Total War: Three Kingdoms
Heroes come to the fore in CA’s characterful strategy
“VERY MUCH LIKE IN THE TOTAL WAR SANDBOX, YOU CAN CHANGE HISTORY”
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.
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.
“YOU MIGHT HAVE A RIVAL IN YOUR OWN FACTION BECAUSE YOU PISSED HIM OFF”
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.