The Total War series has long managed to blend the minutiae of turn-based affairs of state with real-time battles on a truly massive scale. You can argue how well those two ideas blend from game to game, of course. There have certainly been some ups and downs — and different entries focus heavily on different things.
Some of the more recent Total War games, which focus on Games Workshop’s fantastical Warhammer universe, took the series in a more “legendary” direction. Magical hero units dominated the battlefield. Rat-men and orcs brought unique factional challenges, like spreading pestilence and the constant need for battle. That doesn’t quite fit with the typical, more realistic settings of traditional Total War games, like ancient Rome and feudal Japan. But it seems developer Creative Assembly wants to split the difference with Total War: Three Kingdoms.
I mean that almost literally. Three Kingdoms is distinctly split between two different modes: “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” and “Classic.” The former leans into the romanticized, mythologized version of 2nd and 3rd century China (named after the famous novel). The latter mode replicates the era more like it actually was (or at least as close as Total War games ever get to historical accuracy).
Anyone that’s ever put down the Yellow Turban rebellion in Dynasty Warriors probably knows the legendary version. The Wu, Wei, and Shu factions all want to rule China. They get into massive battles that see semi-magical heroes annihilate entire armies single-handedly. Some guy eats his own eyeball. Lü Bu is there.
In practice, this mode works a lot like Total War: Warhammer. The 30-turn demo I got to play earlier this month had that usual mix of turn-based and real-time strategy. My three hero units were so powerful that I don’t think I even noticed their health bars. Although the game’s user interface was very busy. There wasn’t a proper tutorial in the build, either, so a lot of the intricacies were lost on me.
More than that, the faction leader I played, Liu Bei, came with a very interesting quirk: he did not have a starting location. Instead, I was forced to fight and claim a hostile province by force with a strong starting army. That wasn’t too hard, given that I started with three hero units (one of whom is among the strongest in the game).
My advantage went beyond the real-time war, too. Liu Bei also has a special resource (basically the love of the people) that he can spend to annex neutral territories. I didn’t get a great sense of how useful this will be later in the game, when every region has been gobbled up by AI factions, but it allowed me to expand at an alarming rate — without the usual costs of conquering a zone by force. Together these unique starting circumstances gave Liu Bei about as much identity as a Total War: Warhammer race. And I’m all here for that.
I’m less sold on the specifics of real-time combat (so far).
I always follow a similar trajectory in Total War games. I play out the first few battles, zooming in to watch the admittedly unreal level of detail between skirmishing units. Then I skip that part for the rest of the game.
Total War combat isn’t always bad. It’s usually just slow and unwieldy. Even the ability to fast forward and slow down time (which is still present in Three Kingdoms) doesn’t alleviate that much. And, in the few battles I played this time around, I still ran into some of the same old issues. I still had to spend several minutes chasing down archers. They broke the second I advanced into melee range, but naturally began picking away at me as soon as I stopped focusing on them. Another writer at the preview event told me they had equal trouble chasing down enemy heroes.
Total War often expedites battles by causing whole squads to just scurry away when they’re sure to lose. But heroes, with their massive health pools and AoE buffs to surrounding units, make that less likely (at least in Romance of the Three Kingdoms Mode). This might get better as you unlock more specialized units. It might not be a problem at all in Classic Mode! But I didn’t feel a major difference from past games in these first 30 turns.
That’s honestly close to all I can tell you. Many of the other major features — diplomacy, trade, dynasty management — seemed either bugged, disabled, or too opaque to access.
I couldn’t create any trade routes because the game said I needed roads between two provinces that shared a border. But it didn’t say which of those requirements I wasn’t meeting (or how to build roads, for that matter). Every time I accepted or tried to make an alliance with someone, the AI reacted as though I had rejected their offer, then asked me to join them again a turn or two later. I couldn’t make my big, starting generals part of my dynasty. I don’t know why.
This isn’t really an indictment of Three Kingdoms itself. It’s more an expression that this kind of demo doesn’t really work for this kind of game. The preview build constantly felt on the cusp of changing into something seriously different.
The idea of my warlord marrying, dying, and being replaced by a successor — part of a dynasty of generals who can become dissatisfied and betray you — felt inspired by more procedural games like Crusader Kings 2. Progressive story objectives pushing Liu Bei’s war along felt borrowed from Endless Legend. Creative Assembly is definitely “stealing” from some smart sources.
But I didn’t get the chance to see the consequences of those features. Strategy games often live and die by the directions they push you. You need to choose which borders your armies defend. You need to lose money to bribe warmongers to keep the empire spinning for another turn. Things are most satisfying when you’re fixing something that went horribly, horribly wrong.
Thirty turns simply wasn’t enough to see that play out. What I saw of Three Kingdoms was Total War, alright. And the stage is certainly set to appease very different kinds of Total War fans: the old guard and the Warhammer crowd. But nothing I saw felt like a quantum leap over past games. It simply didn’t have the time to, with so many new and returning moving parts.
For now, I remain optimistic. The setting is an inspired choice. The faction flavor, at least, feels as good as ever. And the avalanche of features could give me the kind of edge-of-my-seat plate spinning that I love in strategy games. I just need to sink my teeth in much, much deeper before I know how the new minutiae play out in practice. The Total War that I did see felt like a smart marriage of two very different flavors, but it still seems overwhelmingly “Total War” — for better and for worse.