The last few years have been jam packed with Total War games, and yet 2013 was the last time we saw a mainline historical entry in the series with Total War: Rome II. There was the Attila standalone spin-off, the two fantasy Total War: Warhammer games and the smaller scale Thrones of Britannia earlier this year, but for fans of the series a major new historical game has been a long time coming. Total War: Three Kingdoms is finely poised to answer that call.
While it’s based on history, Three Kingdoms is also heavily inspired by, and derives its name in part from the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. This largely factual account of history amplifies the heroism and deeds of the various warlords and factions at play throughout the civil war. Thus Three Kingdoms features both a Classic mode that will be familiar to any Total War players, and a Romance mode that turns your generals and heroes into formidable characters on the battlefield, much like how heroes in Total War: Warhammer could battle entire regiments on their own.
They have special abilities and perks, based on the character type they are. Sun Ren, for example, is a Vanguard that thrives when leading the line, with a powerful area of effect attack to throw nearby enemies to the ground and limited use bow and arrow strike that’s ideal for targeting other heroes. Meanwhile her brother Sun Quan is a Commander that steadies the line, able to make them more resistant to enemy archers or charges.
You can also challenge enemy heroes to duel on the battlefield and there’s more than a hint of Wushu and cinema to these fights. They’ll first charge at each other on horseback to try and get the initial advantage before engaging on foot once one has been knocked off. If it’s right in the middle of your clashing army lines, the throngs of soldiers peel apart to form a circle around the duel. Zoom in and you can see the fight ebb and flow, stringing together choreographed moves to depict the damage being inflicted. It’s best to challenge when you’ve already weakened the enemy general, and you can micromanage with some of character abilities as well, with coming out on top or forcing them to back down diminishing enemy morale.
It’s something that adds new layers to the combat for you to micromanage and consider, but even if you play in Classic mode, there’s more of the in depth control for each unit that recent games haven’t featured as heavily. Some infantry can be hybrid melee and ranged, spear men can set up with a layered formation or squares that can repel flanking cavalry.
As always, using the terrain to your advantage is key, from fighting on high ground to hiding units in the tree line. The night time battle Ambush of Sun Ren provided a lovely visual spectacle as fire arrows fly and now set fire to the treeline, and iconic floating lanterns hover in the sky.
A new option now presents itself in these situations, of trying to reach an exit point instead of trying to survive the waves of enemies trying to ensnare you. It will present you with a defeat, but can let you escape with more of your forces and save those all important hero characters. If you do fight, battling on Hard difficulty will provide you with a stern test of your command, and it was only through being forewarned of a hidden approaching army thanks to a previous attempt that I managed to hold out for a pyrrhic victory. Taking out the enemy generals to shatter the enemy morale was also pretty useful!
You will want to save your heroes as they hold an even greater significance in the campaign. Instead of controlling a whole faction, you’re playing as a warlord and their family. Characters can change allegiance, pledging fealty to different lords and this offers Creative Assembly their biggest opportunity to overhaul the diplomacy in their series. Really, it’s not going to be so much about diplomacy, as it is relationships.
One key trick is being able to turn one of your generals into a spy, trying to convince other factions to let them join, but always remaining loyal to you and feeding you information, letting you see their army through the fog of war on the campaign map. It’s something you can play for both the short term and long term gain.
It’s this very mechanic that provides the thematic backdrop for the night time in this Gamescom demo – it will be playable by the public at the show, if you’re going – and this also ties in with the new day-night cycle on the campaign map. Quite how that plays out will be interesting to see, but it will mean that you no longer have the option to simply click and set a battle to be fought at night, you need to wait and pick your moment.
Will Total War: Three Kingdoms be worth the wait? It does feel that way in how Creative Assembly have been evolving their game series over the last few years. With the Romance mode battles and duels, it’s now clearer where the character stories and quests have been leading to since Total War: Warhammer, but there’s still the Classic mode for purists. Either way, Creative Assembly have picked a new and fascinating time period for their game, which will surely draw a lot of people in to learn about Chinese history and culture.