The Total War franchise has been a long-standing hallmark of PC Gaming. While in more recent years it has had a resurgence from the horrific lows of its Rome II entry, Total War is still often held at an arms distance by certain RTS fans. With an excellent showing in its Warhammer entries and receiving critical acclaim with Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia, the pressure is now on Creative Assembly to create another successful entry in the franchise’s newest installment. Does Total War: Three Kingdoms continue the glory of its predecessors or does it fall to the terrors of war from the past?
A China at War
Total War: Three Kingdoms takes place in 190CE, with the crumbling of the ancient Han Dynasty and its child-emporer. Inspired by both Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong and Record of the Three Kingdoms, Three Kingdoms draws deeply from the history of the time. Focused on the political and military disarray caused by the brutal succession of Dong Zhuo, a brutal warlord and dictator, China’s unity crumbles. Headed by independent warlords and heroes, all set their sights on the nation’s now contested throne. Three ancient heroes, sworn to fight against tyranny, gird their forces for the battles ahead even as their support crumbles about them.
Three Kingdoms takes place right in the heart of pre-Imperial China, featuring twelve of the historic warlords from that time. The line-up includes Sun Jian, feared front-line commander and descendant of Sun Tzu, Liu Biao, a highly esteemed government official and powerful diplomat, and even the tyrannical Dong Zhuo himself whom players can unlock after defeating his forces in a campaign mission. Like previous controversial entries in the series, Three Kingdoms does include also include pre-order (and potentially future DLC) armies in the Yellow Turban Rebellion, one of the most influential historic forces of the time, and its three warlords. Like its predecessors, each General comes with certain perks and attributes making them more desirable for other playstyles.
Your campaign will be guided by the goal of eventually lording over all of China, either through military force or political means. As you populate your regional government and progress through the story you’ll unlock historically based missions related to your Warlord. Some will be unlocked during their rise to power, others will be offered by your retinue as you seek their council. However, there are enough regional threats throughout the game to make each suited to a long-term goal, only to be taken after thoughtful and careful planning.
Armies March on Full Stomachs
Entering into either Campaign or Battle mode, you’ll start the game in control over your own settlements or provinces not unlike past entries. Differing from previous games however, most provinces only have smaller towns as well as a collection of other regional hubs such as logging centers, farmlands and fisheries. Much like those found within major cities, every building can be upgraded, repurposed or torn down to make for new constructions. As you progress in your Campaign especially, you’ll be able to unlock branching upgrades for your buildings, turning perhaps a somewhat basic farmhouse into either a grain silo for food storage or a refinery to increase national resources.
As such Three Kingdoms is lighter on resources than previous entries. Most major decisions will require you to only have enough food generated for your faction (either in storage or being actively generated after every turn) or by possessing enough money. Items gained for general progression cannot be sold, therefore players will need to actively trade, conquer viable towns or use diplomacy to ensure they have enough resources for their forces. This is a much welcome change from Thrones of Brittania’s population requirements for raising forces, allowing more ready mistakes to be made without punishing players in the long-term.
That isn’t to say that people aren’t vital in your kingdom. Populations will rise and fall over time as your endeavors progress and will tax your food resources accordingly. If the population becomes dissatisfied, either with their local ruler or their living conditions, they may begin to openly revolt. While sometimes they will damage and cause chaos within their town, they may also open the doors to your enemies. Some may even join the lurking Yellow Turban Rebellion in hidden settlements nearby, raising armies quite literally outside of your doorstep. This system wonderfully requires one to take care during their turns, ensuring that everything is set and nations are taken care of before progressing onward.
As your retinue of officers and generals grows, they can be temporarily assigned to villages and outposts on tasks that will impact the local population. Some will result in increasing your monetary gain for a short time in the region, while others may quell insurrection or reduce overall political corruption.
To Battle, General!
War is once more at the forefront of Total War: Three Kingdoms, with direct battles taking place on wide open and sparse fields of conflict. In contrast to older entries, units look somewhat decent in their design; while retaining enough detail to be distinct from enemy forces they are not so overburdened as to detract heavily from cinematic immersion during the battle. Once more naval battles are regrettably absent from this entry, instead requiring you to delegate the fight to your inferior generals.
Upon entering a battle, players will be treated to a screen showing their odds for the upcoming conflict. Those besieging towns will have varying options to best impact the village (though they can attack back if you’re not careful!) on top of this, from starving them out to preparing siege weaponry for a future assault. Three Kingdoms systems for calculation are relatively spot on to what most newer players of the franchise can expect in their battles. By my third hour or so, after getting a better grip on the dynamic control systems, my chances rose to such a point that I rather started to disregard the odds and began to outmaneuver enemy forces. Most returning players can easily disregard this.
Fighting on the battlefield is fairly self-intuitive and plays similarly to most modern RTS systems; generals can choose specifically how to deploy their units platoon by platoon before the fight begins. From there players can simply drag and click commands through their units, making changes in tactics quick and painlessly succinct. The UI however can get crowded when opposing armies collide, especially in multiple-army battles with eight or more generals. This makes it difficult to break apart units that get hidden by different interface elements.
