Creative Assembly have carved their niche in strategy gaming and have been doing an incredible job over the years successfully converting world military history to game form, with titles such as the Total War: Rome and Total War: Shogun series. Recently, they’ve even taken a dabble into fantasy, and even though I don’t have a lot of experience with it, Total War: Warhammer — still bummed about the Total Warhammer missed naming opportunity, but oh well! — impressed me when I saw it at E3 years ago, and heck, it must’ve done well enough to warrant its 2017 sequel.
Their next big step, it seems, is now to combine great historical figures with a certain dose of fantasy, and there’s no better background to pull from than China’s rich thousands of years-old history. Total War: Three Kingdoms borrows from that and runs miles and miles, becoming one of my favorite entries in the franchise so far, not only due to the subject matter, but also thanks to how in-depth and dedicated it is in portraying the many conflicts that surround the real historical period with brush strokes from the famous story.
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms isn’t a stranger to videogames. Since the dawn of electronic entertainment, there’s been countless games released that have made use of China’s most beloved novel, and in ridiculously varied forms. There have been down to the dirt combat ‘musou’ games like the many, many Dynasty Warriors, text-based strategy titles, and even mahjong, and even so, the awe behind the story of the unification of China has yet to die off, proving how strong it is in the minds of not just the Chinese people, but the world as a whole, and of course, in companies like Koei-Tecmo.
Like the novel, the game takes place during the end of the Chinese Han period, between Roman years 169 and 280, when it was deep in turmoil as rebellion was rising among the regions, who eventually rose to form a coalition of powers who are the main factions you play as throughout the game. There are a number of choices to pick from at the get-go of Romance mode, where you’ll experience the historical events of that time as you battle it out with enemy forces, make (and break) deals, and most importantly, build up your societal and military strength with hopes of eventually making a go at the emperor’s throne. It’s not as simple as clicking on all the red buildings until they turn green, however, and as expected from a CA game, Total War: Three Kingdoms is a strategy game with numerous gears and complexities running under its brain-twisting hood, and to all regards, the journey to achieve the goal of ultimately bringing peace to ancient China is a blast.
I chose to tackle the game’s easiest scenario at first, who lent me a more strategic general type as my hero unit and leader, and it proved to be a great call, because it allowed me to get used to the systems at play at a nice enough pace. The other leaders can be quite the opposite, but thanks to the difficulty suggestions that are shown under each of their portraits in the select screen, it’s entirely your fault if you end up biting more than you can chew! And in a overwhelming game like Total War, it’s wise to take your time absorbing as much as you can before spending hours digging yourself a hole you might find yourself hopelessly in, only to have to start all over and lose progress. Then again, you can save-scum your way through it, but hey, where’s the fun in that, right?
It’s not a surprise that this game looks absolutely stunning. One of the staples in the series is how well they portray the sheer chaos and intensity of battle, and Three Kingdom continues that trend and then some. The maps you literally stomp your way through with your armies in comical fashion — your characters are giant figures who walk over roads and face other titans when they war — are colorful and change seasons and the time of day realistically, with buildings changing shapes as you upgrade them, along with the townsfolk running about their business. During battle, the game shows just how developed the individual unit simulations have gotten up to this point, and if you zoom into the carnage, the amount of detail shown is tremendous, which in the end only adds to the overall level of realism one could expect from a game of this caliber, even if there are some fantasy thrown in for good measure, like hero units and the such, who are way stronger than normal units, and cause absolute chaos in battle.
You might think that the game’s progression is slow if you’re used to playing a more mission-to-mission structure like StarCraft’s, since Total War has you slowly strengthen your armies with each battle, as well as when you take over land and cities. Also, taking into account that the confrontations can play out in a variety of ways that might not necessarily take too long to resolve, even the ones that require multiple “board” turns like sieges can be finished and taken care of way faster than any of the other similar strategy games out there. I quickly became fond of the option to let my subordinates take care of combat from time to time, especially for encounters where my forces outmatched the enemy’s, saving me time to focus on other matters for which are plenty.
That’s the main draw to playing a Total War: there’s way more than combat going on, and even so, it’s still paramount to your success. Building relations with short-term or even long-term allies eventually becomes a way bigger worry when it comes to eradicating the opposition due to the simple fact that you can’t simply destroy everyone other than your faction since the map is populated by forces that can overwhelm you just as easily if they themselves decide to forge bonds against you. It’s really cool to have that balance at play going on behind the scenes, and even though this is not necessarily an element that’s unique to Total War, it does it so well in Three Kingdoms that it helps elevate the game even more as a result.
If you think playing through a complete campaign is too much for you, there’s also a battle mode that offers a number of options of play, like starting a confrontation from scratch, which lets you pick from any of the armies and who you’ll face, as well as specific scenarios that are borrowed from the book and actual history that put you in the shoes of certain generals and force you to beat a set enemy, with a detailed historical text to back it up. I have always dug this sort of option in games like this that have the potential to rewrite history through gameplay, and while I’m nowhere near as knowledgeable about Chinese history as I am in any other, it’s fun to get to play a part in changing the outcome of some battles. There’s also a leaderboard ranking mode that does exactly what the name implies, and gives you the chance to take the fight against others’ high scores online.
Multiplayer is also present, and to all accounts, it works as expected. It’s split between campaign and custom battles, which in turn put you directly in the map letting you build your forces as you would during single player, or into a battlefield to duke it out without hassles if you wish. I haven’t had the opportunity to throw the gauntlet with anyone yet, but once I’m confident enough in my commanding skills, I might just do that. I can only imagine the sheer amount of replayability you could get out of this mode alone, and hopefully there’s going to be a strong enough following by the online community to allow just that. From the few times I popped in to see if there was an open lobby to join up, I only found a couple, but considering how new the game is at this point, I figure people are still playing and learning the ins and outs before taking the ultimate test online.
I’m nowhere near being done with Total War: Three Kingdoms, and given there are a number of campaigns I’ve yet to touch, not only just on one side of the conflict, since the entry-level missions are mostly under the coalition banner and there are others I can join, I expect to be immersed and chip away at the Romance world for quite a long time. I’m drawn to the idea of seeing the different outcomes depending on what side of the conflict I decide to take arms with, and as true to the novel as it could possibly be, this new Total War has many flavors just waiting to be tasted if you want to branch out after being done with a particular scenario.
Maybe it’s its setting that fascinates me more than any of the more Western-focused Total War (like Shogun 2 did as well), or the way it treats the campaign and my constant evolution as a player by giving me new and interesting ways to keep playing the game, but Total War: Three Kingdoms really got its hooks into me. And for once in my life — at least once in a long while — I don’t want to instantly move on from a game that I’ve reviewed in order to keep playing it on my own increasingly diminished time. That’s really rare nowadays, and it only goes to show how Creative Assembly is a master at their craft of making immersive and worthwhile gaming experiences.