Total War: Three Kingdoms
Discover one of the longest-running strategy series in the industry
If you own a PC you should probably be playing Total War. It’s as simple as that; it doesn’t matter whether you’re a history buff looking to take command of some truly epic battles, or an inquisitive player eager to watch thousands of little soldiers smash into thousands of other little soldiers until your graphics card shatters into pieces. Total War is a strategy series that offers something for everybody; that’s in spite of how imposing or complicated it may at first seem.
Listen, we get it. This is a niche genre, one that requires more investment than your typical actionadventure, FPS or RPG. Maybe you caught a Let’s Play on Twitch and became immeasurably terrified by the speed in which the game plays, and the way in which some players can orchestrate complex manoeuvres with thousands of troops under their command in seconds. Perhaps you tried a Total War at a friend’s house one time only to switch it off minutes later as they erupted into fits of laughter, teasing you because you dared to pull the difficulty down to easy – some wounds never heal. And hey, maybe you watched a trailer and the scale of the campaign map and the size of the armies scared the living bejesus out of you. Look, everybody has their reasons for approaching the genre with caution, but we’re here to tell you that if you’ve ever had even a passing interest in Total War that this is going to be the game to finally try it.
Three Kingdoms takes place in a fascinating period of history; it’s a story bound by love and loss, driven by heroes and villains, resulting in some of the bloodiest conflicts known to humanity. Creative Assembly is leveraging all of this to build its latest and the results are certainly impressive. With a renewed focus on characters as a way of building tension and a more immersive campaign experience, we honestly believe that Three Kingdoms will be the perfect refresher after the fantasy excursions of Total War: Warhammer and spin-off sagas found in Britannia. This is a Total War experience that’s going to surprise veteran players, though it’s also going to be accessible enough that new players will find entertainment. That’s a difficult line to walk and that’s why we’ve had game designer Leif Burrows and writer Pete Stewart join us after a recent hands-on session to help walk you through everything you need to know about Total War:
It’s a long time coming
It’s already been five long years since the release of Total War: Rome II. If you too have been eager to see Creative Assembly return to its historical roots after so many years of dealing in fantasy, then you’ll want to pay attention to Total War: Three Kingdoms.
The studio is breaking new ground here, ushering in huge revisions to its classic formula, drawing from its recent experiments and rich legacy in the genre to deliver a Total War that feels fresh and emboldened to usher in sweeping change. Three Kingdoms is pushing the series in a new direction, taking bold strides to deliver a Total War game that could quite easily surpass what we believed it was capable of.
What’s In a location?
Three Kingdoms picks up in 190 CE, just as the notorious Han Dynasty is on the verge of collapse. Game designer Leif Burrows describes it to us as a “very exciting period in history, where this long-lasting dynasty of almost
400 years is crumbling. And then, in the ashes of it, you basically have all of these new warlords emerging,” he says, teasing the 11 different characters we will have the opportunity to take command of across the campaign and in multiplayer. “It just made for a perfect sort of battleground for a Total War game.” In the Three Kingdoms campaign we will have the opportunity to fill the void of power quickly emerging, forged in the fires of conquest as other powerful warlords plan their own ascent to regional dominance.
a first for the series
Three Kingdoms is the first Total War game to be set in China, with the tactical action framed around what Creative Assembly describes as, “one of the most turbulent times in Chinese history.” It’s difficult to believe that it has taken this long for the studio to get here; China is unquestionably one of the most requested locations for the studio to settle on, offering an aesthetically diverse array of battlegrounds, a roster of rich, historical characters to become acquainted with, and a host of well-storied conflicts that can be easily leveraged for Total War’s typically large-scale battles. It is, as lead writer Pete Stewart tell us, “sort of the perfect Total War setting.”
Drawing from a mixture of sources
It might, on the surface, feel as if Creative Assembly is asking for trouble with Three Kingdoms, its story taking influence from both historical record and a work of fiction to inform its action. But Burrows maintains that this actually gives the studio the flexibility to deliver a truly epic Total War game. “We have these two amazing sources to draw from. We have the historical account, which is very factual, and then we have Romance Of The Three Kingdoms, the novel where all of these personal stories of bravado, revenge and friendship are all tied together into a nice narrative. It’s not like Three Kingdoms is pure fiction, it’s historical fiction and we certainly spent a lot of time making sure that anything from the novel is presented authentically,” says Burrows, with Stewart adding: “The novel mostly follows the facts, it just kind of embellishes them in a nice romantic way.”
It’s all about the characters
The focus is wholeheartedly on character as a driving force for the action. The large-scale, real-time combat and turn-based tactical strategy that the series is famed for is still in place, but now all of that is driven through unique personalities and the relationships that they force along the way. It’s been a challenge for Creative Assembly to find the right balance between these elements. “In a way, this is the first Total War title that is focused on very strong characters. We’ve had previous titles, like Attila and Napoleon – that have taken on a character’s defining moment in history – but Three Kingdoms is trying to bring multiple characters to life,” Stewart considers. “This whole period isn’t defined by one person; they are all competing to define it.”
