overworld and the way its cities/townships are set up. Every area has one main city and anywhere between one-three smaller towns. The towns focus on one building type, like farms, mines, or military sites, while the city upgrades from small town to bustling fort rather linearly. I missed the more interesting building trees of Warhammer, but there was some simple enjoyment to be found in aiming specific settlement groupings for food production or money making. Trade has also expanded, with the ability to trade for food instead of money, as well as added options, like marriage proposals to strengthen the bonds between two factions.
Soldier recruitment was also changed to be more dependent on the types of generals you have in your army. Color coded by type, and in tune with the chinese philosophy of Wu Xing, units colored the same as their generals gain bonuses in combat, and certain colors are only able to recruit certain units. This color coding can also be found in the tech and building trees, with the colors pointing towards like items, such as green for farming or red for military buildings.
The tech trees have also gone through an overhaul. Instead of each group having its own tree, the majority share a single tree, with the main generals each having different initial techs started. Every five turns, you gain another point for the tree, and points can be spent on any tech that you have the minimum requirements for. While this could be potentially damning if you just have to have some extra farming percentage RIGHT NOW, knowing there’s another point coming so soon clears up some of that anxiety. I find that it also robs a lot of the individuality of the various different techs that used to be present for individual factions. Much like the town building, it’s another step towards simple linearity, that adds a lot for new players coming in, but really lacks the complexity that keeps me interested through multiple playthroughs.
That being said, the tech tree, like everything else in this game, is surprisingly beautiful. Depicting tech as the leaves of a cherry blossom tree, the tech tree stretches out over its plain, white background like a beautiful painting, its leaves lighting up as you make your choices. These same aesthetic continues to the world map, which is lit with bright, almost watercolor-like hues. Each turn brings about a new season to show the passing of time, and each season brings different weather conditions with. Seeing the entire map blanketed in snow or the foliage change color to signal the coming of autumn is a thing of absolute beauty and a high watermark for this type of game.
As it stands, I absolutely think Three Kingdoms a far better entry into the Total War series than Thrones of Britannia, though I wouldn’t rate it quite as high as Warhammer II. I appreciate the attention paid to the generals and heroes of the time, and while the duel mechanic is novel, I would not want to see it carried through to other games. In fact, most of my gripes with Three Kingdoms all deal with those ideas carrying forward into other games, as they all work well in context with the material they are currently attached too. Do I want to see a single tech tree for every race in Warhammer? NOPE. But it works thematically when dealing with the historical armies of China. And in that context, Total War: Three Kingdoms provides a solid look at the spectacle, history, and romance of the Three Kingdoms period, as well as being entertaining enough to hold the attention of those who just might not care about that stuff. I don’t know who they are, but I’m sure they’re out there.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!