Total War: Three Kingdoms Review – The Emperor Returns

May 16, 2019
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GAME INFO

Total War: Three Kingdoms

23rd May, 2019
Platform PC
Publisher SEGA
Developer Creative Assembly

I genuinely want to say I hate Creative Assembly and SEGA. Why? Well, Total War: Three Kingdoms is certainly guilty of a few crimes. Crimes against Chris, anyway. What things I normally enjoyed doing, I was too tired to do or my mind was elsewhere. Also, every now and then I’d start randomly getting the shakes, only it wasn’t from me going cold turkey from a certain powder or a certain addictive drink. No, it was a case of me suffering from “One More Turn Syndrome”.

It’s been nearly two years, back with the fantastic Civilization VI, that I last had a game that absorbed so much of my time and life. I always know when I’m playing one of those game through a few tell-tale signs. One major one is that during what I thought was a reasonably short session I’d turn my head around and realise that for some reason the sun is coming out, not going away. Then I realise I’m tired, it’s late (03:00 Saturday, 04:30 Sunday & 02:30 Monday) and I’m not going to get enough sleep again, am I?

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Didn’t think so. Also, I need to make this clear – I’ve been mostly playing Total War: Three Kingdoms on Romance Mode rather than Records Mode, almost everything I type will be about that.

Why? Because this is the Total War experience. It’s a culmination of everything Creative Assembly have worked on over the previous four years. I’ve spoken at length over the previous three iterations, from Total War: Warhammer, Total War: Warhammer 2 and Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia. From Warhammer and it’s huge size, to Warhammer 2 which started with one of the most directed campaigns in series history, following up with the Mortal Empires addition which made it the biggest world to conquer. Both were excellent, though the sheer size and the length kept them just shy of that ‘One More Turn’. Thrones of Britannia was more focused, tighter, aiming to tell more of a story, but was just lacking something to propel it to excellence.

Total War: Three Kingdoms brings together everything from those previous games, tweaks the finer details and places it in the best-looking package the series has ever had. One of my biggest praises for Thrones of Britannia was how the theme extended to everything, including the menus and UI. This is very much the case with Three Kingdoms, where almost everything has been designed with the Three Kingdoms era of China in mind. From the map, which is frankly beautiful, with bright vivid colours that highlight the natural beauty of China.

From the huge mountains, vast forests and massive rivers, everything looks fantastic. Even better is just how busy the map looks, particularly due to the characters being visible as army leaders, the moving pieces found along trade routes or even just zooming in very close, looking at the horses roaming around the plains. The best view is always zooming out just enough that the game shows you the detail but doesn’t go into an overview though, that’s where you get some fantastic scenery, particularly during the summer season, with each season giving the game that bit of a different overlay and perspective. Where you are on the map also influences what exactly the terrain is like when you go into a battle, which looks equally great – especially when you zoom in and focus on a duel. More on those later.

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More than the map and combat, it’s the UI and menus that really add to Total War: Three Kingdoms. I’ve complained about bad menus enough times before. I’ve also praised quite a few for being clean and easy to navigate. Very rare do I actually get to praise a menu for being lovely to look at. In particular, I’m thinking about the Reforms tree which is, quite literally, in the shape of a tree. A very bendy tree, but a tree nonetheless. Each reform you unlock along a particular branch – represented as a branch of course – leads further along but then flowers as you unlock it. It’s bloody beautiful and gives me yet another reason to look forward to unlocking another reform, rather than just pumping up my economy, military, civilians or other areas.

The advantage is that as well as looking good, though none are as stylised as the Reforms, nearly everything is very user-friendly and intuitive. Previous games have all had varying levels of complexity and difficulty to get in, be it in diplomacy, city building or even army development. Total War: Three Kingdoms has streamlined almost everything, making it one of the most user-friendly strategy games around and arguably the most user-friendly in the Total War series.

The only real confusion could potentially come from the spy network, though even this is based in logic. While you can simply click the “i” at the top right of the screen at any point, highlighting different areas that an advisor will explain to you, one thing that isn’t completely explained is how to set up your spy network and what to completely do with it. Even now, after over forty hours and multiple goes at it, I still couldn’t tell you how to set one up without fail.