Drawing from Warhammer
Much like in the fantasy games Creative Assembly has recently been working on, you’ll be selecting just one character (and a handful of retinues) to play across the campaign rather than an entire faction. These legendary figures can die if you aren’t careful too, with the dynasty passed down to an heir of your choosing. Burrows is also keen to note that any iterations made to the systems and engine through Warhammer’s development will also be utilised here. “The main engine is developed in a modular way and each project, which basically takes the torch forward,” he says, adding, “there’s an exchange of ideas and expertise [between the teams]. We’re looking at what Warhammer is doing, and building on those ideas."
social Dynamics are always at play
As you enter a battle you’ll be able to bring up to three hero units with you. This doesn’t just give you more options on the battlefield but will directly determine what types of units you’ll be able to field. You will, however, need to be wary of the social dynamics at play; all of the hero units won’t necessarily play nicely together and that can have consequences that spill out of the real-time battles and into the turn-based tactics across the campaign map. While it’s impossible to know how Creative Assembly plans on balancing this system – whether it will throw up too many random elements to truly be satisfying – at this stage, though we do hope that it only serves to amp up the drama.
the return of unit formations
Each of the generals that are available to you in Three Kingdoms are trained in the art of war and will bring their own specialities and tactical knowledge to your army. Creative Assembly is reflecting this in a very real way here, putting more work than ever into unit formations and glorious, glorious micro-management. Unlike the Total War: Warhammer games, unit formations are indeed returning to give an extra layer of tactical veracity to the gameplay, although these will need to be learned – passed down from the generals to the soldiers. The better you integrate the various hero characters into your army, then the better prepared for battle across the campaign they will soon become.
you’ve got to have class
Each of the 11 characters available falls into one of five distinct character classes – Commander, Champion, Sentinel, Strategist and Vanguard. Each of these effectively offers a different playstyle and therefore a different way to tackle Total War. You’ll need to utilise tactics that better suit your chosen general, keeping an eye out for unique items and mounts to make them even more powerful. Each commander has their own skill tree, letting you advance five active and five passive abilities to better shape their versatility in the field as you see fit. This will have a huge impact in the Romance campaign, where generals can be the difference between a win and a loss, though their power is mitigated in the traditional Historic campaign.
romance Is a new Way to play
“You can’t really tell the historical story of the period without the personal stories from the novel as well.
The character relationships are important in both game modes, it’s important to the historical background,” Burrows tells us and – wait, two game modes? That’s right, Three Kingdoms will feature two primary ways to play, Romance and Classical. Romance is where fact and fiction collide, as Creative Assembly looks to draw on the larger-than-life presence of the heroes that dominated the stories – their myth and legend shaping the way they impact the battlefield. “In Romance mode you get to know the characters,” says Burrows. “They will have a big impact, whereas in Historical/classic mode it’s more grand-scale – the focus is on big armies and manoeuvring your forces.”
you can strip It back If you Want to
It’s worth noting that while a lot of the focus – particularly when it comes to the ways in which Creative Assembly demos the game – has been on the Romance mode, the studio is keen to stress that Classic mode is still the Total War game that you veteran players know and love. There’s still a lot of time, care and attention going into this core way to play the game. If anything, it puts more attention and focus on some of the minutiae. For example, the artificial intelligence has been overhauled, requiring a clear attention to detail and sharp reactions to fend off encroaching armies; the engine can now render out thousands of authentically designed warriors onscreen at once and there’s a day/night cycle that changes the composition of battles.
It’s still the total War you know
In spite of all of these big sweeping changes to the core dynamic, Classic mode will still be the Total War you know and love. You won’t be able to rattle through dozens of enemies at a time, nor will they be as impervious to damage from regular units as they are in the Romance offering – in fact, generals will come with bodyguards in the Classic configuration to better depict how these characters were treated at the time. We’ve been told that elements of Three Kingdoms such as random events, the appearance of certain characters and the implementation of broader elements from the Romance Of The Three Kingdoms novel won’t appear in a Classic campaign. If you want your campaign to be pure, the option is certainly there for it.
character Is still key In historical mode
While you’ll see characters effectively able to take on entire armies by themselves in Romance mode, the generals will be more tempered figures in the historical setup. That doesn’t mean, however, that they are to be ignored entirely. In fact, managing the generals and dealing with their relationships, the drama and the betrayal that helped define that era of conflict is still going to be a huge appeal to the campaign. “These character relationships influence other game systems. They create a lot of interesting challenges and sort of spawn interesting decision-making that you will have to do,” says Burrows. “It’s less about juggling positives and negatives or doing spreadsheets of calculations, but rather about being a really strong leader.”
