To­tal War: Three King­doms

He­roes come to the fore in CA’s char­ac­ter­ful strat­egy

PC GAMER (UK) - - CONTENTS - Phil Sav­age


Xi­a­hou Dun, my fiercest war­rior, is stood out­side the cen­tral court­yard of the cas­tle I’m sieg­ing, try­ing to bait out Lu Bu. Around him, armies clash in clas­sic To­tal War style – large blobs of sol­diers hack­ing away at one an­other un­til one runs away. Lu Bu an­swers Xi­a­hou Dun’s call and strides out to meet him face to face.

A duel be­gins – the he­roes taunt­ing each other as they square off, un­con­cerned with the larger war that rages nearby. This isn’t tra­di­tion­ally what hap­pens in a his­tor­i­cal To­tal War game, but then Three King­doms isn’t a tra­di­tional To­tal War. Set in China in the late-sec­ond and third cen­tury, it’s a time of he­roes – heav­ily mythol­o­gised thanks to the 14th cen­tury novel Ro­mance of the Three King­doms.

Cre­ative Assem­bly is tak­ing el­e­ments of that story, as well as the his­tor­i­cal text Records of the Three King­doms, to cre­ate a grand strat­egy that em­pha­sises char­ac­ters and re­la­tion­ships. “We have the Records of the Three King­doms from the third cen­tury, which is the very fac­tual army by army flavour of what was hap­pen­ing,” says art direc­tor Pawel Wojs. “And then Ro­mance is the Records with that added per­sonal re­la­tion­ship be­tween the dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters, the dif­fer­ent fac­tions, the dif­fer­ent forces.”

Just be­cause Ro­mance of the Three King­doms trades in le­gends, though, it doesn’t mean To­talWar:Three­King­doms is a fantasy take on the pe­riod. “We looked at Records for a his­tor­i­cal rec­ol­lec­tion of events,” says Leif Wal­ter, senior direc­tor, “and then we look at the Ro­mance novel and it doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean that we took lib­er­ties – it’s more the lens that we use to look at the his­tor­i­cal events.”

Wojs char­ac­terises Cre­ative Assem­bly’s ap­proach as a plau­si­ble, au­then­tic retelling. “The ap­proach we took was see­ing these char­ac­ters not as demigods, but more think­ing how these le­gends come to be. And they’re gen­er­ally told by the peas­ants – the sim­ple folk of the pe­riod – look­ing up to these larg­erthan-life char­ac­ters.”

Hence my need to bait out Lu Bu. Left to his own de­vices, he could prove a se­ri­ous threat to my army. But he’s also got a score to set­tle with Xi­a­hou Dun, and this duel could buy me just enough time to fin­ish off the re­main­der of Lu Bu’s forces. Xi­a­hou Dun isn’t ex­pected to win here – Lu Bu, ar­guably the most fear­some war­rior of the land, is likely to emerge vic­to­ri­ous – but by ac­ti­vat­ing spe­cial abil­i­ties at key mo­ments dur­ing the duel, in be­tween at­tack an­i­ma­tions, I can at­tempt to turn the bat­tle in my gen­eral’s favour.

It works. Lu Bu routs, flee­ing to fight an­other day, but this isn’t the only way this en­counter could play out. “If you play in the Ro­mance mode, you will en­counter all of the Ro­mance events,” ex­plains Wojs. “All of these events are present, for in­stance Xi­a­hou Dun: if he fights with Lu Bu there’s a chance he’ll lose his eye.”

Ro­manc­ing the known

If you’re fa­mil­iar with the story, either from Ro­mance of the Three King­doms it­self, or, in my case, from play­ing far too many Dy­nastyWar­riors games, you can choose to fol­low the events – at­tempt­ing to pur­sue the ideal out­come. “Or you can choose to ig­nore it,” says Wojs. “You can say, ‘I’m not go­ing to make that choice. I know where it leads, I’m go­ing to make my own his­tory.’ So very much like in the To­tal War sand­box, you can change his­tory. Here you can do the same, but also change the way Ro­mance plays out.”

By caus­ing Lu Bu to run, I’ve cre­ated such a change. “In Ro­mance of the Three King­doms, at the end of this bat­tle, Lu Bu is cap­tured,” says Wojs. “Cao Cao wants to re­cruit him for him­self; Liu Bei ad­vises he ex­e­cute him in­stead be­cause he can’t be trusted. Now, in the game, you could do

that, but po­ten­tially if your re­la­tion­ship with Lu Bu wasn’t too bad – if Lu Bu didn’t hold too much against you based on pre­vi­ous his­tory that he’s had with you, you could be able to con­vince him to join you af­ter you’ve cap­tured him.”

This is pos­si­ble be­cause, in Three King­doms, the he­roes aren’t tied to their fac­tion. They build re­la­tion­ships with other char­ac­ters, and that can af­fect what they do and who they fol­low. “You might have a ri­val in your own fac­tion be­cause you pissed him off, be­cause he doesn’t agree with your pol­i­tics,” says Wal­ter, “and then he might join your en­emy and you’ll see him again on the bat­tle­field fight­ing you.”

