Review: Total War: Three Kingdoms

By Marcello Perricone 23 May 2019 2

Review: Total War: Three Kingdoms

Released 23 May 2019

Developer: Creative Assembly
Available from:
Steam

Three Kingdoms. A dozen factions. One Country. That’s the setup of the latest historical Total War game, and the first one to be set in Ancient China. Beginning at the start of the Han dynasty’s collapse in 190 AD, Total War: Three Kingdoms puts players into a massive map of China and tasks them with rising to the position of Emperor and uniting all provinces under a single, imperial rule.

The first big-budget historical entry since Attila in early 2015, 3K comes on the heels of Warhammer II and the boring, critically panned spin-off Thrones of Britannia to great scrutiny. Total War fans have been waiting for this next entry with great excitement -- both due to its unique setting and any improvements it may bring -- and it is very refreshing to be able to say that after all that wait, Three Kingdoms delivers (mostly).

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The first impact when launching the game is how different and modern it looks -- from the menus and graphics to the interface and opening cinematics, 3K just feels like a new chapter in the series. The classic “embedded buttons” look is gone, replaced by a real text menu set against the white backdrop of China. The faction selector now features voiceovers from the main character like in Warhammer, and it’s also accompanied by a narration describing the guy/gal’s personality and backstory. More importantly, it also uses the correct pronunciation of their Chinese names, which prevents any language-related faux paus.

After an interactive loading screen describing the Yellow Turban Rebellion, the game begins in earnest, with the classic Total War map pan as the narrator and your chosen character debate over the upcoming immediate steps, such as who to attack, who to watch out for, and who to watch out for as you attack them. From that point on, everything is different from Total War games of old.

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The biggest and main change about 3K is how character-driven it is -- like TW: Napoleon or TW: Attila, but if they were full games instead of half-sequels of Empire/Rome II. Each of the 12 protagonists has its own backstory, look, special abilities, unique units, unique buildings, unique currency, and more. This is more than just a roster of famous people from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms text; this is a proper division of playstyles. While Sun Jian and Zheng Jiang are aggressive warlords bent on warfare, Kong Rong and Yuan Shao’s unique traits make them more qualified for a diplomatic and even somewhat peaceful playthrough. It’s still a Total War game, and therefore focused purely on expansion, but the way you go about it depends on personal preference and -- more importantly -- on faction choice.

While the asymmetry of the factions is lovely, their execution varies in quality. Liu Bei’s ability to annex areas is super helpful for quick, bloodless expansions, but Cao Cao’s diplomatic influence is nigh useless; his ability to manipulate diplomatic standings rarely if ever results in tangible effects -- more often than not when trying to pull the strings, you simply make a happy guy not a war with someone else slightly angrier while still not at war with someone else. It feels unsatisfying, and slightly pointless, like giving a good speech to an empty room.

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On the battlefield, things are different. Each of the game’s many, many characters are divided between six different archetypes, such as the Commander (an expert at area of effect buffs), Champion (great at killing other characters), or Sentinels (good at holding chokepoints). On Romance mode, they all act as generals and ride into battle as a single person unit, capable of causing immense devastation to hundreds of common soldiers, while in Records mode (aka Historical), they’re part of a 40-50 people cavalry unit.

With their inclusion comes one of the biggest changes to the Total War formula; each army is now capable of carrying three generals instead of one, each with their own retinue of six units. This has a good side and a bad side -- while it increases an army unit count to 21 instead of 20, it actually reduces the number of proper units to 18. Another unfortunate consequence is that all generals don’t share the same pool of units, meaning you are unable to move units between retinues and are forced to keep certain archetypes (such as the Strategist that recruits Trebuchets) in order to have an army of different unit types.

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Units themselves are a whole point of contention, as they feature a very complicated system of unlocks where the specific character, specific class, specific faction, specific faction rank, and specific technology all affect which general can recruit what troops. It couldn’t be less intuitive if they were trying and it’s one of my least favourite things about the game. It removes the strategic value of unlocking several units via a research tree, and I’m surprised the creative team went with this decision.

That research tree -- called reforms in 3K -- is one of the game’s more polarising changes. It removes the research rate of previous games due to the period’s relative lack of technological advancements, and replaces it with a “one reform every 5 turns or so” mechanic. It is not a bad change per se, but it does results in a shallower experience -- gone is the ability to specifically build your empire and characters towards research rate, and some of the options result in either a series of irrelevant upgrades before you get something good or a dead-end research branch that rewards nothing for investing in it.

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The biggest question no doubt facing a vast portion of the player base is what the difference between Romance and Historical is -- and to great chagrin of many, the answer is not much.  I’m sure behind the scenes there is a vast amount of changes, but to players they are virtually invisible -- both modes still focus on characters to a gigantic degree, and while Record battles are slightly more drawn out and feature exertion/fatigue as a slightly more important factor, they are barely noticeable. In fact, Records feels almost tackled on as a way to appease historical fans, but it straight-up delivers a lesser experience by removing features like duels from the game. Duels not only look great, but also serve as a tactical manoeuvre to swiftly remove an enemy general from combat if done properly.

3K even features a post-processing effect choice of Romance and Records, with the later literally serving to only make the game’s colours muted and uglier. For some weird reason, the arrow trails -- which in this game are bright, thick, blueish lines -- are unchanged aside from a minor dim in their intensity, guaranteeing that archers in both modes fill the skies with a rain of magic-looking bolts raining from above in a very distracting manner.

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Weirdly, my biggest issue with those arrow effects is not their preposterously distracting flight effects, but how little damage they cause. The way arrows block the view of the battle with their numbers and intensity makes it seem like the heavens themselves are raining fury into an enemy, but you can watch as hundreds of arrows land in a single target for 15 seconds and kills less than 10 people. On the other hand, trebuchets rightly wipe out two dozen people with each hit, removing that annoying habit of previous games where siege engines caused more knockbacks than casualties.

Luckily, Three Kingdoms’ combat is a far cry from Attila and Warhammer’s horrible MOBA-like quality that made battles so lethal and straightforward as to render flanking unnecessary. It still isn’t as grindy and physical as Rome II, lacking a certain amount of gravitas and physicality that’s hard to quantify, but it is miles better than previous releases. The fight balance is slightly out of whack, but it’s manageable and enjoyable -- and Creative Assembly has a track record of fixing the balance after a game hits the shelves, so it shouldn’t be a big deal.

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Despite all its flaws, the truth is Total War: Three Kingdoms is a good game, whose strengths are undoubtedly firmly rooted on its Romance mode. The game embraces the source material with a passion, and love pours out of its seams -- the art department needs to be especially commended, as they lend the game a consistent and intense personality that definitely makes it better. Menus like the reform tree feature beautiful changing backgrounds, while selecting something on the campaign map briefly smothers it with a blotch of paint, as if the object was touched by a brush. Creative Assembly often changes art style based on the game and period, but I’ve never seen a Total War which so thoroughly embraces the artistic influences and employs it so deeply on top of the whole product.

Even with all reservations, Three Kingdoms is a worthy successor of the Total War brand. Unlike Thrones of Britannia, it makes beautiful use of its setting to create a unique depiction of a fantastic period of history and understands what makes the series fun. If you like the Ancient Chinese period and is searching for a new high level strategy game, look no more -- Three Kingdoms is the game you’re looking for.

A worthy entry in the Total War franchise, Three Kingdoms gets a lot more right than it does wrong.

Review: Total War: Three Kingdoms

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