It would have been a difficult decision for the folks at Creative Assembly to diverge so much from the game mechanics that came to define the Total War series. On one hand, you risk alienating the purists that like to have things the way it has been for more than a decade and on the other hand, you’re having to justify the value of your efforts to prospective customers by not being “the same old thing”. Total War: Three Kingdoms manages to do this with very little mess-ups.
The game is set in the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 CE) in China’s history which was underlined by endless infighting among warlords, each of whom, wanted to unify China under their own rule. You can choose to play as Cao Cao, Liu Bei, Sun Jian, Gongsun Zan, Yuan Shao or Yuan Shu. These form the Coalition, then you have three Governors who were ancillary characters and are also playable. If not the Governors, you can choose to play as one of the Outlaws or even as one of the leaders of the Peasant Rebellion i.e. the Yellow Turbans which is the first DLC. Except for the main warlords, practically everyone else starts on the back foot. All of these are actual warlords from the Three Kingdoms period with some being more influential and fielding a larger army than the others. This factors into how difficult your playthrough will be in the game. Cao Cao, for example, had the largest standing army and is thus, the easiest in the game as well. We’re getting some Age of Empires vibes here!
The game is very much a turn-based RTS title like all the previous games in the series. It’s just that the additional mechanic of building relationships with other warlords and generals adds a dynamic that builds onto the immersion factor. Your Warlord can deploy up to three generals in each battle and change the odds of the battle in your favour by capitalising on the strengths of your generals. And it’s not just that, you even have ancillary items such as your sword, armour, artifact, etc. which come with their unique bonus effects. This focus on the individual warlords and generals makes the game more interesting even on the main strategy map. Even individual characteristics of the warlords play into their strengths. Cao Cao, for example, can influence other factions into fighting each other. From the history books we know him to be a cheeky bugger who was known to instigate factions against each other. In previous Total War games, you would simply get done with the main map and focus more on the battle whereas in Three Kingdoms you are more likely to spend time on the main map planning your larger strategy.
Another factor that adds to the immersion is that the storyline can be played out in a historical context with the events and relationships being more of a matter-of-fact thing. This is the “Records“ game mode. The other is the “Romance” game mode which is based on thee novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong. Here you have the warlords elevated to a more mythical status as they become god-like warriors with unnatural attributes that can take on an entire retinue of soldiers by themselves. The embellishments of historic events from the novel also add to the flow of the story making it more entertaining.
This whole concept of focusing on notable historical figures from a time period was also present in the previous Total War game – Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia – but the game was panned for lacking polishing and even the combat mechanism seemed unbalanced. With Three Kingdoms, Creative has spent more time on fixing those issues and we must say that they’ve come through.
As you complete battles and gain more territory, you have the ability to strengthen your captured settlements to help replenish your battle-torn forces and add to your coffers. Not that these things didn’t exist in previous titles, it’s just that the larger picture has now become … the larger picture rather than a means to simply initiate new battles. In order to win the game, you really need to focus on the macro strategy as well as the micro strategy within battles.
Coming to the actual battles, the mechanics haven’t been overhauled in the same manner as the main map so you can still play around with the compositions and positioning to secure an easy victory while minimising troop losses. The good old strategy of having your cavalry charge through the enemy foot soldier battalion while having your own foot soldiers hammer away on the front works like a charm.
If playing the battle isn’t appealing enough then you can try dueling the enemy general to bring the battle to a quick end. Or you can auto-resolve. Auto-resolve is best reserved for when the game predicts a clean victory. If there is a chance of losing then you are better off playing the battle yourself. You can easily turn the tides on an “evenly matched” scenario with some proper micro-managing of your troops.
Total War: Three Kingdoms Verdict
Developer – Creative Assembly
Publisher – SEGA
Platforms – Windows, macOS, Linux
Price – Steam: 1999
Total War: Three Kingdoms clearly improves upon the game mechanics that were introduced in “Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia” to the extent that it pays for the sins committed. The thematic storyline that has been present in the Total War series for some time finally packs some substance and adds to the overall experience by allowing the player to focus on the macro and micro aspects of an RTS game. The inclusion of the two game modes means that this game appeals to a much wider audience which includes fans of the series as well as those who prefer a bit more immersion. Even the battles themselves feel improved but that’s an expected facet and a function of time. We haven’t played every single title in the Total War series but this one in particular seems to not disappoint. Given the numerous factions and warlords within each faction, the player has the freedom to replay the game multiple times over with each play-through seeming different owing to the relationship mechanism. In a way, it seems like Total War: Three Kingdoms is what you’d get if you clubbed a Total War game with Civ and threw in a history book. Also, the whole aspect of moving away from western history seems refreshing. Next India please!
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