Review – Total War: Three Kingdoms

As the first historical mainline Total War game since Rome II‘s disastrous launch over six years ago, Total War: Three Kingdoms had a lot to prove. While the Warhammer games received near universal praise, the two historical spin-offs released in-between, Attila and Thrones of Britannia, were considered disappointing at best. Total War: Three Kingdoms had to escape the mistakes of its predecessors, ease the discontent of the fanbase over Creative Assembly’s apparent “neglect” of the franchise’s historical legacy, while also taking the brand forward in new ways. A seemingly impossible task, yet by combining the lessons they’ve learned since Rome II, with actually listening and responding to genuine community feedback, all on top of a strong time period ripe for Total Waring, the impossible was accomplished.

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A mode for everyone.

At the heart of Three Kingdoms lies a choice between two modes that drastically change the core gameplay of your campaign. Based on the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Romance mode uses the the more arcadey gameplay style of the Warhammer games as a base. With hero-like generals, fast-paced battles, and a narrative event system that carefully follows the plot of the book, Romance mode attempts to capture the spirit of the times. For the more hardcore players however, Records mode is the classic Total War experience people have been asking for. Based on the more historically accurate Records of the Three Kingdoms, generals are reduced to to mere mortals, battles are slowed down dramatically and tactics play a much bigger part, and the game follows real history (as we know it at least) ignoring the fantastical exaggerations of Romance. Everybody wins.

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Romance mode follows the story of the novel faithfully, until it doesn’t. You are given plenty of opportunities to follow the story to its conclusion, or to make your own destiny.

The classic 4X gameplay loop may remain unchanged, but almost every involved mechanic has received the most dramatic revamp in franchise history. Most significant are the changes to the diplomacy system. In addition to a wide variety of new and returning diplomatic options, which range from region exchange to hero equipment trading, there’s some long needed quality of life improvements. You can now see the exact chances of someone accepting your offers, an explanation for why they approve/disapprove of each proposition, and just how you can turn any deal in your favor based on each Warlord’s specific personality traits.

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A satisfied general is a happy army, and a happy army makes very unhappy enemies. Such is the way of Heaven.

The effects of personality traits extend beyond diplomacy. Every character, from your faction leader to your empire’s accountants, has a set of character traits that define how they get along with everyone else. Characters with similar traits get along better, gain bonuses to applicable activities when working together, and are far less likely to defect or betray. When those with conflicting traits are forced to work together you’ll face discontent in the ranks, penalties, and high chances of characters leaving for better prospects possibly even starting a civil war in the process. Grouping your characters accordingly, monitoring their happiness, and maybe even banishing the bad egg you just can’t satisfy adds a layer of social strategy you really don’t expect from a game called Total War, but is much appreciated. It makes the game feel more alive and the stories you create while playing that much more personal.

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Sweet burn bro.

Other changes are less extreme, but no less important. Unit recruitment is now instant, but it takes a few turns to muster to full strength. You no longer unlock new units through building chains, but instead through rank progression and the Reform tree. The Reform tree is the new tech tree, but with more meaningful choices to make. Building has been extremely streamlined. Instead of every settlement having 4-6 building slots to customize, they’re now split between major settlements which function as normal and minor settlements with a single building slot. This results in a drastic reduction of building micromanagement, especially in the late-game. Building chains give more bonuses and are much longer then in previous games which helps alleviate any feeling of power loss. This also aids in building tall strategies, which is another thing that has not traditionally been possible in Total War games.

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Crushing your enemies’ poor attempts at an attack is as satisfying as it’s ever been.

Compared to the 4X strategy level, the real-time battles remain relatively unchanged. Though to be fair, it is hard to improve on perfection. You deploy the legions you assembled on the world map, wage war in real time with pause, and try to kill all the enemies while keeping your men alive. The biggest changes are the differences between Romance and Records mode. In Records, everything is more extreme in the name of realism. Fatigue is a huge factor, making battles naturally slower, and every order you give a unit matters that much more as they can’t just run across the map to fix a bad call. Generals travel with henchmen, and are no more useful than other units. In Romance mode, these changes are reversed. Fatigue is barely a factor for you or the enemy, your generals are essentially superheroes and can engage in epic duels, and battles end much faster. Both modes have their pros and cons and are aimed at catering to both sides of the fanbase. In my opinion, there are some small little issues mainly with the very weak Battle AI, but this was otherwise a perfect attempt to please everybody.

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The loading times may not be as bad as they have been, but they still last way too long from 1-2 minutes. Even Liu Bei is fed up.

Not only did Creative Assembly give game mechanics an overhaul, but they also completely redid the UI to accompany the changes. Every stat, explanation, or comparison tree you could ever want is available to check. In order to make navigating the potentially overwhelming number of windows much easier, each window has a help button overlay. Everything has a concise explanation for what it does, accessible at the press of a single button. On top of functionality, it is also hands down one of the most beautiful UI’s I’ve ever seen in a strategy game. The way the watercolor art style contrasts with the world map is pure pleasure for the eyes. It’s a far cry from the old UI style Total War games used for over a decade.

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The pause menu comes with a full control guide, which can be turned off for those who know how to play the game and would rather look at the world map.

Total War: Three Kingdoms is an example of an established franchise being built around a theme, rather then building a theme to fit around an established franchise. Never before has a Total War game done more justice to it’s chosen setting, not just visually, but mechanically as well. Fans have long wondered just why it took CA so long to get to such an obvious time period, but as someone who fell in love with the setting while reading Romance of the Three Kingdoms I’m glad they waited. This allowed them to use the lessons they’ve learned over the years to deliver the biggest and most personal Total War yet.

Graphics: 9.5

Not only are the graphics beautiful, but the UI is pure art in both function and aesthetic. Sadly, incredibly long load times on HDD’s mar the experience.

Gameplay: 9.0

A functional UI, diplomacy that works, streamlined and improved building and hero systems, the only real flaw is sometimes questionable battle AI.

Sound: 10

The soundtrack is phenomenal and  features both orchestral and vocal tracks, satisfying sound effects, and authentic Chinese and English voice acting all fully immerse yourself in a China at war.

Fun Factor: 9.5

This is Total War at its finest. The streamlined development systems, diplomacy and relationship systems that are actually fun to play with, and a choice between hardcore realistic battles or faster romanticized ones. The only real issue is the battle AI.

Final Verdict: 9.5

Total War: Three Kingdoms is available now on Steam.

Reviewed on PC.

A copy of Total War: Three Kingdoms was provided by the publisher.

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