Winter was hard. Our army had pushed through the farm fields of the Pengcheng prefecture and now sits in a blockade around the city owned by the deceitful general Wang Lang. Nearly two years ago, things were very different. We were allies in a common cause. But relations soured after our enemies fell. It was only our allies' armies that sat between us and the emperor's throne. I offered my hand but Wang Lang refused to join my coalition. To further confirm his treachery, my advisers discovered one of his people, Wu Lang, had infiltrated our court, garnered our trust, and now influenced our growing empire from the inside.
With a heavy heart, I gave the word and unleashed our war beast Zhang Fei and his battle brother Guan Yu, who the people knew as the God of War.
Wang Lang would've known this was the natural course of events if he was to betray our trust. He'd been on the field when these two had marched together against our enemies. Guan Yu hunts down the mightiest of enemy generals, forces him into a duel in front of his own men, and tears them apart. That moment would see the enemy soldiers falter, the realisation of hopelessness biting into their souls. And this is when Zhang Fei, the powerful bear, would smash into our enemy's flanks, crushing their advance and cutting down dozens with a single sweep of his legendary Serpent Spear.
And today, Wang Lang knows that our own army supply line is running low this far from home. He sent his diplomat in a last attempt to broker a deal before tomorrow’s impending battle. Wang Lang offered the remaining city coffers and the farmlands to the north in exchange for his fealty. But my heart has been broken and his lands and wealth will be mine when the sun rises to watch my beasts of war pull down his final home.
I am Liu Bei the Protector and my heart is needed to love the people I protect.
When war is over, it’s the victors who tell the story. Which side will they say fought for good?
The UK based Creative Assembly has another continent-sized epic Total War. Set in the romanticised lands of ancient China, Total War Three Kingdoms (TW 3K) lets the player choose a character instead of a faction. After all, legendary people make good stories.
Following the fantasy-themed Total War Warhammer, TW 3K comes with two modes. The first Three Kingdoms game mode is known as Records, and it protects the series’ historical accuracy roots, giving generals a retinue of bodyguards to do most of the fighting for them. Whereas the Romance option borrows more from the Warhammer games, where generals are legendarily powerful, come with superhuman skills and name their glorious weapons. These warriors can take out hundreds of men in a battle, will drop everything to duel one another, and can get bonus-granting followers, artifacts and horses.
You must not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war
Where Total War has been faction-driven, Three Kingdoms is entirely character-driven. Each of the 12 warlords has a unique playstyle, a back-story, and differing desires. It’s not just a simple case of different factions having different units. These are 12 massively different protagonists each with distinct ideas on how to unite China. Sun Jian is an absolute warmonger, for example, while Kong Rong is keen to bring about a peaceful resolution to these turbulent times. Each has unique abilities and skills, as well as specialised buildings and units which can help them go about their task. Go in hard on peaceful little Yuan Shao, for example, and he’s more than likely got a couple of bigger mates in the playground which will be all-too-keen to hang you on the proverbial coat hook by your pants.
The biggest overhaul is found in how diplomacy is handled. To date, Total War diplomacy has been lacklustre and difficult to engage with. With only limited feedback and few options available, the blank responses back from those you tried to negotiate with would leave you frustrated and unlike a ruler who commands the respect of their neighbours.
TW 3K has addressed the missing feedback by presenting a value system in response. Ask a neighbouring ruler to open up trade with you and they respond with a relative figure (1200 currency, for example). It’s then a process of offering the ruler things you have control over, up to the given value. Using the given example of 1200 currency, a white horse for their general may cover 400. Coughing up 50 gold a season for ten seasons would cover another 500, and so on until you’ve met their numerical requirement. Each option and interaction is only relevant between you and that other specific ruler for that moment. By next season a whole swathe of influencing factors could have occurred and the value system will shift accordingly. Perhaps the ruler you are negotiating with just found your spy in his realm or has come into a cash windfall and doesn't care for your money anymore. All of which will lower or adjust the relative values making for a different “discussion” next time.
On top of this, certain rulers have particular characteristics. Some love being ruled and may be quicker to become a vassal of yours, whereas others become annoyed with any other rulers that dare vote against their will in a coalition.
When you choose your starting character you are often also choosing a subsystem that is bespoke to that character that can be used to swing the game a little in your favour. For example, the devious politician, Cao Cao earns influencing points each turn. He can spend a few of these to gain favour with anyone or perhaps spend lots and force a war between two sides, all the while keeping his hands clean. Sun Jian can influence and lower his troop costs as his awesomeness rating improves, Liu Bei gathers Unity that he can spend to take over certain settlements, without having to attack them.
There’s a lot of depth to be found and, for the first time in a Total War title, the other rulers are actively engaging you with offers that can make you stop and think. This level of guile stretches across the campaign events; rulers use diplomacy as an active solution to certain situations they encounter, which is incredibly refreshing to see.
For example, crushing an enemy time and time again pushed their ruler into a corner where we would finish them off. However, they then negotiated heavily with one of our powerful allies to become a military ally of theirs, leaving us with the unenviable choice of calling off the hunt or continuing the attack and risk upsetting one of our powerful allies.
You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.
While enhancing the potential depths of the system they have simplified the user experience with some neat little extras. In the diplomacy screens, a single button automatically figures out what it would take to get the other party to go ahead with your deal. So you ask for what you want, press the button, and it instantly compiles a suitable offer of money/lands and other such offerings from your own side. It’s quick and simple, at the risk of losing that granular control.
Previously, one baby step towards friendship would be enough to set up a non-aggression pact and later you would then move towards some form of alliance. In TW3K CA’s put in another option - start a coalition and invite various leaders in. Before long, other rulers are queueing up to join and the existing members are voting on who they let in and who the coalition should or shouldn't attack. It’s basically like setting up your own after-school club to meet in the tree house and chat about all the people that currently annoy you. Before long this invariably has you feeling like an outsider as the popular kids join and bring their friends and wrestle control from you.
