You may want to pursue Lu Bu
When you think of what a teenager might like, the first thing that pops into your mind probably isn’t history. But for one reason or another, the History Channel was my jam in high school. I loved watching old documentaries about World War II and learning about Rome’s dominance of the ancient world. Something about all of the double-crossing and covert operations piqued my interest, which then put me on the hunt for some historical gaming.
World War II shooters were big at the time, but other parts of history were somewhat underrepresented. I liked Age of Empires fine enough, but when Creative Assembly announced Rome: Total War, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. The wait wasn’t helped by the fact that the History Channel was running the show Decisive Battles, a program that utilized the Rome: Total War engine for battle re-enactments. Talk about being a tease.
With my older self being more engaged with Eastern civilization, then, it should come as no surprise that Total War: Three Kingdoms has been on my radar for quite a while. I love the Romance of the Three Kingdoms story, I’m a big fan of Dynasty Warriors, and I’ve enjoyed the Total War games for roughly 15 years. Of course I was going to be on this.
While not everything in Three Kingdoms is an improvement to the Total War formula, the game does a great job at catering to both ends of the strategy fan spectrum while providing an absolutely amazing historical setting that is perfect for this genre.
Total War: Three Kingdoms (PC)
Developer: Creative Assembly
Released: May 23, 2019
I’ll save my deep dive into the different campaigns for the full review, but I’ll address the most pressing issue that a lot of people probably have. With the last few Total War games, it seemed Creative Assembly couldn’t create a stable engine. Rome II suffered from a lot of game crashes and stuttering framerates and even the Warhammer titles were plagued with issues for a bit. When it was announced that Three Kingdoms would be getting a delay, the hope was that there would be zero problems come release day.
While I’ve had a few crashes, for the most part, you can put those fears to bed. Even on my aging PC, Three Kingdoms runs well and rarely stutters. The battle scenes are appropriately dense and epic in scale while the strategy map doesn’t begin to chug until the late game. I’m not sure why any crashes are happening, but with auto-saves after every turn (a feature you can disable if you’d like), you rarely lose more than three minutes of progress when the game does abruptly close.
The load times are about the only thing that sucks. This has been a problem with newer Total War games for years and there isn’t any real workaround apart from installing to an SSD. I don’t have one available, so booting the game can take two to three minutes and loading battles is often 45-55 seconds before you’re able to do anything. It’s not the worst I’ve seen (and is even a massive improvement over Rome II), but this clearly isn’t optimized for mechanical hard drives.
Still, once you get past the elongated loading screens, the game is really solid. The majestic style of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms novel translates beautifully to a tactical strategy game. With constant warring going on in those stories, it makes more sense for your armies to be battling for hundreds of years without rest. The juicy personal journeys of each general also create a sense of progression that has been lacking in this series for years.
That progression also flows over into the gameplay. While the strategy map of Total War has always played more like a traditional RTS than the battle maps, Three Kingdoms is practically a Civilization game. There are a lot of different systems at play here, down to diplomacy, trading, coalitions, army management, building upgrades, etc. As you battle with specific generals, they even level up and learn new skills. You can swap armor, weapons, and a few special pieces of equipment, as well. It can be really intimidating coming off of how basic this series used to be.
A lot of this should come as no surprise to people that played Total War: Warhammer, though. Three Kingdoms borrows a lot from what those two games started, including having a mode where generals are practically superheroes. Dubbed the “Romance” mode, this recreates what Luo Guanzhong wrote in his novel (or how Dynasty Warriors amplifies the abilities of each character). Characters can take on hundreds of units by themselves and are even given special moves with cooldowns that can turn the odds in their favor in an instant. It’s a real thrill and encapsulates what makes this series so special in the first place.
If you’re one for a more historically accurate game, though, you can opt into the “Records” mode. This will change your generals into mere mortals and has them get bogged down by things like stamina, weariness, and age. In an incredible twist, playing in either mode during the campaign actually changes how the story plays out. Romance will follow the plot of the novels while Records gives you an approximation of real-life events. That’s some huge attention to detail that practically doubles the amount of content you can get out of Three Kingdoms.
One thing I do greatly enjoy is that there are unlockable factions for the campaign mode. When I first booted the game up, I figured I’d jump right into Lu Bu’s campaign and own the world. Turns out he isn’t selectable at first, being locked behind a path that mirrors his plot from the novel. You’ll need to first unlock Dong Zhuo (which happens either when you personally destroy his army or reach Emperor rank in a campaign), then follow the path in Zhuo’s campaign that leads to Lu Bu’s betrayal. Details like that are why I’m sort of in love with Three Kingdoms.
For the most part, though, the battle AI hasn’t noticeably changed in nearly 15 years. You can still bum rush the opposing army with greater numbers and get by without much damage. Simulating battles from the strategy map is almost never a good idea because the game’s RNG isn’t in your favor (even when your generals can mop up). It’s funny that the combat parts are where I sort of check out because that was the biggest draw years ago when Rome was new.
Even with that one aspect not being dramatically overhauled, Three Kingdoms is still quite the game. As I play more and more, I’m sure I’ll discover different details or tactics that allow me to better conquer the campaign map. With the amount of content on offer (and the general length of a campaign being roughly 10 hours), you can’t say Creative Assembly isn’t giving you your money’s worth. What this boils down to is whether or not you have an interest in Total War or ancient China. If both of those things sound appealing, then you’re likely going to find something to enjoy here.
It’s still too early for me to say that this is the definitive entry of the series, but it makes a great first impression and has me wanting for more. Now if only I could actually win a damn campaign, I’d be set.
[This review in progress is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Also see: Total War: Three Kingdoms Guide from our sister site, PC Invasion