It’s finally arrived, the newest fully fledged historical title in the Total War franchise. Total War: Three Kingdoms is the first in the award-winning series to recreate epic conflict across ancient China. For years Total War has combined turn-based strategy and resource management with real-time tactical battles. With the release of Three Kingdoms we have the introduction of 12 legendary Warlords taking the franchise to new heights and introducing a bunch of new elements to this well-cemented series.
When you first open it, the game will ask you if you are new to Three Kingdoms or if you are new to Total War. I belong in the initial category. Total War: Rome has been a huge part of my gaming life since I was a kid. I still have the original PC DVD-ROM I bought from Dick Smith and still play the game constantly to this day. It seems I am the clear choice to review the latest addition to the Total War family.
That however, is a falsehood, a gross oversight! For there is one far greater than I. After calculating the amount of days my brother (Daniel Baty) has spent playing the various Total War games, (thank you Steam for keeping track), I discovered Daniel has spent a whopping 128 days in total wagging war and conquering the world, and this doesn’t include the time spent before Steam.
So only because he is the foremost authority on the subject, and not because I force my younger brother to do the work that is actually my responsibility, below is the insight from a true Total War expert.
Daniel: Well, I don’t know about ‘expert’ but after a good morning of play I do have a few points.
Firstly, it’s nice to see Total War finally getting heroes right! The focus on the legendary heroes of ancient China encourages more role playing and pulls you into the intrigue, rather than just painting the map your colour. In Romance mode, based on the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, your generals attain almost demi-god like abilities, swatting away enemy units like flies and entering into epic duels with opposing generals. Alternatively if you prefer a more historical approach you can play Record mode, where your generals are reduced to mere mortals. In my opinion a previous connection and knowledge of these characters (myth or history) will honestly be the main reason to enjoy this game. Shout out to fellow Dynasty Warriors fans!
The different types of warlords i.e coalition members, governors, outlaws and rebels seemed interesting in theory but in practice there is very little mechanical difference with how they play. I would’ve loved to start even smaller as a single general; serving a lord until you can overthrow them and set up your own power.
This is the first game to bring vast realms of China to life, and it’s absolutely stunning… and huge! You’ll really enjoy starting as a tiny region that develops into a huge power blob clashing across the land. But sometimes the land around you is incredibly “samey” til you expand to different climates/terrains. It’s just a shame you can’t start as anyone in the south or west.
I’m happy to see the mustering system carry over from Thrones of Britannia (for most this will be all they ever experience of that forgettable title which no one bought). The mustering period extends the time of building up forces before battles and is a nice counter to the auto unit replenishment system which has been part of the series since Total War: Rome II. Which is the worst mechanic introduced to the later games, the ability to have an army of late game troops conquering across the world without having to train new units is ridiculous and has killed the fun of campaigns for years now. But the mustering system is a small step towards balancing this a bit.
So unfortunately Three Kingdoms is certainly not without its flaws, and true ‘strategist’ players with be annoyed that CA continues to push tediously quick battles even more so than previous titles. Units are super squishy, heroes, arrows and cavalry charges are overpowered and unit morale is so heavily tied to your generals. This can provide some occasional moments of intensity when you general is in danger, but mostly battles just become repetitive, which is not helped by near identical troop trees.
It’s not that the AI is too easy or the game is too easy it’s just that battles have no time to have ebb and flow, like Total War: Rome II or Medieval: Total War II. It’s one clash and over 90% of the time formulaic: kill general + charge in = victory. This has been getting worse and worse for a long time since Empire: Total War.
But, to give CA their dues, the art direction is super cool and complements the new UI. The option to have full Chinese or English dialogue with accompanying subtitles is great for immersion, and the relationship systems seem like a great way of adding depth.
Diplomacy is fully fleshed out and detailed, you can finally trade settlements again since…for ages! I actually enjoyed the process of turning to friendly warlords when I was in need of food trade and supplying them when they requested aid. The ability to trade weapons, armor, followers, mounts and accessories is awesome. It adds immensely to the immersion and value, especially when compared to the “give gifts” options of previous titles. You can actually pay (or threaten) to get some pretty cool stuff!
Now of course it’s hard to provide a perfectly balanced review after only a short time delving into what is a goliath of a game, but after playing for a couple of days I certainly want to continue and squeeze everything out of this experience.
But honestly I’m old school fan, and for me Medieval II: Total War is still the best. I do love this time period and these characters but it means that the game is not free enough for me to tell my own story. It’s so guided and hand-holding in the beginning it’s almost a linear game experience, though not as much as Total War: Warhammer.
If CA was to come out with some kind off blank slate character with a custom starting location and retinue it might become the best Total War game to date. But CA won’t. Modders might. Here’s hoping.
That’s been the running theme with Total War games. From the start it gives us a good framework to mod and the game will last for ages but lately the series has become less moddable as the game engines have become more sophisticated.
Besides all this it comes with a pretty large price tag and requires some of the heartiest hardware to get to the graphics up to what has been shown off during the release demos, and then the DLC and updates to come to actually complete the game.
6/10 as is.
I expect my score to go up once DLC and mods are available.
– Joshua Baty (but really) Daniel Baty