you can Duel other heroes to the Death
Given the mythical nature of these generals and the power they can have over the turn of battle in Romance mode, you’ll be happy to know that there are ways to take rival generals out of play. It’s a risky manoeuvre, putting your own hero at risk, but it can so often turn the entire tide of a battle. You can challenge a rival on the battlefield to a duel as the battle rages on around them. The two characters meet and immediately engage in a fight to the death that in our preview proved to be a real spectacle to watch in action. You’ll also be able to activate abilities in the fight to try and help your hero out, though its win conditions are ultimately a blur of class, experience and morale; kill a hero’s brother, for example, and you should expect to see them launch into a near-unstoppable grief-fuelled frenzy. Duelling is one of our favourite new battle mechanics.
you can’t trust anybody
This period of history came to be defined by bloodshed and betrayal. Total War has the former, with its ridiculous battles that pit tens of thousands of soldiers against one another in active combat. But it now has the latter too, introducing a system that allows you to implant operatives within enemy armies to bring them down from the inside – though the same can also happen to you too. “You’ve got to constantly wrestle with the idea that someone in your faction might be a spy,” teases Stewart, who tells us that players will need to pay careful attention to who they are promoting in their ranks. “There’s an element of difficulty and challenge in that system, especially as you keep progressing through the campaign. It’s one of the big things to be excited about, it makes the characters feel like they are part of a world.”
great entry point for new players
Of all of the Total War games that have arrived in the last 18 years, there’s an argument to be made that Three Kingdoms is going to perhaps be the best entry point for genre newcomers that the series has ever seen. That, we’re told, is an intentional decision on Creative Assembly’s part – it’s concerned about how easily new players can become involved with the fun.“i think often Total War is seen as this very strategic, half-historical simulation… but it is very much a personal game about characters – that’s especially true of Three Kingdoms,” muses Burrows, who notes that while a lot of work has been done to gradually introduce the systems and to scale the difficulty in a more effective manner, all of it is driven through those heroes.
how the Difficulty scale Works
Creative Assembly knows that its games can look overly complex and imposing on the surface. It too is aware of how difficult they could be to play, particularly for new players. The focus this time around has been on reworking the opening hours of the campaign – especially in Romance mode – to better bring players of all experience into the fold. “With some of the older games we had this problem where the difficulty curve is biggest at the beginning,” laughs Burrows, who acknowledges that this is akin to throwing you into a burning building before teaching you how to fight the fire. “For Three Kingdoms we tried to push more towards an experience where you start in an easier environment. We want you to get to the more difficult bits organically, without forcing you to sit through tutorials. It should be an organic experience.”
exploring the fun of total War
“This is something we keep exploring and looking into, because as much fun as the Total War games are and as great as they are, they can be large, multifaceted beasts,” laughs Stewart, maintaining that if there were to be a good kind of beast, Total War would be it. But Stewart, a veteran of Creative Assembly, knows only too well what challenges the studio faces when trying to make the game more accessible to new players. That’s something it is trying to change in Three Kingdoms. “What we have focused on is that when you first start playing, if you don’t particularly have a lot of experience, is we wanna sort of help you to get used to the systems slowly, so by the time you’re 20, 30 turns down the line, you’ll actually understand what’s happening in the game,” he says, although we wonder aloud what a player should do if they are still struggling at that point… “Just turn the difficulty down, there’s no shame in it,” he laughs. “Put it on easy, no one cares.; no one’s looking.”
It feels fantastic
Whether you love the idea of this being such a character-driven game or are approaching it with caution, we’re pretty sure that you’re going to fall pretty hard for Three Kingdoms. The battles feel suitably epic – stressful and invigorating in equal measure. The refined control systems feel excellent, making it comfortable for us to direct large forces across the battlefield and quickly re-organise when it all goes horribly wrong. The art direction is unlike anything you’ve ever seen from the series, it’s beautiful to behold. Creative Assembly isn’t pulling any punches as it returns to the historical core of Total War. The wait to its Spring 2019 release date is going to be difficult to bear.
It’s left us eager for more
Getting hands-on with early preview codes can often be difficult to assess, particularly when its scope is limited. We haven’t, for example, had the opportunity to sample the turn-based tactical side of play – manoeuvring our generals and army across the huge map in an attempt to gain dominance over China. But we can say that we’re incredibly eager to. What we’ve had the opportunity to preview has left us impressed. Creative Assembly knows what it’s doing, and it rarely makes a misstep when it comes to its core historical wing of the long-running series. But if the attention to detail we’ve been able to divine from the overlapping mechanics and systems is apparent and represented throughout the rest of the game, it’s pretty clear that this is going to be one for the history books.