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Lifewire / Thomas Hindmarch
A vast, intricate, endlessly replayable strategy experience
You can be just as effective as a financial, social, or even romantic superpower
Tons of single-player scenarios to choose from and a robust multiplayer mode.
A ton of features, gimmicks, and underhanded new tactics for you to learn and absorb, but the tutorial is lackluster
The Total War comes to Three Kingdoms era China. The strategy series manages to make itself at home in one of its strongest entries to date with plenty of cool new factions and mechanics.
After a stay in the fantasy dystopia of the Warhammer franchise, the Total War series goes back to its real-world roots–sort of–with a visit to the warring Three Kingdoms era of Chinese history. For a bit of historical background, the corruption of the Han Emperor’s servants resulted in a young boy being placed on the throne and controlled by the crazed warlord Dong Zhuo, whose actions have splintered China into series of warlord states that struggle for unification and dominance.
You can arrange marriages, insert spies into enemy chains of command, make and break allegiances, form compacts among multiple warlords, and force weak rivals into becoming your vassals. This is a surprisingly robust game of backroom deals, financial wizardry, and possible betrayals, layered on top of the widescreen tactical battles that are a Total War trademark.
Three Kingdoms is a weighty install, as you’d expect from a modern game, taking up a hearty 30GB of local files. It’s currently a PC exclusive and is likely to remain so. All you really have to do is set the download to progress while you head out and do something else. It could be a while, especially once a few after-release patches come out, but it’s mostly taken care of for you.
It’s A.D 220. in the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history, where twelve factions struggle against one another to unify China under a single ruler. The existing Emperor, Xian, is under the control of the unscrupulous warlord Dong Zhuo, who commands the infamous and nearly-unstoppable warrior Lu Bu. As one of the multiple generals, leaders, bandits, or philosophers who’ve risen to oppose Dong Zhuo, the player must balance logistics, tactics, negotiations, and resources in order to overcome all opposition and survive to unify China under what’s hopefully a more peaceful reign.
The Three Kingdoms period has a decades-long history in video games, most notably in the Dynasty Warriors and Romance of the Three Kingdoms franchises, both of which draw on a 14th-century historical novel that dramatized many of the era’s events. Some of the heroes are based on real people, some are dramatizations, and a few, such as Diao Chan, seem to be entirely fictional.
Espionage, strategic marriages, diplomacy, and statecraft can count for as much or more than battlefield prowess.
Setting a game in the Three Kingdoms period at all seemed like a dangerous move for Creative Assembly, Total War’s developer, since it can’t help but invite comparisons to the wealth of Japanese-created games set in the same era. It’s even leaning into the same larger-than-life portrayals of the characters as Dynasty Warriors, such as the infamous warrior Lu Bu, who the game treats like a free-roaming natural disaster whenever he appears.
However, Total War manages to sidestep most of those comparisons by focusing on a more cerebral version of itself. This is a slower-paced, more diplomatically-focused experience than we were expecting, to the point where a player with the right character and game plan could win the game without much, if any, actual fighting.
Calling Total War: Three Kingdoms a “real-time strategy” game almost feels like a misnomer, as you can skip the battles entirely if you’ve a mind to. Just delegate the fighting to your generals, which will usually go about as well as the in-game estimates say it will, and you can treat Three Kingdoms like it’s a board game.
If you do enter into a fight, you’ll need to be careful about deployment, flanking tactics, and holding units in reserve. Each of your armies can consist of up to three generals, each of which have a specific class that gives them advantages and disadvantages in battle. It’s your job to use equipment, retainers, and a retinue of troops to reinforce a general’s strengths, and to pair three generals together to give you the best advantage. You can choose between Romance and Realistic mode; in the former, you can skate through fights by leaning on nearly-immortal legendary heroes, and in the latter, or on higher difficulties, they’re potentially cannon fodder like everyone else.
Your goal is to control and unify China, but unlike a lot of strategy games, you have a lot more tools in your kit for that than simple violence, and many warlords have an additional unique resource that offers another potential option.
In Three Kingdoms, however, the combat is a surprisingly small part of a given campaign. Espionage, strategic marriages, diplomacy, and statecraft can count for as much or more than battlefield prowess. This gives a clever, determined, or pacifist player a lot of ways to succeed other than systematically beating all the competition into the dirt.
Third century China is split up into a multitude of small territories, each of which is held by a single warlord at the start of the game. After an initial scramble for territory and resources, the game often settles down into a patient series of moves and countermoves, where amassing military power is handy but can actually be counterproductive. (Your neighbors tend to distrust you if you’re sitting on their doorstep with several ready armies, for some reason.)