Some battlefields, like village sieges, will require players to tackle different objectives in order to complete them such as defeating an enemy general or breaking down the gates prior to capturing an administrative center. The variation is often, however, incredibly lacking. During my playtime I often won most of my battles simply by hitting the enemy until their morale was crushed with similar tactics thus drawing out battles. Unit collision and responsiveness doesn’t aid in this, as entire platoons can often get caught on terrain or simply stop moving when their flank catches an errant tree. Surprisingly, on battlefields this empty, it happened far more than I would like to admit.
Craft Your Empire
The higher draw to any Total War game, aside from the realistic army warfare, is of course the political intrigue systems. I am very happy to report that, despite the lack of Hero Powers, Three Kingdoms still features a deep politics system that requires an active management of your court retinue.
Each General or Court Member acts and behaves as their own entity. Some may come into your service by being captured onto the field of battle, others may be born in over time or come as part of a diplomatic deal. All of your retinue each have unique attributes which can affect their army as a general or a village if they administrate it. All also have their own RPG-like stats and equipable armor that can be gathered and improved over time as they gain experience administering your nation. They now also feature a deep skill tree, with twelve abilities to unlock over their lifespan which can affect everything from their stats to the whole nation.
Some of your retinue will excel in better fields than others, but all must be taken care of. Some may be content to fight on the field of battle and command mighty armies, but others will want power and court prestige. Taking care of and managing their overall Satisfaction is a vital part of your power, just as much as levelling up your own status to Emporer and beyond. If members of your court are unsatisfied at any point, they could consider turning traitor and putting your entire nation in a dangerous position. The retinue system is fantastically fleshed out, making it just deep enough to get invested into each wonderfully voiced member of your court without making managing their desires an encumbrance to governing your nation.
Similarly, the negotiation system is put together to broaden how you increase your influence. By bartering, trading, or developing with other nations you can quickly amass an incredible amount of wealth. Consequently, you could also take on warlords as your serfs and underlings piece by piece, amassing regional rule through tyranny. The options are there and limitless in many senses but its important to keep in mind your current standings with other nations. Not every Warlord is at war with another, but there are some who will take offense if you ally or trade with the wrong person and thus reduce your standing. Every diplomatic action has a consequence in how others see you, and the selection is broad enough to make any playstyle excellently intriguing.
The last thing that must be discussed is the new Reform system. Functioning like a national skill tree, the Reform system allows you to administer new edicts that will constantly improve your kingdom. Each point is noticeably impactful either by improving certain resource generations or commerce, to unlocking vital elements such as training spies or new building constructions. While the system is locked into a routine set of progression, earning a new Reform point to spend every five turns, there are enough branching choices to ensure each requires very deep thought.
Despite its reduced scope from Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia, Three Kingdoms still remains deep and engaging. Everything has been refined to be reduce the heavy learning curve, making this the most accessible Total War yet. It took me more than one occasion to force myself away from the game simply so I could finish this review on time. The idea of, “just one more turn,” is easy to sink into with the franchise, by Three Kingdoms continues to be wonderfully engaging throughout its lifespan.
The innovation here is very minimal from game to game. While the difficulty overall has been reduced and made more selective between either ‘Romantic’ or a historical ‘Records’ gameplay modes, the rest has simply been refined to a keener edge. Nothing here is terribly new to the franchise or to RTS games in general, but instead it has innovated by making things easier to manage so you can focus on Lording.
Learning Curve: 9/10
For newcomers to the franchise, Three Kingdoms can be a bit of a stumble to get into. However, this entry features extensive help menus that can be toggled at the touch of a button, as well as an ongoing soft-tutorial which will prompt you during important events. In the pause menu there is also a wide collection of media material to help ease you into how the game controls. For veterans jumping in is just as simple as that, with no major changes to systems.
This is where Three Kingdoms stumbles and falls in several departments. While cinematics are beautifully orchestrated with 3D models textured in old brush-work styles evocative of the era, in game graphics and sounds are often far more reduced with frequently popping in textures and lower resolution graphics. While individual models look excellent in battle, the sparseness of battlefields and the plainness of all the game’s lighting leaves much to be desired.
With a suggested MSRP of $55.99 USD, Three Kingdoms is nearly 1.5 times as expensive as the last entry in the franchise. While there’s certainly enough in the game to make your playtime worthwhile it’s hard not to think that there’s perhaps a too high price for this entry. With potential DLC on the horizon for the Yellow Turban Rebellion, its hard to see why a full MSRP was needed when Tales of Britannia was nearly identical in its depth with a lower price.
+ Great Total War worthy experience
+ Easy to pick up and get into
+ Engaging diplomacy and management systems
– Poor unit collision detection minimizes battle impact
– Still No Naval Battles?
– Occasionally too much to fight with the unpredictable state of the Yellow Turban Rebellion