This move towards a richer strategy game seems to come at a cost. And this is seen in two areas: the user interface (which is often cluttered), and the flow of management and where to find out which data influences it.
Pressing F1 does summon a contextual help menu. In this mode, hovering over UI elements will pop up a separate window which can help explain what that particular aspect deals with. It’s quite handy for learning the ropes, although perhaps a little needless if some of the UI elements weren’t so obtuse. Every menu has a sub-menu packing more menus, and menus often even delving even deeper than that. It’s the matryoshka dolls of strategy interfaces, and it can be a little bewildering trying to keep tabs on hundreds of disparate elements. F1 helps, but TW: 3 Kingdoms is still the sort of game in which you’ll only truly realise the impact of some icons and decisions many turns or games deep.
It’s easy to get the impression CA knew there’s too much going on and answered this with more clutter. So while the UI is beautiful, the aesthetics can often get in the way of being able to see important details players will be wanting to see to make judgment calls. There are screen help layers, hover-overs, and so on, but despite these, I still don't know the difference between resource, reserves, food, supply, nor their impact on the game. I can’t tell the difference between unit strengths without squinting at an excessive number of overlays.
A showcase of this would be your generals’ various characteristics and titles. They have a General type, a rank number, a title rank, assignment, city administrator position, court position, family tree position, trait, friendships with every other general they met or fought with, likes and dislikes, and a satisfaction stat that is influenced by their current position in your court and what trinkets given to them. They then have tonnes of other stats and those figures could have multiple views, presumably with the intention of simplifying what you’re looking at but actually serving as another set of data to work out what it all means.
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle you know nothing about.
For the stat hungry, this is mostly a positive. However, for a lot of newcomers to the series, this could be a barrier to entry. Beneath the confusing veneer, it’s not the most complex strategy game out there though. For the majority of people interested in strategy games, going and finding out what it all does is part of the fun. And, unlike a lot of games the data is always there to be found, it's just sometimes you have to really read around and dig for it.
Nevertheless, this strategy management, naturally guided by numbers, lends itself to keeping the early game of TW:3K tight and steady. Your armies are supplied with food (referred to as Military Supplies in-game) and these are replenished when in your own territory but depleted when stepping across onto foreign soil.
Once an army’s Military Supply has dwindled away, its troops start leaving and morale drops. This keeps the armies on a fairly tight leash and encourages close-to-home expansion and alliances. It also stops random enemy armies from turning up from the other side of the map and unbalancing the game without warning.
Building your army is focused around your General’s type, which defines what army units they might have available to them. A Strategist could recruit repeating crossbowmen, long-range bowmen, light cavalry or light trebuchets, whereas a Vanguard might be able to recruit powerful melee units and no archers. Each general can have up to 6 units attached to them and there can be 3 generals in an army stack, which totals 21 units (18 army and 3 generals).
In the struggle between the stone and water, in time, the water wins
If you can afford it, you can hire multiple generals in one season but their accompanying units will start on a fraction of their full contingent. Then every season more soldiers are added to each single unit. This represents the organic nature of mustering your soldiers from your population and it again slows the pace down of the game. As armies do battle, lose troops, and then have to heal/muster slowly back on home soil.
One of the elements that reportedly took the longest with Total War Warhammer development was having individual creatures animated correctly to fight any other creature they encountered in real time. You could zoom in and enjoy a fight to the death by ranks of dwarves versus giant trolls, or perhaps Trolls versus Cold One Riders. It feels that this level of immersion has sadly not been included Three Kingdoms Total War with some fairly boilerplate combat.
When in the live battles, soldiers just bounce around each other, randomly dropping dead or swishing their weapon at nothing. Despite this, battles can be beautiful, especially at night or cities under siege when the Chinese lanterns are lit and released across the city. lighting up the sky. They’re also simple yet strategically engaging.
One key area where Three Kingdoms elevates above CA’s predecessors is the overall attention lavished on the aesthetic. A singular, cohesive art style bleeds through every element of the UI, campaign map, and even the battles themselves. TW3K is a feast for the eyes, offering up beautiful watercolour maps, hand-drawn portraits, and some stunning battle environments that feature dynamic weather and some truly eye-catching lighting as rays ripple down through a mountain gap.
In a nice turn of events, CA has even included a pair of post-processing effects which can be chosen. By default, this is set to ‘Romance’, which is a stylised, romanticised vision of Ancient China with vivid hues. ‘Records’ provides a far more muted take which is likely far more in line with reality but does look a little bit washed out in comparison. This setting is truer to the classic Total War look though, so the option is there if you want a grittier experience.
Unfortunately, there’s no option for UI scaling in Total War; Three Kingdoms. This makes the small text extremely difficult to read whenever I want to super relax and conquer China from the comfort of my own sofa. That’s likely a niche problem but it would be nice to at least have the UI flexibility which is present in games such as Planet Coaster.
As always, there’s a lot to say about these goliath Total War titles. It wasn’t that long ago that TW: Warhammer 2 released and the conclusion was it's great but they’re their own benchmark; that if they don't significantly change something in their formula then they could be on the slippery slope to mediocrity. Creative Assembly get it though, they give each iteration a lot of thought to what makes each game take that next step forward.
So have we reached an annual release saturation point with Total War Three Kingdoms? Nope. Only a couple of months back I replayed TW Warhammer 2 through to the 120 turn mark and yet here I am, enjoying the variety and depth offered by TW 3 Kingdoms.
It’s not without its UI issues, but Total War 3 Kingdoms provides beautiful, rich strategy that is well paced while enjoying a new layer of story depth through diplomacy and intrigue.