When the trailer for Total War: Three Kingdoms was revealed, we were suitably hyped. It did suffer a two-month delay but the game is now out and we managed to put some hours into it. We quickly decided we had to do our own Total War: Three Kingdoms review.
And what a game it turned out to be! You not only get the turn-based phase where your every move counts, but also battles that rely on real-time tactics – a signature combination of the Total War series. In our opinion, this is easily one of the best Total War game to date.
Set in 190 AD, you are one of many Han warlords vying for supremacy in China. Some are driven by greed, like the tyrant Dong Zhuo, while others like Liu Bei seek to restore the Han dynasty. Every single warlord has their own reasons but the ultimate goal is to unify China under one banner – yours.
The main draw of Total War: Three Kingdoms is its Campaign mode. In it, you choose one of 12 warlords, your preferred difficulty settings, and whether you want to play in Romance or Record of the Three Kingdoms mode.
Here are the warlords that you can play as:
- Cao Cao
- Liu Bei
- Liu Biao
- Gongsun Zan
- Sun Jian
- Kong Rong
- Ma Teng
- Yuan Shu
- Yuan Shao
- Dong Zhuo (available once you’ve defeated him once)
- Zhang Yan
- Zheng Jiang
Every warlord has a different playstyle, starting position on the map, resources, accompanying generals and troops. These differences are based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms story, so you’ll appreciate the nuances if you’re familiar with them. The point is, these differences are part of why each warlord comes with different starting difficulty.
It may not be at the level of ‘insurmountable odds’ but beginners may want to go with a warlord that has better resources at the start, just to get a feel for the game. For instance, you choose to play as Liu Bei first. Great choice, since he starts with two of the strongest generals in the game – Guan Yu and Zhang Fei. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have any territory at the start and your first settlement is an iron mine nearby. On the flipside, you should be able to secure your immediate vicinity with little issue.
Romance or Record
Let’s back up for a bit here and talk about Romance vs Record mode, which is a setting that applies only to the battles. If you choose Romance mode during the warlord selection screen, generals in the game basically become like the legendary figures depicted in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms novel. To give you an example, it’s like a hero in Dota 2 game while the regular troops are the creeps.
On the other hand, record mode aims to give you that classic Total War sandbox experience. Generals are not superheroes here and will be accompanied by a retinue of soldiers, fatigue has more impact, and your tactical sense is the all-important factor to winning battles.
Guanxi (Relationship, 关系) system
Speaking of Romance, the relationship between your court members and retinue can change during the course of your rule. Interpersonal relationships can improve or worsen depending on certain influences or events. Say you pair Guan Yu and Zhang Fei together often. The two of them can become closer friends, improving their satisfaction level.
Which path to take?
A nice little side feature in this game is what the devs call the “Initial Dilemma”. Basically, you’re forced to make a critical decision that could influence how your game will progress. Using Liu Bei as an example again, you’ll receive a request for aid from long-time friend Tao Qian. Siding with him means offending the powerful Cao Cao, while not doing so will sour your relationship with Tao Qian – who is right next to Liu Bei’s doorstep.
For many warlords, the game starts an enemy army for you to attack within the first turn. It’s an excellent way of giving you a taste of the game’s real-time combat system right away. If you’re completely new to the Total War series, you can even turn on the tutorial mode and it’ll throw up a lot of prompts to teach you about the game.
Once in battle, you are given some time to prepare your deployment. The green zone is where you can place your generals and troops, while red is the enemy’s zone. You also get to alter the direction they face. One thing we like is how you can play with the terrain here. For example, you can deploy your army behind a forest area and they’ll be hidden from the enemy.
The battle begins
Clicking on “Start Battle” commences the fight and you can begin to move towards the enemy. There’s a lot of buttons here, which can be confusing for the newcomers. You can make your archers fire at will, dismount your cavalry troops, get your general to issue a duel, and more. Dueling is a quick way of destroying the enemy’s morale, especially if your general is much stronger. Troops with broken morale may break ranks and disengage, allowing you the opportunity to divert your engaged forces elsewhere. Micro-managing this well means you can minimize casualties.
What can be really weird here is how the AI doesn’t seem to fight intelligently, despite all the toggles and controls available to you. Although you have the option to fire at will for your archers, there’s no button to make your troops automatically engage a new enemy once they’re eliminated one, even when there’s another enemy troop nearby. You have to manually guide your general soldier constantly just to keep track of them and managing this can be tough once you have a larger army.
Delegate for the win
Too much of a hassle for you? Well, if your army is big enough to stomp your opponent – the game calls it a “Decisive Victory” – you can click on the ‘Delegate’ button for an instant win. Less loading screens too!
The best thing about turn-based strategies like this is that you have all the time in the world during the turn-phase. During your turn, you’ll have to decide whether to spend money on building your settlement, expand your army, or engage in diplomacy.
The diplomacy mechanic is very good in this game and it plays a very big role in Total War: Three Kingdoms. Doing it well can secure funds and military supplies for you, or stop an angry neighbor from attacking. However, it also doesn’t mean that the agreements are necessarily followed. Playing the game of politics well is definitely important if you want to do well in this game.
There are all kinds of negotiations available, like trade deals and non-aggression pacts. Cao Cao even has the unique ability to cause proxy wars, inciting another faction to go to war with an enemy.
Buildings and settlements
What’s a warlord without territory and cities to govern? Managing your cities and settlements well is just as important, particularly in the earlier parts of the game. There are different types of cities and settlements available to you, such as farmlands or iron mines, which you have to upgrade to increase your resource output. All new buildings and upgrades need funds to build and upkeep, so making sure you have enough will be critical.
Every five turns, you can enact reforms that provide all sorts of permanent effects such as reduction to building cost, lower upkeep for soldiers, and more. This adds another layer to the resource management aspect of the game.
However, you can’t enact any reform you want right away since you’ll need to start at the base of a tree branch. From there, you get to literally branch out into different categories of reforms.
Creative Assembly has taken what works in a Total War game and added some Romance of the Three Kingdoms flavor to it, a combination that has worked out well for them. Total War: Three Kingdoms is a graphically stunning game with its oriental aesthetics and a lot of detail, which thankfully doesn’t cause any significant stutters for the game. Of course, you’ll need a very powerful PC to run it smoothly at the highest graphical settings.
Gameplay wise, plenty of mechanics like Diplomacy have been refined. It also has a high degree of replayability. Not only do you have over a dozen warlords to play as, but you can also replay the same ones and make different choices. Additionally, there’s multiplayer for both campaign and battle mode, so you can keep playing with your friends for hours on end.
There are also a lot of other features that we didn’t touch on, but you need to experience all the little intricacies to appreciate this game to its fullest. Definitely grab this game if you love complex strategy games.
Total War: Three Kingdoms
A fantastic strategy game with a lot of depth. Even if you're not a diehard fan of the Total War series, this is a title you should play if you love strategy games.
- High replayability thanks to the number of warlords
- Fateful retelling of Romance of the Three Kingdoms
- Lots of strategic depth
- Real-time battles with awe-inspiring generals
- Real-time battle AI still needs improvement
- High PC hardware requirements
We give this game a solid 9. It has lots of depth and replayability will keep you busy for the weeks to come.