Watch: Things get personal in Total War: Three Kingdoms

Right on the heels of May’s Thrones of Britannia, Total War: Three Kingdoms was originally slated to launch this fall, but despite delays we should still see it headed for an early 2019 launch.

Based on the titular Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history, players take control of one of three warring factions, led by historical figures. The game features two game modes, paying tribute to both Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the more historically factual Records of the Three Kingdoms (and thus, more challenging gameplay).

Characterization is emphasized in Total War: Three Kingdoms, particularly the “Romance” game mode. Here, the three factions’ leading warlords — Cao Cao, Lu Bu, and Sun Jian — each have distinct personalities that play into combat. Lu Bu excels at leading the charge from the front, while Cao Cao, a master strategist, can order formations not available to the other characters. Even within factions, it’s possible to have multiple key warriors who dislike each other, and these personality clashes affect how your units are able to operate in concert. Warlords also possess unique weapons, items, and mounts, which can be acquired as war trophies after defeating them in battle.

At E3 this week, Sega showed off an all-new gameplay reveal, which reenacts the historic Battle of Xiapi. Cao Cao’s forces advance on Xiapi’s outer wall, while Lu Bu waits at the center of the city. The player’s camera is able to zoom out from a(n almost terrifyingly vast) god’s eye view to observe overall troop movements and zoom in to see individual soldiers clash. Though any RTS inspired by history (even “romanticized history”) is going to be a simplification and exaggeration of reality, the simultaneous sense of scale and extreme granularity is honestly a little intimidating, and certainly lives up to the “Romance” side of gameplay.

After breaking through Xiapi’s outer defenses, Cao Cao rides in to challenge Lu Bu to a one-on-one duel. This is perhaps the most notable addition to this Total War installment and definitely underscores why character writing plays a bigger role than in past series entries. After a (slightly chaotic) bit of jousting, Cao Cao succeeds in knocking Lu Bu off his horse; from there on foot, the duel only lasts a few more seconds before Cao Cao strikes a decisive blow.

Taking the fallen Lu Bu’s equipment, including his horse, is referred to as “looting.” While I suppose this is technically accurate in the gameplay sense, it strikes a dissonant tone amidst all the larger-than-life Chinese classical drama on display. The rest of the Total War: Three Kingdoms demonstration is carried out with the solemnity of capital-H History, but once Cao Cao’s mighty rival is defeated, he becomes just another corpse and your character’s war trophies are referred to casually as theft. Maybe that’s the point — an underlying message Creative Assembly is trying to convey about our habitual glorification of mass murder that these strategy games represent — but I would wager not. It just seemed like the presention lapsed into ordinary “gameplay speak.”

At the end of the day, of course, Total War: Three Kingdoms is a game, and players are going to play it from this at-times crass perspective. Three Kingdoms does nevertheless put in quite a bit of legwork doing its source material justice from a production value side, with dizzying scale and fantastic character design, straddling that ever-tricky divide between realism and epic.

Total War: Three Kingdoms is currently positioned for an early 2019 release. In the meantime, Total War: Warhammer 2 and Total War: Thrones of Britannia will continue to see support with patchs and additional content.