Review – Total War: Three Kingdoms

Overview

Developer Creative Assembly
Publisher Sega
Genre Strategy
Platforms PC
Release Date May 23, 2019

As a huge fan of the Shogun games under Sega’s Total War banner, the January 2018 announcement trailer for Total War: Three Kingdoms sent me into a fit of hysteria. Despite the proliferation of franchises such as Dynasty Warriors, I had never ventured to learn what makes Romance of the Three Kingdoms a mythos so popular that it is as well-known in the East as King Arthur is known in the West. Looking forward to a rare, Asian-inspired strategy game, I could not wait to dig into legendary historical fiction.

Content Guide

“But a kingdom that has once been destroyed can never come again into being; nor can the dead ever be brought back to life.” ~ Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Violence: As has been the tradition in the Total War series since Shogun 2, Sega—and ye$, I place respon$iblity for thi$ $quarely at the publisher’$ feet—decided to sell blood separately from the main game. “Out of the box,”  Three Kingdoms is appropriately rated T for Teen, given the wushu-style combat including bows and arrows, pole arms, and swords. 

Those who want to bump up the difficulty to M for Mature will be interested in the Reign of Blood DLC that adds:

-blood sprays on weapon impact
-limb-lops and beheadings 
-equine dismemberment

Oh noes, not the horses!

Sega is being greedy by making gamers wait and pay for the inevitable blood mod, so one need not worry about any of that here. This is a war game featuring countless animations of people being stabbed in the forehead with swords or taking arrows to the knee, but not a single drop of blood is rendered in this game.

Spirituality: Three Kingdoms takes place during the second century, when Confucianism and Buddhism had been in circulation for over 500 years. It is possible to build Confucian temples in every territory to maintain public order. A unique location, the Grand Temple City of Confucius, provides 

to public order for a warlord’s entire kingdom. I believe it is based upon the Temple of Confucius in Qufu, Shandong Province. 

The Mandate of Heaven is the driving force behind much of the conflict in Three Kingdoms. Trying to explain that philosophby here would be like describing the chaos that imperialists brought to the world during Age of Exploration for the purpose of “Gold, Glory, and God.” I encourage our readers to learn more about the Eastern ideology on their own time; the parallels to the West are surprising.

FEMALE EMPEROR? I did a double-take!

Positive Content: While my wife and I miss the “fecund wife” modifiers from Shogun 2, unlike that game, in Three Kingdoms, women are more than baby-making machines! Female generals were introduced in Total War: Rome 2 to the chagrin of a vocal minority of incels. It would appear to me that Creative Assembly has tripled-down on the capabilities of women with Three Kingdoms. If players want, they can have all-female armies, or even an all-female leadership chain. 

My female Prime Minister (the wife of Cao Cao’s brother, Cao Ren) is more qualified than my faction heir, TBQH.

Ever wanted to field an army led by a husband and wife duo? Now that is possible! Jacquelyn would also add that Three Kingdoms is more balanced than at launch in terms of the childbirth rate and the ratio of boy and girl children. Family trees are fun!

This game is rated T for Teen

Review

Blurry picture because cinematics in motion.

As a fan of the Total War games with Asian orientations, I should have known better than to expect Creative Assembly to…assemble…a grand narrative concerning the history of the Three Kingdoms, or the historical fiction that is the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The Total War: Three Kingdoms interpretation picks up at 190 A.D. The bellicose warlord Dong Zhuo, having out-muscled the child Emperor Xian, makes his move to conquer China. However, rival warlords (think daimyo in Shogun 2) begin to form coalitions to ultimately thwart Dong Zhuo’s power-grab. Fans of the Romance fiction might remember this as the Oath of the Peach Garden between Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei.

The Chinese trinity: the puppeteer, the peacemaker, and the conqueror,

In most campaigns, Dong Zhuo dies early (to be consistent with his historical assassination at the hands of his own truculent bodyguard, Lü Bu), leaving China up for grabs. Players have the choice of selecting from an intimidating number of influential warlords from the Three Kingdoms era; I decided to select among those who established the”three states” of Shu Han, Eastern Wu, and Cao Wei.  

Cao Cao’s powers enable him to make other warlords fight.

Because I have accumulated rust since I last played Total War: Attila, I began with Cao Cao because Three Kingdoms indicated him to be an “easy mode” warlord. This could not have been further from the truth, for now only is Cao Cao’s starting position in the center of China, surrounded by potential enemies at all sides, but the game also shipped with severe balancing problems that enabled the AI-controlled general Yuan Shao to vassalize nearly the entire map, making any sort of progress impossible without enervating diplomatic actions.

Notice Yuan Shao’s small province north of Cao Cao’s center position in the previous screenshot. Before I knew it, he had established an entire duchy spanning all of northern China, some parts east and south. Bruh!

I had formed a coalition with Yuan Shao, so it became nearly impossible for me to expand; not even with Cao Cao’s innate power of trustiness to manipulate diplomatic activities between other clans could I keep up. Yuan Shao’s vassal blobbing was so universally terrible that fans practically forced Creative Assembly to remedy the problem with a patch. After taking a break, I archived my save, and started a new campaign with Sun Jian, playing it from start to finish. 

Sun Jian’s special ability that maintains public order and commander happiness as long as he is fighting suits my aggressive offensive playstyle.

Three Kingdoms is a game that is almost too complex—dangerously close, in fact, to a 4x game. There are so many mechanics to manage during every turn that they can become overwhelming for those who wish to play optimally. Without reading and watching guides besides Creative Assembly’s PR materials, I would not have known how to maximize my economy. Shout out to Serious Trivia’s videos for helping my economy along.