What I can tell you about setting a spy network up is that you need to use a character that would be appealing to the other faction you’re targeting. You’ll send one of your characters off to that faction, they’ll roam around, looking to attract the leader’s attention. Once they’re in place, they are quite literally an enemy leader, to be promoted to being a general of an army, the administrator of a region or even as part of the factions’ council. Granted, how that character performs and advances will depend on their personal capabilities but also their social network within the game.

This is something that Creative Assembly has been working on for a while, making the characters and generals you have within your faction feel like people in themselves. For a long time, you could boil the generals down to their attributes and whatever perks they have. A push into characterising them game in the Warhammer games, but this has been taken to the next level by introducing these social circles, the relationships between characters that evolve, or devolve, over time.

What’s more impressive is how these change over the actions you take within the game, with characters also forming relationships with opposing characters too. Most of the time you’ll find that generals fighting alongside each other, winning battles and generally performing heroically will see a bond formed. Should one of these then fall in battle, the surviving two will react with the more impulsive of them charging in hot-headedly, at personal risk to themselves.

Forming a bond with these characters also helps with their satisfaction with their place within your force. One of the major issues, when you become a much larger force, is the number of characters you’ll need, but the very limited amount of important roles for them. If you can’t give them a job, you can at least promote them, giving them a higher salary or give them items that you can now find in-game, from weapons, armour and horses that directly impact battle, to retinues that increase stats and other items that can increase satisfaction or offer other perks.

One negative effect you’ll often see is “lack of purpose”. As mentioned, there are limited roles to offer. You have a faction council with six major roles such as Prime Minister, Chancellor and Grand Commandant. In addition to this, you can have an increasing number of administrators who look after a single region. Also, you have up to three characters as generals within an army.

On the council, these can be called up at any time and will offer missions that can give you a slight nudge in the right direction. The noted rewards are normally just to improve your relationship with the mission-giver as well as a slight boost to a certain subset of your population (peasants, merchants, etc). The rewards that aren’t explicitly stated are the benefits it can give in managing your faction and increasing your preparedness. I’ve had missions that ranged from planting a spy in a faction to actually moving a character/army to a location where trouble is brewing among the people.

As has become more frequent in recent Total War releases, the number of armies you can actually field is limited to more than just your resources. Aspects from this will be based on the number of administrators you have, each allowing the fielding of an extra army. The number of administrators, as well as further armies, seem to be impacted by the reforms you’ve unlocked as well as specific abilities from your faction leader, but also who you appoint as Prime Minister. Other council positions seem to offer base returns, though I can’t say I truly dug into it to find out.

What I did dig into is how to field the perfect army. One thing to note about the characters that lead your armies is that they are divided into different classes. There are five, to be precise, each with their own benefits: Commander; Strategist; Vanguard; Champion and Sentinel. Based on the generals rank, the units they can personally recruit varies. For example, Strategists are the only ones who can recruit trebuchets and specific high-end archers.

Not only do you have to think about if the three generals like each other, or at least don’t have any grudges, you also have to consider their classes to build your perfect army. This is because you don’t recruit units for the army as a whole. Each character can have a maximum of six units in their personal retinue, which when recruited will follow them wherever you position them. They will even follow them if they decide to up and leave your faction for another one. Personally, I try to ensure I’ve got a Strategist in an army, mostly because higher-levelled Strategists allow you to utilise specialist formations within the battle.

It’s in these battles you get to see the brand new feature of Total War: Three Kingdoms. At least if you’re playing the Romance mode anyway. These are duels. Armies are clashing on the battlefield when you see one of the generals, they see you too. Naturally, these are larger than life people, one of them still considered the god of war. Duelling can be one of the most effective tools in your arsenal within the game. Are your forces smaller? Why not demoralise the enemy by taking out one of their leaders. Best of all, zooming in and watching the duels shows a fantastic amount of detail in the animations, coming the closest to cinematic as Total War ever has been. I keep thinking of that awesome fight scene in Troy.

Sadly, as much as you’ll want to field a host of armies to keep all of your characters busy, you won’t be able to. This is where resources and city development come to play. Naturally, armies require a decent amount of food and money to sustain. These are the two main resources in the game, with there being smaller, faction specific resources like Unity for Liu Bei. Money is as you would expect, with a large income and expenditure, where everything is pooled for the faction. Food acts a little different though. Cities require a specific amount of food which raises as they are bigger, with surplus food going into increasing income from the peasantry and increasing reserves in each region. No food, unhappy cities and no reserves for your armies on their marches.