This sounds like an en­joy­able spin on the se­ries. As fun as it can be to grow the bor­ders of your na­tion, adding spe­cific char­ac­ters with their own views, goals and re­la­tion­ships in­creases the po­ten­tial for sand­box nar­ra­tive drama, which is what I ul­ti­mately want from a grand strat­egy.

If you pre­fer the tra­di­tional ap­proach, you’ll have that op­tion, too. While Ro­mance mode of­fers an au­then­tic ex­pe­ri­ence im­bued by its char­ac­ters’ per­son­al­i­ties and re­la­tion­ships, Three King­doms will also of­fer a more sub­dued Records mode. “If you play the clas­sic mode, the he­roes aren’t as strong, they’re more hu­man, they’re within a body­guard unit as you would ex­pect from a To­tal War game, and the Ro­man­tic events don’t oc­cur – it’s mainly the his­tor­i­cal thread,” says Wojs.

Not that the ac­tual his­tory wasn’t full of crazy feats. “As we found out read­ing the Records,” Wojs says, “some of the cra­zi­est sto­ries in Ro­mance were recorded in Records as well. There’s this test of strength where Lu Bu wa­gers that he [can] hit his hal­berd from how­ever many paces with his bow. It sounds ridicu­lous in the way it’s told in the book, but that ac­tu­ally hap­pened ac­cord­ing to Records.”

Just be­cause Lu Bu has been de­feated in my bat­tle doesn’t mean I’ve won, al­though vic­tory is now very close. In many ways this is a tra­di­tional To­tal War as­sault: I use ar­tillery to breach the walls and send my armies through, and then push back the en­emy forces as I move in to cap­ture the cas­tle. It’s not par­tic­u­larly hard – this is the cul­mi­na­tion of what, in the game, would be a months-long siege.

By now the city has been flooded and, even though the wa­ter has now re­ceded, most of Lu Bu’s units have de­serted. I’m essen­tially fight­ing a mili­tia – no match for my elite sol­diers. And those sol­diers are fur­ther im­proved by an­other char­ac­ter in Cao Cao’s army. With mul­ti­ple gen­er­als on the bat­tle­field, dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters will pro­vide dif­fer­ent roles.

In ad­di­tion to Xi­a­hou Dun and his martial prow­ess, I also have a strate­gist, who doesn’t fight, but who im­proves the fir­ing rate of my archers and en­ables new, ben­e­fi­cial for­ma­tions. Thanks to him, my fire ar­rows rain down over the cas­tle, and my cav­alry charge in wedge for­ma­tion into a pack of mili­tia spear­men – usu­ally that’s sui­cide, but here my rid­ers have both the tac­ti­cal and ex­pe­ri­ence ad­van­tage.

Lu Bu’s armies start to re­treat. In Three King­doms, the AI won’t just stand and be slaugh­tered un­til that unit routs. In­stead, they’ll draw back to de­fen­sive po­si­tions, such as the tow­ers lin­ing the cen­tral thor­ough­fare of the city. I don’t take the bait, in­stead tak­ing a longer but safer path around the left-hand side. Along the way, I pass a num­ber of dis­tricts containing build­ings that con­fer tac­ti­cal ad­van­tages.

Set­tle down

The plan, I’m told, is to cre­ate a com­pelling con­nec­tion be­tween the cam­paign map and in­di­vid­ual bat­tles. In the cam­paign, you de­velop your set­tle­ments and build build­ings, and then you’ll see those dis­tricts and build­ings in bat­tles. That means you can tar­get spe­cific en­emy build­ings to re­move bonuses. De­stroy a gra­nary, for in­stance, and the sup­ply of the set­tle­ment is re­duced, low­er­ing the time it takes to siege. Raze a pa­trol build­ing, and your troops will no longer suf­fer at­tri­tion when they en­ter the re­gion.

In­evitably, I cap­ture the cas­tle. This was just one bat­tle, but I leave im­pressed. While there’s plenty I’m yet to see, in­clud­ing how things play out on the cam­paign map, Three­King­doms’ char­ac­ter fo­cus sounds like a sig­nif­i­cant, pos­i­tive change, and the AI im­prove­ments and com­bat tweaks will hope­fully have a dra­matic ef­fect. More su­per­fi­cially, it looks beau­ti­ful, too – sport­ing a painterly style that height­ens at­mos­phere and clar­ity.

This is a strong re­turn to his­tor­i­cal war­fare for Cre­ative Assem­bly, one that feels like noth­ing that’s come be­fore it. Here’s hop­ing the strate­gic half of the game looks just as good as what I’ve played of its tac­ti­cal bat­tles.


Cao Cao is far too much of a big shot to look where he’s at­tack­ing.

Your build­ings will ap­pear in bat­tles. And then burn down.

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