Want access to all military units? Players will need to diversify their army generals. Only strategists can recruit archers and siege units. Vanguard can recruit calvary. Sentinels tanky troops. And so on. Screenshot from totalwar.fandom.com

Let me try to tackle this from my initial perception that Three Kingdoms lacks unit diversity. I believed this to be the case because I was only using red and green generals—vanguards (red) and champions (green)—for dueling and crashing into enemy units. Even after I constructed the requisite buildings and researched the necessary techs, I became frustrated because I could not find my repeating crossbowmen; I wanted an army of “Chu Ko Nu” as a tribute to the Chinese in Age of Empires 2. After defeating a unique (gold-plated name and non-generic artwork) character class who was a strategist (blue) did I learn that I needed to diversify my generals to diversify my army. 

Archers have always been the backbone of my military forces. I had to look up on the internet to find out that only strategists could field archers with flaming arrows.

Each general can command up to six retinues of soldiers, with a full army totaling eighteen. The troops within those retinues benefit from their respective generals’ stats and passive abilities, as has been Total War tradition. The most unique feature that Three Kingdoms introduces to combat, though, is dueling, a key selling point during Sega’s marketing campaign for the game.

 

During duels, heroes can outright challenge each other to a 1-on-1 showdown in the middle of a battle involving thousands, armies circling around them. Admittedly, these duels look as cool as they sound, but I wonder about their practicality. I often noticed that the enemy hero causing me the most problems would outright refuse to duel, or is too powerful and would whoop up on all my generals. Even when a duel would appear to be beneficial, the indisposed general might serve his or her army better, commanding rather than fighting, or lending a hand to troops who appear to be wavering.

If only I had the time to watch these besides in battles where the outcome is predetermined.

Unlike Shogun 2, I question the efficacy of singling-out generals because the morale shock of a fallen commander does not feel as noticeable as in previous games. Besides, duels frequently last for a crucial duration of a battle, so unless an epic endgame fight consisting of multiple reinforcements takes place, players may barely notice the difference a duel makes, and they fatigue the general too. Still, if one must duel, Champions are ideal, but other generals, like vanguards and sentinels, can fight too; I would keep strategists and commanders on the sidelines. 

My heroes are almost always on horseback, and I have only ever equipped one with a bow. I would love to try out this animation, though.

Selecting the correct generals impacts not only martial capabilities, but also economic opportunities. Even though Creative Assembly has color-coded everything to supposedly make things easier, there are so many structural options that they will make players’ eyes cross. If one finds themselves in possession of fertile (green) land, then cultivating farms is the way to go; raise food to use for trade fodder or build structures to sell the food for profit, but do not overextend, because food is required to support upgrading towns into cities to unlock higher tech buildings. Upgrading towns into cities also increases population, a resource that can be taxed for profit; high populations and (high) taxes, however, create civil unrest. 

So many options, so few building plots! Upgrading the town into a city increases the number of building slots, but at the cost of population, which creates civil unrest. Options are color-coded, but I still struggled to decide what to build.

This is where balancing a diverse array of nobles comes into play.  As the player’s chosen warlord advances in rank on the civics tech tree, he—or she, should the warlord in question appoint a female heir—can dispatch a finite number of administrators to add additional benefits to key commanderies. Champions cultivate population growth and profit, commanders mitigate civil unrest, and so on. Special gold-plated characters provide even MORE incentives. 

I love cleaning up the battlefield with calvary. Let no man, or very very few, stand!

And just when players have had enough micromanaging, they should prepare themselves to spend five to ten minutes each turn in the diplomacy screen. With something like twenty-plus warlords simultaneously vying for supremacy, no turn should expire without attempting to gain an edge. One warlord might offer more for a precious trade route than another; one warlord may offer higher prices in exchange for food, and so on, again! The likes of war declarations, peace treaties, cease-fires, and coalitions change with every turn. By mid-to-late-game, the left sidebar will spam players with news at the beginning of every turn. 

When the AI doesn’t have food, exploit it for everything but its undergarments (and maybe those too just to be funny).

While playing Three Kingdoms, I wanted to experience something as close to a fully-Chinese experience as my westernized understanding of the country would allow me to comprehend—besides its outstanding Chinese-themed OST. I set the language to Chinese during my first campaign and got an earful of Mandarin, which is what I expected from watching movies like the IP Man trilogy. In my ignorance, though, I struggled to remember names because they sound so foreign to me (and thanks to Serious Trivia, I know I botched a ton of their pronunciations). Thus, I spent extra time in the diplomacy screen triple-checking the difference between Liu Biao and Liu Bei, Yuan Shao and Yuan Shu—the latter being as much of a [redacted] as his half-brother. The fantastic portraits of key warlords certainly helps. The takeaway here is that I love getting lost in the thoroughly Chinese-ness that Three Kingdoms offers.

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A full year after release, I am still fumbling through all of the features in Three Kingdoms. The sheer scope of the game is intimidating to the point where I wonder if there is such a thing as too much. There are still features like battle mode that I do not have the space to describe! I always have time, however, to lambast Sega for the deluge of MTX DLC, especially for blood, which should be an in-game toggle. Notwithstanding corporate greed, Total War: Three Kingdoms will provide plenty of experiences that are worthy of the franchise name. 

The Bottom Line

Total War: Three Kingdoms narrowly qualifies as a great addition to the Total War franchise as its 4X grand strategy tendencies loom.

 

8.5

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Maurice Pogue

Since picking up an NES controller in 1985 at the age of 2, Maurice and video games have been inseparable. While most children aspired to be lawyers, doctors, or engineers (at the behest of their parents), he aspired to write for publications such as EGM, PC Gamer, PC Accelerator, and Edge. After achieving ABD status in English at MSU, Maurice left academia and dedicated his writing to his lifelong passion. He is currently the Video Game Editor at Geeks Under Grace.

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