Your goal is to control and unify China, but unlike a lot of strategy games, you have a lot more tools in your kit for that than simple violence, and many warlords have an additional unique resource that offers another potential option. Depending on who you’re playing as, you might build an economic empire and bribe all your competition into surrendering, set up a series of proxy wars so your enemies weaken themselves against one another, ingratiate yourself to a more powerful warlord so you can stab him in the back later on, or use a series of political marriages to recruit the strongest generals in China to your side. Coming from Warhammer II to Three Kingdoms, we were shocked by how many new options we had, and how well they actually worked once we managed to figure them out.
Each of the dozens of available playable warlords in Three Kingdoms has their own unique abilities, starting positions, and suggested paths towards victory. The starting difficulty each character’s labeled with is a little bit of a misnomer. Depending on your preferences, you may find a “Very Hard” character easier to win with than an ostensibly easy-mode warlord like Cao Cao. The Yellow Turbans, for example, begin as bandits without territories of their own, but don’t suffer attrition in enemy territory, which makes them excellent for lightning strikes and village raids.
Each game is an elaborate series of moves and countermoves where you can’t really trust anyone until they’re either dead at your feet or working directly for you.
It is a lot to keep track of, however. Unlike other Total War games we’ve played, every faction on the field in Three Kingdoms is either relevant immediately, or is offstage building power so it’ll be extremely relevant later on. Each game is an elaborate series of moves and countermoves where you can’t really trust anyone until they’re either dead at your feet or working directly for you.
The battles are a big draw in any recent Total War game, since you can zoom out to an omniscient perspective, then all the way in to watch two individual soldiers fighting. That ability to mess with the scale is the most impressive technical achievement, especially once you start involving multiple different kinds of units and things get crazy on the battlefield.
The presentation of Three Kingdoms is what sets it apart, with lots of hand-drawn art and graphics that imitate brushstrokes and calligraphy. Beautiful is a hard word to use for video games, but it applies here, especially with the subtle work that surrounds the game’s cutscenes.
Total War: Three Kingdoms ships at $59.99, with an additional $8.99 DLC that adds the Yellow Turban Rebellion as a new playable faction. Additionally DLC have come out since then, with the Reign of Blood adding blood and gore effects for $2.99, and Eight Princes ($8.99) adding a whole new scenario 100 years down the line covering the civil war in the Jin dynasty, the state that succeeded the Three Kingdoms.
It’s a steep initial price, but this is the sort of game that can eat up entire months of someone’s life. Between the various playable factions, each of which features varying degrees of difficulty and talents that encourage or require you to take very different approaches, and the multiplayer game, you could easily still be playing this game a year from now.
Three Kingdoms is only the most recent and technically advanced game in the Total War series. Every game in the franchise to date is available on Steam right alongside Three Kingdoms, such as Shogun (the nearly 20-year-old game that started it all), Medieval, Warhammer, Attila, Empire, Napoleon, and Rome II. If you decide you’d rather explore a different era, or start with a cheaper Total War game to get a taste for it, you’re spoiled for choice.
If you’re interested in a different sort of strategy experience, Paradox Interactive’s grand strategy games are the other big name in town. Crusader Kings II or the Europa Universalis series aren’t quite the same sorts of games as Total War, but can stretch a similar set of muscles.
If the era is what you’re interested in, you can also try the latest installment in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms series, 2016’s XIII, which is available for PS4, Xbox One, and Windows. This franchise goes all the way back to 1985, and covers the same period of Chinese history as Total War: Three Kingdoms in a slower, turn-based format.
Also, as noted above, it’d be silly not to mention the Dynasty Warriors series, which is still going strong as of 2018. It’s a total hack-and-slash action game that turns the colorful characters from the Three Kingdoms era into near-superheroic figures, mowing down enemy soldiers by the hundreds. It’s a bit mindless, but weirdly absorbing in its way. Technically, Dynasty Warriors is a spinoff from Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but at this point, it’s vastly more visible than its predecessor. Granted, Dynasty Warriors isn’t really a strategy game at all, but it’s a good pick if you like the characters.
The historical Total War series at its best.
The slow pace and lack of emphasis on combat make Total War: Three Kingdoms one of the most cerebral strategy games we’ve played in years, although it feels like we’ve barely scratched the surface of what it can do. You can expect to spend countless hours with this, even if you never set foot in a multiplayer match, experimenting with different warlords and slowly inching towards victory.