I might not have the longest history with the Total War franchise, but I have played enough to know that I am quite the fan. In fact, Total War Warhammer and Warhammer 2 are two of my most played games in my Steam library. I have spent hours dedicating myself to the craft of warfare and diplomacy within these games, just enough to say, that I may be developing an addiction to sacking my enemies and killing their heirs. When I first heard rumblings that the Romance of the Three Kingdoms would be finally getting its own Total War game, I was skeptical. It was always argued that there was not enough unit diversity to justify a good Chinese Total War entry. Even if that were true, I always hoped that one day I’d be able to field an army against the likes of Dong Zhuo and bring peace to China once and for all. Finally, that day appears to be upon us. For those of you who know me, you will know that I am a massive fan of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and will enjoy just about anything that it is attached to, but when you take my favorite setting, and mix it with arguably the best strategy game franchise of all time, that is a match made in heaven. So how does the game hold up to my incredibly high expectations? It holds up pretty darn well. Read on to find out why!
Total War: Three Kingdoms
Developer: Creative Assembly
Platforms: Windows PC (Reviewed)
Release Date: May 23rd, 2019
The Story of Total War Three Kingdoms follows the Romance of the Three Kingdoms novels, which tells the story of the collapse of the Han dynasty of Ancient China. The game starts after Dong Zhuo has already come to power, the Yellow Turbans are a fractured force, and the Han Empire is in complete disarray. It is your job to use diplomacy and warfare to bring the fracture land back together again.
Much like previous Total War games, you can either follow story beats by accomplishing unique missions, or you can say to yourself, “Forget it, I’m conquering everything,” before going on the warpath to take over everything by force. Of course, as Niche Gamer’s modern day “Tiger of Jiangdong”, I chose to play as Sun Jian, and I opted to go with the latter option. After uniting the Southlands under my banner, I realized that there was nothing stopping me from moving north, at least, nothing that could not be ground under my heel.
As you play through your own story, the AI will be attempting to accomplish their own unique tasks, leaving the world constantly transforming as borders shift, as battles are a near constant occurrence. One aspect I enjoy is that the story beats might not always happen the same way. For example, in the campaign I played on our preview stream here, Dong Zhuo was not killed by Lu Bu and has continued to live on as I write this review.
One thing I enjoy is that it does not feel like you’re struggling to accomplish any of the missions under a certain time limit, you are free to tackle them at your leisure, allowing you to focus on things that you may consider to be more important. So take your time, relax, and allow yourself to be swept up by the story of the Three Kingdoms.
Learn about its characters, the heroes and villains, delve into the lore of one of the oldest and most influential novels of all time. Total War: Three Kingdoms provides the opportunity for you to sit down and really immerse yourself in it the same way that Total War: Warhammer did for people who were not familiar with Warhammer fantasy before diving in.
The gameplay of Total War: Three Kingdoms is broken down into two parts: the campaign map and the battle map. The campaign map is where you will spend most of your time, from here you will maintain and expand your empire. You will organize your armies, improve your settlements, enact policy reforms, and engage in diplomacy with your neighbors.
Hours will go by as you plot out your every move and reaction, attempting to balance your popularity, strength, and resources in order to retain control of your kingdom. The in-game map is surprisingly massive, with tons of territory for you to expand into, I am currently 65 turns into my most recent playthrough and have yet to see it all, and might not for another 65.
Diplomacy has never been better, with tons of refinement and additions to the diplomacy menu, you can easily get lost in trying to enact the perfect deal with your enemy or ally. One thing that was added to the game is a feature called “Make it work”, in which you can suggest something in a negotiation and then ask the game to make offers to the AI so that they are willing to accept.
One piece of diplomacy that is a welcomed addition is the ability to trade pieces of territory, something that I have wanted added to Total War: Warhammer since Mortal Empires released. Along with all of these additions you can form alliances, confederate others, force them to become your vassals, or form coalitions to take down common enemies.
The Diplomacy of Total War: Three Kingdoms is amazing and easily the best it has ever been. The resource management and policy reform menus are similar to how they have always been, but with a few new bells and whistles, nothing that would confuse veterans to the series, and nothing that will overwhelm a new player.
As a ruler, you will not only be managing your territory but your own family line as well, you must ensure your court is happy to work alongside you, that your family is capable of taking control after your death, and that everything is managed properly.
Do not make the same mistakes that I have in my past, I lost my advisor, Lu Su, and my wife, Lady Wu in a stupid attempt to take a small fishing village. It took me quite a few turns to recover from that loss. You must play smart on and off the battlefield to ensure your success overall. Something that many, including myself, struggle to do.
The second half of the gameplay is the actual combat. The battles of Total War are fought in real time, you start up a battle and can deploy your troops to your liking before starting the battle. The battles can take many different forms, ranging from battles in open fields to siege battles, or even scuffles in some minor fishing village that did not really matter that much.
