Total War: Three Kingdoms on PC
Total War: Three Kingdoms begins in the year 190 CE, in war-ravaged China, and the Han Empire is in ruins. The Tyrant, Dong Zhuo, has taken the child-emperor captive, and in doing so holds the fate of millions in his cruel grasp.
All across China, warlords rise, each with their own ambitions. Some seek to restore the Han, and others to see it burn. It is an age of chaos, and of war… but also of justice, and heroism. It is up to you to lead your chosen faction to victory, and in doing so, rewrite history as you see fit.
With Total War: Three Kingdoms, developer Creative Assembly has perfected the formula they have been iterating on for almost 20 years. The turn-based strategic layer in which you govern provinces and raise armies is finally as, if not more, compelling than the real-time battles in which you command thousands of soldiers in glorious battle.
This is due to the focus on the characters that make up the leadership of your chosen faction, of which there are 12 to choose from. Each faction plays differently, some more subtle than others, and this allows for incredible replay value. The generals you employ are the larger than life characters from the Chinese historical epic, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and would be instantly recognizable to fans of the Dynasty Warriors series.
These characters are bursting with personality and each can form complex relationships with their comrades, and with the officers of every other faction on the map. This leads to an insane spider-web of relations, of bitter rivalries and sworn brotherhoods, that have real and impactful effects on your campaigns, ensuring more than ever that no two playthroughs will be even remotely the same.
This added strategic complexity, something that longtime fans have been requesting for years, in turn, helps eliminate the stagnation that previous entries in the series suffered from in the late game. That, coupled with a truly exhilarating end game event, means that you need to begin preparing for the conclusion of your campaign from the very first turn.
The genius of Three Kingdoms is that the historical text that historians draw from is in itself fantastical. It’s full of tales of heroes holding off entire armies by themselves or shouting so loudly that the enemy commander simply falls over dead. This has allowed Creative Assembly to marry its grounded historical gameplay with the mechanics of their incredibly popular Warhammer titles, set in the grim-dark fantasy world of the same name.
When you start a new game, you are given the choice between two game modes, Romance or Records. Romance is a larger than life affair, in which your generals are single units, capable of laying waste to hundreds of soldiers each.
The RPG aspect is more of a focus here too, as generals level up and fill out skill trees unique to their class. They can learn special techniques that drastically alter the course of the battle, or provide benefits to your government or their own soldiers. Your generals can also call opposing commanders out, dueling them in single combat while the battle rages around them.
Records mode, meanwhile, is the traditional Total War experience; your general is accompanied by a bodyguard and is much more likely to die during extended combat. Fatigue is also more of a factor you have to consider. In Romance, your troops can run for extended periods, in Records you will have to walk your troops to ensure they have the stamina to fight.
I think the most surprising aspect of the nearly 40 hours I spent playing Three Kingdoms for review was how much I enjoyed Romance Mode; in fact, I now prefer it. In past Total War games, I would always make historical, grounded choices wherever possible, even employing my own “house” rules when the game’s systems seemed too, well, gamey.
But the opportunity for rich and impactful role-playing is at the heart of Romance mode, and history snob though I can be, even I couldn’t deny its appeal. Playing as Liu Bei, I fought a bitter series of wars with my rival, Cao Cao. During the height of the conflict, Cao Cao besieged my capital, breached the walls with catapults and his assault infantry came flooding in.
In the breach, alone, stood my champion, Guan Yu. The famed warrior held off several hundred men until Xiahou Dun, Cao Cao’s champion, forced his the way to the front. In front of both armies, and in view of both of their liege lords, the two squared off. Despite his previous injuries, Guan Yu smashed Xiahou Dun to the ground, maiming him for life. The Cao army, humiliated, fled shortly afterward.
This was an awesome enough narrative situation to have arrived at in an open-ended strategy simulation, but it is the mechanical effects that truly sets Three Kingdoms above and beyond. The wound he received in the duel would lessen Xiahou Dun’s combat effectiveness for the rest of the campaign. His burning need to revenge himself upon his rival, Guan Yu, in turn, would give him a combat buff anytime they encountered each other.
Nearly 10 hours of gameplay later, Guan Yu finally killed Xiahou Dun. It was a surprisingly affecting moment, and Xiahou Yuan (Dun’s cousin), now last of his line, promptly swore an oath of vengeance…
It is this kind of incidental storytelling that elevates Three Kingdoms beyond other Total War games and makes it something grander. Presentation, across the board, is spectacular, with the art team deserving special mention. China is a diverse place and it is brought to life in vivid detail. The Central Plains are an agricultural, idyllic paradise, and are a world away from the savage jungles of the Southland.
The score is full of booming, militaristic drums and traditional Chinese instrumentation that inspired me on the battlefield, and changes to soothing tones during quieter moments or when strategizing on the campaign map. The voice acting, too, is quality and you can change unit barks and the banter between generals to Chinese for extra immersion, which I highly recommend.
Creative Assembly delayed the release of Three Kingdoms from March to May, and this extra time allowed for a higher level of polish: it not only looks better than any previous game in the series (with the option for larger than ever before unit sizes) but it performs better, as well.
Total War: Three Kingdoms sets a high watermark for the series and a new bar for the genre. Its attention to detail, high level of polish and differing faction mechanics means you can blissfully spend hundreds, even thousands of hours playing and still find something new and beautiful to engage with. It blends larger than life characters with historical authenticity, and technical polish with tactical finesse.
I can see myself playing for years to come, and I can’t wait to see where the series goes next.
Score: 5/5 – Exemplary
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