Perhaps it’s just me returning to Three Kingdoms after a long absence, but Fates Divided feels like the most immediately gripping chapter pack yet. This may even be due to my time away, because if I had to choose an entry point for new players, the freshly boiled-over conflict of this 200 CE start would be it. Both Cao Cao and Yuan Shao’s opening turns are long and decision-rich. Both begin with sizable territory and several armies positioned to ignite or resolve conflict on multiple fronts. Starting these campaigns feels like being handed someone else’s save file just as things are about to get interesting.
Throw in a slew of new units, faction mechanics, and smart core improvements that emphasise the choice and customisation that makes Total War sing, and you’ve got a great DLC, and an easy recommendation.
Saying the 200 CE start is both a good introduction to Three Kingdoms and offers more complicated opening turns might sound like a contradiction, but missions bridge that gap here. Missions with big, useful rewards that task you with taking key locations in a way that makes both narrative and tactical sense. Missions that put emphasis on choke points and river crossing, brought to life with flavour text that gives a real sense of a conflict unfolding.
And yet, none of this felt on-rails to me. Sun Ce’s opening gambits in A World Betrayed felt railroaded, but despite similar direction, I never got that feeling here. Perhaps the difference in railroading and leading the player along a gripping narrative is just a matter of deft application, and Yuan Shao’s early campaign, especially, pulls this off wonderfully. You can, of course, just ignore these missions completely for a more sandbox approach, although I would suggest you at least engage Guan Yu as Cao Cao in the first turn. As in Three Kingdoms history, you’re given a 100% success chance to bring the god of war into the fold.
Yuan Shao’s new faction mechanic is The Captain Armory, a menu that allows you to use a resource called Lineage to confer buffs and bonuses to generic captain retinues. Earlier buffs might be additions to attack rate or weapon strength, but later include things like Stalk and Unbreakable, allowing you to create custom retinues that excel at specific battlefield roles.
It’s this welcome flexibility that extends to Three Kingdom’s core updates, too. Namely, the Faction Council and Faction Level Up systems. The Faction Council – which previously offered a few light quests – now lets you invoke your current council members once a year, and pay for up to five powerful schemes. These range from the highly situational – character skill tree resets – to overhauls that could drastically change how your territory is run, like reducing industry and commerce income for a big boost to that from peasantry. The faction level up, too, now gives you points to allocate among extra trade agreements, administrators etc, instead of fixed increases. Again, it’s all geared towards fine-tuning your faction to specialise and roleplay.
I can’t talk about schemes, of course, without mentioning Cao Cao and his new resource termed credibility. Credibility is, somewhat initially confusingly, both gained and lost by enacting certain schemes, and can also be traded as a resource. Schemes themselves can affect individual characters, armies, and both Cao Cao’s own and other factions. There’s a lot there, from granting an army movement points to increasing an enemy armies upkeep cost.
I haven’t quite worked out all the nuances of Cao Cao’s schemes because, perhaps foolishly, I played on normal mode. Don’t do this unless you’re new to Total War. The new Imperial Favour and Northern Army mechanics, plus the new faction bonuses, mean the inevitable mid-game steamroll seems to hit harder than ever. The fact that you practically start at mid-game is a huge factor too, obviously, but it didn’t take long in either campaign before I was untouchably powerful. The fact I was still having a great time is a testament to how entertaining it is to navigate the state of China in 200 CE.
Other changes I’m less certain about. Imperial Favour can be powerful, and certainly a deterrent to wanton sacking, but felt more of a flavour change than anything. At least until the point in my Yuan Shao campaign when my military ally Liu Bei spent some of his own IF to increase mine, causing the Emperor to reduce my entire faction army upkeep by 30% for ten whole turns, solidifying my place as a comically unstoppable juggernaut. It, uh, might need some balancing.
I mentioned this feeling of having the early game completely skipped for Cao Cao and Yuan Shao, so it’s interesting that Fates Divided third campaign addition takes pretty much the opposite approach. Liu Yan’s campaign is all about grassroots empire building, evoking Crusader Kings in its dynasty focused approach. Liu Yan’s early game is all about trade-offs and challenges, making the game more difficult to unlock powerful bonuses for your faction heir. It’s a great way to depict a proud, ageing warlord working tirelessly to leave behind a lasting legacy.
As far as the new units go, while there’s nothing as dramatic as the Furious Wild’s elephants, tigers, and flamethrowers, there’s still a few additions with some great specific utility and morale-related traits. Temporary unbreakable buffs, mixed melee and missile units, and built-in advanced formations make for some highly elite, if situational, additions.