The latter of those battles had Liu Baio, for some reason, deciding he was going to send his wife leading an army of 1900 to go and attempt to take it. After realizing that my army was just better than her’s, she resorted to using fire arrows to attempt to burn the whole village down – which actually happened.
The battles require a decent ability to micromanage your units to get the most out of them, luckily you can slow the game down or even outright pause it so that you never feel you are not in control. One feature that has been adding to battles, and is by far the coolest thing ever, is the ability to duel.
Officers can now engage in one-on-one duels, where they can fight each other directly with no other enemies directly being able to get involved. The duels are very fun to watch unfold, especially the ending in which one officer will brutally kill their opponent if they do not run. All of the tweaks and changes, the polish and additions, make battles terribly addicting, which perfectly rounds out the gameplay.
Every army stack is made up of 3 generals, each fielding six units, meaning that a full stack is 18 units total. Every officer has the ability to recruit units, with certain units other officers may not be able to, meaning it is important to consider what your stack might need in order to be well-rounded. Officers have the ability to equip armor, weapons, and items that can affect their stats and abilities, and one nice little touch is that it affects their character models as well.
Finally, there are two modes of campaign you can run: “Romance” and “Records”. Romance is the attempt to mimic the larger than life style of all the important heroes of the Three Kingdoms era. Much like the Legendary Lords in Total War: Warhammer, these are single units that have the power to obliterate entire groups of enemies.
This essentially turns them into Dynasty Warriors characters, giving them greater strength, speed, and HP. The other mode, “Records” is an attempt to appeal to the more historically minded. There are no super soldier generals, instead they play much like the officers in Shogun 2, where they are a unit with multiple people in them.
I will be honest, during my time with the game, I never once started up a Records campaign, and I probably never will. It feels pretty clear to me that Romance is how this game was meant to be played, and while I would not go as far as to call Records an afterthought, it is definitely going to take a backseat for me at least.
If there is any aspect of Total War Three Kingdoms that feels like a downgrade it is the graphics. The graphics in the game feel a little bland, especially when compared to Warhammer and Warhammer 2. As far as I can tell, it is mostly due to the weird lighting in the game.
This means after launch there will no doubt be a lighting mod that addresses this, but as it stands now, the colors can seem flat. All of this comes on top of the fact that some of the officer models look down right ugly up close, which is very much a shame.
That being said, one thing I can say is that while the graphics may have taken a slight dip, the overall performance of the game has improved greatly. One of the weakest aspects of Total War has always been just how intensive it is on your PC, with so many units on screen, you can easily see your framerate dip into the low 20s, if not lower.
I can say in the ample time I put into the game, I have only experienced one frame dip and that was during our livestream and it was only for a few seconds. I have been able to play the game consistently at a high framerate with all the settings set to max, which is incredibly impressive and more than worth that slight hit.
The soundtrack of Three Kingdoms feels like an amalgamation of anything that you have heard out of Chinese media. It sounds like a mix of music from Red Cliff, Ip Man, the Three Kingdoms TV series, and Dynasty Warriors. Make no mistake though, this is not meant to be an insult.
In fact, while there may not have been any particular music track that really stood out to me, I never felt like it was out of place. I felt like it did a good job overall keeping me engaged with the setting. It all feels very natural without making it feel like they were attempting to copy a style too deliberately, which is not an easy task.
The only problem I have with the sound in this game is the English voice acting. I have never been the kind of person who will complain about English dubbing, in fact I am a bit of an apologist. But the English voices in Three Kingdoms are just not good at all, which is a shame because if they were as hammy and over the top as Shogun 2, I would have loved it.
Luckily, there is a Chinese audio with an English subtitle option available in the game, and I enabled it almost immediately. The Chinese dub is fantastic, every character sounds great in game. The generals sound intimidating, and the troops sound authentic as they butcher each other in attempts to take the control of the battlefield. In my opinion, the Chinese dub is the way to go every time.
In conclusion, I cannot tell you what the die-hard Total War fans will think about Total War: Three Kingdoms. I have come to the conclusion that, while they are some of the most passionate fans there are, they are also the most critical of mistakes.
That being said, as someone who is a fan of both Total War and the Three Kingdoms, I had an incredible amount of fun with my time playing Total War: Three Kingdoms. Honestly, it might just be my favorite game in the franchise, and is easily the best strategy game to tackle the source material.
I was worried that Creative Assembly may not be able to do justice on the Three Kingdoms, but I am more than happy to have been proven wrong. Now if you will excuse me, I need to get sleep, but….one more turn.
Total War: Three Kingdoms was reviewed on Windows PC using a review copy provided by Sega. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.