Naturally, you’re going to need to find a balance, and this is by focusing cities. For a while Total War has moved into shrinking city plots, having you build select buildings and chains rather than being able to build everything. This returns, but in a way that is better than before. You no longer need to build a specific military building to recruit units, though there is a military chain to increase the cities natural garrison as well as the reserves it holds. Other chains increase food production, with the alternative of increasing revenue from the peasantry by selling food. You can also increase industrial production, or commerce, to generate income too. There are other buildings like a temple to increase public order or courts to reduce corruption in the local vicinity.

The number of buildings may seem limited, but the options and ability to specialise are excellent. Particularly in the military as you don’t have to worry about further specialising in a specific unit type as units are now based on a generals speciality. Cities are aided with side areas that you capture separately too. For example, you’ll find such as farms, mines, ports and even some unique buildings like the temple of Confucius. These are specific, single-tree plots but can help you decide how to focus a city, aiming for synergy between the city and its outlying districts.

Fortunately, as with almost everything else, it’s all easy to navigate with most of it is self-explanatory, such as more advanced buildings needing a larger city or specific resources. These resources, I should add, are not food or money. These are such as livestock, artisans, horses, copper and more. These can be obtained through trade or by having built the necessary building yourself, with certain resources only being found in specific areas of China.

So after all that, there surely must be some faults? A few I suppose. It’s only happened to me twice, but the game would start to slow down and did crash twice during prolonged sessions when I would try to open a menu during a particularly busy session. Okay, so that’s limited and difficult to pull off. The only real complaint I have is that the AI can still be a little stupid, with even pacifist lords, even allies, randomly deciding that they don’t like you anymore, despite you being nothing but friendly. Why? Because you’re a threat to them due to the size of your territory. Also, diplomacy is easy to game if you have enough money, letting you buy your way through most trouble, though they’ve tried to balance this by limiting how high a single positive can go.

I should mention a little on Records mode here. It’s great to play, offering the total war you’re used to but without the fantastic personalities in battle. Sure, feel free to play great but my argument is simple: Why play great when you can play flawless? Or at least as close to flawless as the series has ever been. Let me admit to a bias here – I adore the Three Kingdoms era, having read the Romance of the Three Kingdoms novel & Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms. This means I came into Total War: Three Kingdoms with very high expectations. What I got surpassed even those.

The best way I can describe Total War: Three Kingdoms is that it’s the most complete launch experience in Total War history. It’s as close to flawless as you’ll find, with a fantastic balance of 4X strategy and character-focused development and emergent storytelling. There are the most minor of issues with getting into the new espionage gameplay, but even that has great potential when you get in. Also, the AI can be a bit stupid in diplomacy. Still, these don’t stop this from being one of the best games I’ve ever played and the first title I’ve ever given 10/10.

Copy provided by the publisher. Played on an ultrawide monitor running at 2560×1080 resolution from a PC with an Intel i7-6700 3.4GHz x4 CPU, an Asus Radeon RX480 GPU and 32GB of DDR4 2400MHz RAM. On max settings, the game averaged at around 32FPS during battles with unit sizes set to large. You may purchase the game via Green Man Gaming (currently with 18% discount).

10

Total War: Three Kingdoms is as close to flawless as you'll find, with a fantastic balance of 4X strategy and character-focused development and emergent storytelling. The battles are frantic, with increased tactical opportunities through duelling. City development is more intuitive and less restrictive, though still requires thought and all of this takes place on a China that looks downright fantastic, where even the UI and menus look great. This is the Total War experience and a new high for the series.

Pros

  • One of the best-looking strategy games around
  • Mixes grand strategy and character elements perfectly
  • Characters, as they evolve and develop, add a feeling of life the series hasn't had before
  • Intuitive city building system, allowing for specialisation and focus and synergy with other elements
  • Army building is great, with the retinue system focusing on the general’s class
  • Character duels add a new level of tactical quality to battles and are great to watch
  • Essentially two games in one, from the character focused Romance Mode to the traditional TW style in Records Mode
  • Incredibly addictive, leading to huge game sessions while time flies by

Cons

  • AI is still a little stupid and easy to manage, particularly in diplomacy
  • The espionage system isn't very well explained in at least how to get it started
  • Slight technical issues in prolonged game sessions
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