TOTAL WAR: THREE KINGDOMS
A turn-based grand strategy game on the scale of Total War: Three Kingdoms often struggles to present a consistent and meaningful challenge across hundreds of turns and dozens of battles. With this foray into ancient China, however, Creative Assembly seems to have finally hit an elusive sweet spot with its campaign tuning. A political and tactical landscape that’s almost never boring, filled out with gorgeous, stylized graphics, an excellent character system, and massive performance improvements over previous games in the series leave no doubt who the new emperor is around these parts.
Three Kingdoms offers you two ways to conquer its sprawling, attractively exaggerated map of 200s CE China. Records mode is closer to classic historical Total War, where generals are mere mortals accompanied into battle by a bodyguard regiment, and real-time engagements play out slowly and less decisively. It also led me to feel like I might as well be playing any other historical Total War game, though. That’s not a deal-breaker given how many other things are fresh and exciting on the campaign map, but I was never all that tempted to give it much of my time when the other option is so much cooler.
The campaign really comes alive in Romance mode, which is based on the semi-historical novel about the era, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. This turns your generals into demigod-like kung fu action heroes who engage in dramatic duels and can take on hundreds of normal soldiers single-handedly. Both modes put a strong emphasis on the larger-than-life characters driving the action, including quippy banter both before and during battle that helps bring them to life. But some of the fun and character is definitely lost if you’re sticking closer to the history books in Records mode.
Spotlighting named characters helps make up for the fact that the armies themselves aren’t quite as diverse or interesting as, say, the Warhammer Total Wars’ or even Thrones of Britannia’s. We’re back in the land of swordsmen, spearmen, archers, and cavalry in various configurations maneuvering to best exploit the rock-paper-scissors relationships between different troops. And there aren’t competing ethnic groups to shake things up on the level of Huns vs Romans in Attila since all the action takes place between factions that are decidedly Chinese. Diversity in army composition is encouraged in other ways, however, as troops are recruited to a specific character’s retinue and armies are made up of one to three of them. Also, each general has a class, so you’ll want to compose forces around complementary generals with regiments that take the best advantage of their bonuses.
Holding Out For a Hero Total War: Three Kingdoms adds a clever layer of personality and tactical consideration with its five hero classes. Since you can only include three heroes in any army, you won’t have access to every possible utility in any given one. Here’s what they’re each good at:
Vanguard: Breaking enemy lines. These heroes are the best against normal, everyday troops and have a strong offensive focus. They can also recruit higher-tier shock cavalry and give combat bonuses to shock cavalry. You want to throw them at the weakest part of the enemy line and watch the sparks fly.
Champion: Dueling. These are the heroes that kill other heroes. They’re not as good in a chaotic melee as Vanguards, but are peerless in one-on-one combat. They also allow you to recruit higher-tier spearmen and give combat bonuses to spearmen. You want to sick them on the enemy’s most important generals right away.
Sentinel: Hold the line! These guys can plant their feet and take a charge, outlasting any other hero type in a protracted brawl. They unlock high-tier swordsman for recruitment and give combat bonuses to all swordsmen. You want to set them up in a spot where you need the line to hold, come hell or Lu Bu.
Commander: Inspiration. No one can rally the troops better than a commander. In addition, they unlock some of the best melee cavalry available and give combat bonuses to melee cavalry. Use their mobility to move them around the field and provide encouragement to any regiments you may see on the verge of fleeing.
Strategist: The right push at the right time. The combat buffs available to these heroes are usually very situational, but very powerful if deployed for maximum effect. They’ll also bring the best archers to the field and pair particularly well with any unit wielding ranged weaponry. Use them wisely and they may be the point on which the whole battle turns.
Each faction also gets a set of unique mechanics and some even feature a unique currency. The best of these, of the warlords I played, is the scheming Cao Cao who can spend his unique Credibility resource to improve or worsen relations between any two factions. If you get them to hate each other enough you can even instigate a proxy war to soften them up for when you eventually swoop in to devour both their battered corpses, or force someone you’re already fighting to divert resources elsewhere.
The Verdict Total War: Three Kingdoms should serve as the example for all games of its breed going forward. The campaign design is brilliant, full of character, and tells a cohesive, historical-feeling story with satisfying act breaks and unexpected turns of fortune. The improvements to performance and optimization over its predecessors almost make me want to just lean back in my chair and hum contentedly while I watch hundreds of peasant militia hack each other to pieces. Its relentless ability to constantly provide challenging battles can almost seem like too much of a good thing sometimes, but it’s still a huge improvement over what came before. Just remember when you’re going over resumes to decide who to bring on to lead your next, big offensive: Do not pursue Lu Bu.