Total War: Three Kingdoms blends historical respect with hard strategy

Total War: Three Kingdoms steeps Creative Assembly’s venerable strategy franchise in Chinese history for the first time in its nearly 20 year run. Its campaign broadly encompasses the story known as the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a period when the Han Dynasty was on the wane, hurling the entire country into a bloody, 60-year war over control both national and provincial. Splitting the difference, as ever, between twin game modes comprised of RTS tactics and a Civilization style empire builder, Three Kingdoms is the kind of game that gives first-timers a headache and a giddy rush of new mechanics and setting for veterans.

There’s a number of new ways to play in Three Kingdoms. Single player and multiplayer skirmish matches remain, but the main draw (and apparent focus for the dev team) is the game’s campaign, which asks players to pick a faction and embark on a lengthy quest to unite China under their own, single banner. This would be no small feat today, let alone in times as divided as the one the game depicts. The business of turning the country around on your arguments is a time-consuming balancing act that calls for civic planning and political acumen as much as any head for war.

Each faction is headed up by a warlord, and there are a total of twelve to be opened up over the course of play. Each provides a different manner of play, either through broad mechanical changes or through simple passives or debuffs against enemy factions. Some warlords are better at whipping up morale and others are better talent scouts, able to recruit new retinues more easily. Some are better at taxation and can squeeze greater income out of your various tributaries. No two warlords are completely alike, and the playing field is wildly uneven meaning some warlords begin the campaign at a severe disadvantage over others. This allows the player to set the difficulty of their campaign without really setting the difficulty at all.

Everything within the player’s sphere of influence, from farms and cities to unallocated resources, is under their direct control. You can capture new territory by ordering your warlords to advance on land you don’t control, setting the stage for battle. You’ll spend a lot of the campaign working on how best to tackle this. Occupying or ransacking a town net different resources but either may be necessary depending on your approach. Every new piece of territory you take results in infamy and an injection of cash. Money helps you keep your armies afloat and infamy will keep the political wolves at bay as simultaneous bids for power are made around the country.

At this point, you’ve got two options — take control of the battle yourself and move into the RTS mode or, if you’re confident, delegate the running of the fight to one of your warlords. This, in my experience, is an option to be used sparingly. In Total War, a leader who’s willing to get their hands dirty has long been considered The Way We Do Things Around Here. When the battle commences, your warlord brings his own war boys to the yard. Three Kingdoms makes a change to how units work, turning them into large groups of a particular troop type (archers, cavalry, et al). As your warlords gain experience and rank up, they’ll grant access to any specialised units that may unlock. Unlocking specialised units usually means picking specific unlocks from both the rank and skill tree.

You get one chance to tilt the battle in your favour before it starts, a setup phase where any of your units can be moved around specific areas in an effort maximise your tactical output. Once the battle commences, things enter a kind of slow-motion murder ballet. Most troops, be they friend or foe, will fight until the odds are stacked well-and-truly against them. Squads that get surrounded or lose too many men too quickly will panic and attempt to flee the battle. If able to retreat to a safe distance, the spooked units will attempt to calm down and once done, will return to the fight.

Players can also have their generals commit to a duel, a mini-fight that has your main hero charging down an enemy leader on horseback. In what feels like a bit of a nod to Dynasty Warriors, that other long-running franchise about the Romance Era, generals are extremely powerful on the field, providing a nearly superhuman level of support to their troops. This is, of course, a two-way street. More than once, I watched in horror as one of my highest value units was torn to shreds by a single frenzied general. To be clear: these superheroics only seems to happen in Romance Mode, one of two specific modes of play. Romance provides a fun, higher drama version of events that skews more toward legend than to hard history. The other, Records, is a more realistic take and the area where the hardest of hardcore Total War fans will likely make their home. Your generals go back to being real, mortal people, as likely to be shot or stabbed to death as anyone else.

But there’s more than one way to topple a dynasty that doesn’t involve slaughtering everyone in sight. Three Kingdoms now allows players to make more aggressive diplomatic moves, and these change depending on which warlord you’ve selected and the overall power of your supports. It’s completely possible to talk your way to immense political power without bloodshed. Play your cards right, take the right warlords and posture correctly, and almost any of your enemies can be persuaded to hand over their men or even their land. As David Rakoff once said, “if you simply asked them to cede their sovereignty, you might be very pleased with the result.”

Similar to 4X empire builders like Civilization, you can only make so many moves on the world map before your turn is over and your foes are allowed to take theirs. Strategy games like Total War revel in the long game and so, turn to turn, you may not see rival factions making many significant moves but over time, if left unchecked, things will start getting very dramatic indeed. They’ll take territory of their own, they’ll pick fights with you or another faction. You’ll see entire relationships rise and fall — they’ll strike deals, forge alliances, grow mistrustful of one another and eventually tear each other to shreds.

Three Kingdoms is perhaps the best looking game in the entire Total War series. Already renowned for its sweeping battles that place hundreds and hundreds of individual soldiers on the field, it’s possible to zoom all the way in and see a great amount of detail in each unit. There are all sorts of beautiful effects, from explosions to dust, and now some rather pretty weather effects that are tied to an actual weather system — watch out for monsoons and other inclement weather as they can have deadly effects on your various supply chains. Total War loves immersing itself fully in each historical period it focuses on and Three Kingdoms evokes so much of its ancient Chinese setting in ways that are beautiful and respectful. It’s extremely pretty, especially on higher settings, and the artists and animators at Creative Assembly have a lot to be proud of.

There’s a price to be paid for all these gorgeous visuals, however. I would love to see the rig that can run Three Kingdoms at a smooth 60fps because good lord, I’ve seen the game running on three different PC’s, all with pretty hefty specs, and not one of them can get a stable framerate when things heat up. Creative Assembly currently recommends an Intel i7 8700K and a GTX 1080 for 60fps and above but in my experience, you’re gonna need a lot more than that if you want to run it smoothly on anything higher than medium. Indeed, based on what I’ve seen, silky smooth performance on top-end settings won’t be possible for a little while yet. The hardware just isn’t there yet, and the stuff that is isn’t exactly affordable. I’m not saying it doesn’t look great and run well on medium settings, I’m saying that if you’re the type of PC Master Race zealot who cannot abide anything less than 60fps at all times, maybe adjust your expectations.

In conclusion, this is a great game. It’s as deep and as crunchy as a strategy game can get, it’s a beautiful and faithful reconstruction of not only Chinese history but also Chinese legend. Yeah, it’ll give your hardware a walloping but maybe that’s a good excuse for an upgrade. Can you believe Total War has been around for nearly 20 years? As video game franchises go, what a bonkers innings. This series has survived multiple publishers, dipped its toe into numerous historical periods and landed major tie-ins with third-party IP, all while keeping its head down and gradually carving out a niche in the strategy genre that is entirely it’s own. If Total War: Three Kingdoms in any way informs the shape of the series moving forward, it will continue for many more.

FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Highlights: Respectful representation of Chinese myth and history; Fabulous UI and art design; Deep strategy
Lowlights: Performance demands will make your computer cry for mercy
Developer: The Creative Assembly
Publisher: SEGA
Platforms: Windows PC
Available: Now

Review conducted on Windows PC using a pre-release code provided by the publisher.

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David Smith

David Smith is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously worked as a freelance games journalist and critic, appearing on PC World Australia. He tweets at @RhunWords and plays the odd game at twitch.tv/RhunWords when the internet works.