For PC gamers, it’s a requirement to own at least one of Creative Assembly’s Total War titles. This law, codified by the Gaming Council of 2011 (citation needed), makes an incredible amount of sense. The series makes tremendous use of the platform’s strengths, featuring strategic real-time combat of an RTS, the world building and city maintenance of a turn based 4X title, and a depth and breadth of options that requires the ease of use that comes from the mouse and keyboard interface. Fortunately, there have been plenty of flavors of the series, from realistic military sims to fantasy realms of orcs and elves. With Total War: Three Kingdoms, Creative Assembly has packed the two styles into the box to satiate fans of both.
For those who don’t know, the Three Kingdoms era of Chinese history started around 220 AD (depending on which event one counts as the start), with the struggle to unite the whole of China under one rule. Naturally, there where three primary kingdoms involved (Wei, Wu and Shu), though others vied for attention throughout the period. It was a bloody time, full of heroism, treachery and daring feats. It was also the inspiration for one of the earliest examples of historical fiction, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The period is retold with the characters being larger than life who can turn the tide of battle singlehandedly. For example, Dian Wei is keeping an enemy force from broaching a gate, breaks his weapon and proceeds to duel wield the bodies of enemy troops. It’s all ridiculous and cool.
Naturally, this period of history was an often requested setting for the Total War franchise, but there is an understandable split in how to handle it. Should the game err on the side of historical accuracy, where a general will be in trouble when surrounded by an opposing force? Conversely, there are fans that would want to embrace the overpowered nature of the historical figures as portrayed in the novel and numerous subsequent adaptations. Creative Assembly decided to offer both. Records mode is based on painstaking research of the contemporary documentation of the era, utilizing smarty-smart experts to maintain accuracy. Romance mode follows the novel, allowing for dramatic duels, troop-decimating abilities and a high amount of “holy crap” moments.
Both are viable ways to play a game in this era, but the Total War games are known for being massive. Events need to feed off of player choices and the developers are devoted in offering up AI that would behave as close to the real thing (whether real or based on fiction) as possible. There could be some concern that one mode might be better balanced than another. That isn’t the case, though. The play is firmly balanced in Records mode to keep things as even keeled and fair as possible. How fair depends on the player, of course. Introducing the silliness in Romance mode ended up balancing naturally.
Recently, we were able to get some hands-on time with the upcoming title and the promise behind the concept is shown fulfilled in vibrant color onscreen. Our demo time put us in command of Liu Bei, man of the people. In Romance mode, we were tasked with putting down the remnants of the Yellow Turban Rebellion and stomping out the treachery of Dong Zhuo. Together, with his sworn brothers Zhang Fei and Guan Yu, we jumped into the first fight. Two large forces ran towards each other, screaming. Arrows darkened the sky. Then some fool decided to challenge Guan Yu to a duel. Now, when you have a hero who has earned the nickname “God of War” on your side and some no name leader on the other side challenges him to a fight, you have to accept. It went as expected, with the two squaring off surrounded by a circle of troops. Zooming in close, one can see the stoic calm on Guan Yu’s face as they clashed. Guan Yu toyed with him a little and it was over. While this was happening, I was micromanaging other aspects of the battle and the entire thing was a rout.
Subsequent clashes, from rescuing settlements from a siege, staging my own sieges, using forest lines for cover and so on feels great. Three Kingdoms features the tried and true Total War battle experience, with new wrinkles added, such as the aforementioned duels. The developers even went as far as easing the setting of formations before battle commences using a simple selection menu and allowing a few button presses to tweak. Using the five way advantage/disadvantage system, it’s possible to squeak out wins from what should be decisive losses, set traps and generally wreak havoc. It’s also possible to muck things up, but less so in the early game.
While the flashy battles with masses of troops on screen are the immediate draw of a Total War game, the 4X elements of city management, diplomacy and expansion provide the real addictive meat. When playing, I worked my way towards the south and made friends with a minor leader who soon died of natural causes. His final act was bequeathing Liu Bei all of his territory, which was an unexpected boon. While taking a break, I learned that pushing in a different direction could find Liu Bei in a coalition much sooner than is usually allowed, granting a huge boost in map-spanning might. The amount of replayability in just one character’s campaign, a character with his own unique game-changing abilities no less, promises gives truth to the promise of hundreds of hours of play in the package.
Maintaining the troops and the cities was enjoyable, too. This time around, Creative Assembly threw in a quick key that overlays additional information on each button on the UI, allowing for easy reminders to find the proper option. It’s not exactly an elegant solution to ease players into a complicated interface, but it’s serviceable. It’s important to build up towns to keep the troops supplied (and speed the rate of resupply), expand the monetary intake and keep the people happy. With the amount of plates that need to be kept spinning, it would be easy to get overwhelmed. Fortunately, the quest system gently nudges the player to do the correct thing when the campaign starts, acting as a smart tutorial that assumes the player has some level of knowledge on how a mouse and keyboard works. As the game goes on, the quests become grander and more complicated. Or, they can be completely ignored in favor of forging a unique path across China.
When playing a pre-release build, one expects to come across bugs and glitches. Usually, whoever is running the demo makes no mention of what they know about in order to see if the people playing come across it naturally. It’s kind of a rough test to see how important a fix really is. The folks at Creative Assembly didn’t pull this nonsense. Before we began, they listed off a couple of known issues, how to avoid it and what they are doing to fix it. This was refreshing, as it showed a respect for the product, the player and the people buying the game. They are in complete glitch squashing mode, making sure that it’s polished and free from as many issues as possible instead of seeing what they could get away with. That was a great sign.
Also, after the Total War: Warhammer DLC fiasco, I did check in with their plans for Three Kingdoms. Right now, there really are none. The goal is to make sure that Total War: Three Kingdoms is a complete game in one package. The focus is now on making it technically rock solid, engaging and fun. Once the game is out the door, they will listen to player feedback. If there is a real demand for more generals or more story, they’ll consider it. Otherwise, Total War: Three Kingdoms is exactly what is promised. It’s a full, exciting strategy title that respects the player’s time as it devours their hours. This is the culmination of the franchise, offering an experience to fit the desires of every type of Total War player. For PC gamers that have not fulfilled their legal obligation of owning a Total War game (citation still needed), Total War: Three Kingdoms will be one of the best options out there.