Total War – Three Kingdoms review (PC)

Breaking new ground yet again with their Total War franchise, The Creative Assembly has released Total War: Three Kingdoms. A PC exclusive, we playtested the game through Steam.

Seeing as how the first Total War title was released back in 2000, The Creative Assembly has been at it for twenty years now – and it’s amazing to see how well the formula has stood the test of time. I had been out of touch with the franchise for while because I skipped Thrones of Britannia and got a little burned out on the Warhammer entries (or rather, the total cost buildup because of the DLC involved) – but playing Three Kingdoms felt like a warm bath.

This was true during a hands on session we had with Sega close to a year ago, and it’s true when you boot up the final game as well. Once on the battlefield, the basics of the gameplay are delightfully familiar, and it certainly helps if you have some past experience with the franchise. Troop formations, factoring in terrain changes and height differences – it’s all still there and understanding their tactical benefits is crucial. Don’t worry if you’re new to the franchise (although The Creative Assembly clearly targets their existing audience here) – the game has an excellent tutorial as well.

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The backdrop for Three Kingdoms is new for Total War – taking place in ancient China during the fall of the Han dynasty – an era well described in the literary classic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, from which the game draws its title. As multiple leaders vie for the emperor’s throne, Thee Kingdoms is about the relationships between these people as much as it is about their expertise on the battlefield. Dealing with politics and taxes isn’t new to the franchise, but there’s a level of intrigue here that adds an extra layer to the campaign you’re undertaking.

This notion of personality doesn’t just limit itself to the game’s key players – it trickles all the way down to the choices you make for who you appoint to what position, from a battlefield commander right down to the people who run your justice courts. If they’re not happy with your (lack of) choices for them, they may even defect and switch sides. Ancient China was full of drama, it appears. Characters in the game even form friendships or can grow to dislike one another – all elements you have to factor into your decision-making process. Sometimes, arranging a marriage for someone is a quick way to stop unrest from growing – and sometimes you’ll have to divert attention by waging war on a nearby army.

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Military might isn’t the sole key to success either, as has been historically the case in Total War games. In Three Kingdoms, a wrench can be thrown into your cogs at any point in time because of how the people/character dynamic plays out. A key character can turn out to be a spy, turning the tide of battle – as can a change of heart in a character you had a lot riding on. These moments can be frustrating, but they can almost always be explained by how you developed and nurtured your empire and the relationships within it. As a result, the experience remains engaging for far longer than previous titles did.

Total War: Three Kingdoms is quite possibly the most complex Total War game to date – but that complexity does come with great benefits. There’s a drawback too, however, as the user interface – especially outside of the basic battlefield controls – has become so multi-faceted that it can be hard to keep track of everything at first. Stick with it, and you’re in for what is the richest Total War experience to date.

Score: 8.6/10

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