Three Kingdoms might represent the pinnacle of Total War’s evolution

By Sean Martin 27 May 2019 0

Every time a new Total War game is announced, it’s the same old dance. I message my friend Sergio saying “Oh man, have you seen the new Total War yet? It’s got this really cool new aesthetic and all these interesting units!” But the response is always the same: “How’s the campaign? Have they updated the diplomacy yet? How about the agents? The empire management? I’ve been burnt too many times.” And I have to say, I can understand where he’s coming from. For the longest time, historical Total War games have essentially been for RTS players, those who prioritize the battles over whatever else the game has to offer. Its unique battle system has won huge popularity, but I think it’s fair to say, without that system, the games wouldn’t be anywhere near as good or popular.

If you look back at the previous installments of historical Total War, it’s easy to see how those campaign experiences didn’t always pan out. Look at Total War: Attila, a game whose empire management amounts to a kind of settlement Tetris - trying to find the right combo of buildings to keep everything green, while you stagger under crippling public order debuffs and rebellion spam. Look at how the agent system failed to evolve meaningfully - spies and assassins in Rome: Total War interact with the game world in much the same way as Shogun 2 (seven years later) and Attila (11 years later). Look at the character system, even as recently as Thrones of Britannia, with everything still hinging upon something as simple as a loyalty stat. But honestly, this never really bothered me - before Total War: Warhammer, I played for the battles, conveniently ignoring everything else.

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But Warhammer changed things. Following the influence of those games, you can see the lesson that was learnt: specific is always better. Look at Shogun 2: Fall of the Samurai, for example, one of the most specific Total War games ever made, and to my mind, one of the best. Those specific Warhammer race mechanics went a long way to creating a strong campaign experience, and that influence bled into all historical content that followed. The Total War Saga series is a direct result - in choosing very specific periods of history, and creating unique mechanics to represent both the factions and the period, they managed for the most part to avoid the generic aspects of previous historical games. But with no agent system, and no updated diplomacy, it didn’t go far enough.

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Enter Three Kingdoms. For years I’ve been asking myself, how can Total War go back to making historical games after Warhammer? In showing us a diverse fantasy world rooted in rich lore, won’t our own history seem dull by comparison? But I was wrong. Our history is the richest source material - and no one understands that better than historical strategy fans, who idealize history more than any other gaming group I’ve encountered. History is, by its nature, romantic: a set of stories that only grow in significance, becoming more epic with each new re-telling. So how do you combine history and fantasy into one? Easy: By understanding that they are two sides of the same coin. Total War isn’t really a ‘historical’ game series, not in any way that prioritizes historical accuracy anyway. Its design is based around us - the gamers and history fans who want the epic re-telling, who want to play with the past.

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is exactly that - a story, written a thousand years after the fact, influenced by countless re-tellings and dramatizations. This is why it’s the perfect source material for a Total War game. Three Kingdoms is special, in part because it finally raises historical Total War’s campaign experience to the same level as its battles. Many of the campaign elements, such as the empire management, the diplomacy and the character system, add a level of depth that wouldn’t feel out of a place in a 4X. But more than that, I’ve never seen a spying system akin to Three Kingdoms in a strategy game before. The symbiosis between all these features, creates a period game that is mechanically specific, yet still affords players room to create their own story.

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But most of all, Three Kingdoms is special to me because it represents the successful culmination of both historical and fantasy influence. It takes what’s been learnt from Warhammer - the importance of specific mechanics based on rich source material, but also combines it with the series’ signature historical flavour. Looking back at the past few years and the recurring arguments between Total War’s fantasy and historical fans, it’s hard to express what such a combination means. It was the step the series needed to take - to acknowledge this shared influence between its historical and fantasy games. Because, at its heart, that’s what Three Kingdoms is: a historical-fantasy game. Whether this idea will find life beyond the incredibly specific source material of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is another matter. But as a lifelong Total War fan, I am incredibly proud of what CA has achieved with Three Kingdoms, and I’m excited to see where this new approach will drive future content.

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