Creative Assembly’s recent foray into the fantasy genre with Total War: Warhammer (and its sequel) took the series to new heights but fell short one key and familiar aspect of the grand strategy experience: diplomacy.
Not that this didn’t fit with the theme. I mean, there’s room for pragmatic military alliances in the grimdark militarism of The Old World. The enemy of my enemy and all that. But - at the end of the day - Total War: Warhammer isn’t really a game about suing your enemies for peace.
The same can’t be said for Total War: Three Kingdoms. Based around the Three Kingdoms period of China (and the renowned writings of Luo Guanzhong), Three Kingdoms is somewhat-smaller in scale than Creative Assembly’s Warhammer games have been but that narrower scope allows for much greater nuance - both on and off the battlefield.
Whether you’re coming to it as a veteran or newcomer, this feels like the Total War team’s latest effort might just be their accomplished game yet. It’s an open-ended and enormous sandbox of a strategy game that allows you to play out the Romance of the Three Kingdoms on your own terms, either as a conqueror, diplomat, merchant-state or liberator.
The Art of War
As with all Total War games, the theater of war in Three Kingdoms is split across two fronts.
Most of your time will be spent staring at the world map conducting the kind of turn-based grand strategy that the Total War series is known for. You’ll raise armies, manage your court, invest in the infrastructure of your cities and negotiate trade agreements with your neighbors.
All this is easier said than done. Good government doesn’t come easily, and the game forces you to balance keeping your citizens happy, managing population growth, paying your bills and making sure you have enough food to feed both your growing empire and your armed forces. Failing to satisfy any one and it’ll set off a cascade of other problems.
Managing your court’s internal affairs isn’t much simpler. As you progress through the game and fill out your faction’s Tree of Reforms, new faces will tie themselves to your cause. And, once attached to your faction, you’ll have to find roles for them within your court that suit their skills and interests.
There’s a real emphasis on storytelling and personality here. Characters are often named after and flavored by their Romance of the Three Kingdoms counterparts, so some will be better suited for combat, city-management or spying on the enemy accordingly. If you don’t find a suitable role for the inhabitants of your court, their satisfaction and overall effectiveness will go down.
And in addition to their individual affinities, you also have to consider the disposition and relationships that each face in your court brings to your government. Forcing two general who dislike one another to work together can trigger all sorts of problems and, as with city-management, it doesn’t take long for your problems in Total War: Three Kingdoms to breed and create more.
The systems in the turn-based side of Total War: Three Kingdoms are exceptionally good at churning out challenges for you to solve and giving you a dozen things to think about at any moment. And if you’re the kind of player who relishes that kind of complexity, you’ll probably have a lot of fun with it.
Meanwhile, newcomers will likely benefit from the interface and UI changes that Creative Assembly have made here. Even if Three Kingdoms isn’t the best Total War game ever, it’s certainly the best looking Total War game ever made.
Songs and Swords
Of course, it’s one thing to build yourself up as a successful sovereign nation and quite another to cultivate a domain that sprawls across China. As your territory grows and your empire emerges, you’ll grow in renown and reputation. You’ll begin as a noble before progressing to a marquis, dukedom, kingship and eventually making a claim emperorship of China.
However, as your profile grows in prominence, so too will the number of your neighbors who begin to see you as a threat. And when your foreign relations inevitably sour and conflict arises, Total War: Three Kingdoms game shifts gears from turn-based experience to real-time strategy one. Like other games in the series, the camera zooms in to give you a better view of the action as it unfolds.
And, to Creative Assembly’s credit, the battle sequences in Total War: Three Kingdoms looks more flashy than many of the series’ earlier installments. The overall gameplay here hasn’t changed too much but it feels like the smaller scale, faster pace and better loading times make skirmishes in Three Kingdoms more enjoyable without diminishing the sweet taste of victory. Even if direct combat isn’t your thing you can always delegate the battlefield to one of your generals.
Both micro and macro management pay off here and there’s plenty of room to experiment and recreate historically effective tactics like flanking or feints. There’s also a unique dueling mechanic, whereby opposing generals can challenge one another to single combat. Assuming your general has enough skill or equipment to give them the advantage, this can be an effective way to eliminate a major threat on the battlefield and deal a blow to the morale of your enemies with minimal risk.
In a break from previous Total War games, there’s a big emphasis on narrative in Three Kingdoms. Right from the get go, you're given the choice of either playing in Romance or Records mode. The former offers up a more heightened version of combat akin to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms novels. The latter offers a more realistic and historically-grounded version.
Romance mode will see generals take on dozens of enemy warriors at once a la Dynasty Warriors. Records mode will see them become more fragile (which interacts with the game’s in battle morale system in interesting ways) and battles more reliant on realistic military tactics.
Each campaign also gives you a new character and faction to start the game off with, and each of those factions have a slightly different path to victory.
At the time of writing, there are twelve factions/characters to choose from - split across four types. What’s more, much like the denizens of your court, your character in Total War: Three Kingdoms is mortal. They can be killed either on the battlefield or off it through an unexpected story event.
When that happens, the role of leadership passes to their next in line. To this end, Three Kingdoms supports a rudimentary Crusader Kings-style inheritance system that allows for political marriages and the like. It doesn’t quite go as deep as its inspiration does but it’s a nice addition to the formula that rounds out the experience.
Same goes for the spying system. It’s nice that it’s there - but I didn’t really find it had a massive impact. Still, there are times where it feels like Three Kingdoms might have the best diplomacy system I’ve ever seen in a grand strategy game like this one. It feels like the tedious task of managing an ever growing web of foreign relations is both believable and rewarding enough to be worth the effort the game asks you to put in.
The Bottom Line
Even if my own genre proclivities will probably see Warhammer 2 remain my go-to Total War title in the short term, I’d be hard pressed to forgo admitting that Three Kingdoms is the better title. Moment to moment, it simply plays better and, over the long haul, I suspect that the improvements to diplomacy and the quirks of the Romance mode will win me over.
Not content with just doing justice to its setting or being just another verse in a long-running tune, Total War: Three Kingdoms soars where lesser titles stumble and cements itself nicely as the series’ new gold standard.
Total War: Three Kingdoms is available on PC now.