When Creative Assembly came out with the first game in the Total War series entitled Shogun: Total War, what followed was an immense amount of fanfare that has yet to die down. Each game within the series uses a turn-based mechanic coupled with real-time army control and tactics, along with resource management. The series has sold over 20 million copies, and only one year after Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia's release, we are greeted with Total War: Three Kingdoms, perhaps the best game in the series to date. It follows much of the same while doing things a bit differently, all while presenting you with historical tidbits and a wonderful story that does a great job of immersing you into the gameplay and making you feel as if you are right there fighting alongside your troops.
Total War: Three Kingdoms puts the player within the historical era of China known as the Three Kingdoms period, which spanned from 220 AD to 280 AD, though the journey begins a bit earlier with the reign of Emperor Xian in 190 AD. From the onset, the game gives you an accurate depiction of history detailing the foundation of the Wei dynasty in China, but from there, the history of China is ultimately shaped by the player based solely on which faction they choose and whom they choose to ally themselves with. You have twelve factions that you can choose from, each with their own varying degrees of difficulty and each with a leader who has their own unique personality and set of ideals, which help to shape how they will interact with other factions within the game. Depending on the faction choice, the player will be able to select actual historical figures from the time period including Lu Bu, Liu Bei, Sun Jian, and Cao Cao, Ultimately, the goal regardless of faction choice being the total unification of all of China.
After making your faction choice, you will be faced with the decision to choose either romance or classic mode to begin your journey of unifying all of China. If you select romance mode, the background and abilities attributed to your various generals will be based solely on a novel entitled, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, by 14th-century author, Luo Guanzhong. Within this context, you will notice that your generals are far superior to their adversaries and that their performance and attributes on the battlefield can sway a battle in your favor when you might otherwise have lost it playing in classic mode. While the otherworldly strength of your generals may jettison the game into a non-historical context, Creative Assembly does a great job of bringing things back down to earth and giving you accurate historical information about army formations, agriculture and cultural norms of the time period.
In classic mode, things are a bit similar, in that your generals are superior to your average troops, but they don't have the ability to really sway a battle beyond what might be considered historically possible. The outcome of a battle relies more on your abilities as a tactician, rather than your reliance on your generals' abilities. Your ability to read the battlefield and make split-second decisions is key to your success. This doesn't mean that your generals aren't important to your cause, it just means that their loss doesn't impact the outcome of a battle like it would in romance mode. Additionally, while the success of your generals is important for unit morale, the overall success of your campaign rest on your abilities as a leader and your diplomatic relations with other factions within the game.
While each game within the Total War series has based your success off diplomacy and trade, Total War: Three Kingdoms does things a bit differently. For example, now you will have the ability to use all your items within a trade, including your followers, weapons, and materials, as well as land holdings. You can now see how your trade talks are going thanks to a little number counter which goes from even to positive or negative, depending on your choices. Based on your trade partner's needs, certain items that you select may be far more valuable to them than others. This means that you will be able to get a far greater amount of gold for far less food from an individual that is rich, but low in food, and vice versa. With that, you can reject, accept, or continue negotiations on any trade offers you receive. These changes help to add a bit more realism to these aspects of the game and in turn, provide an even greater amount of realism overall.
No game within the Total War series is worth its weight in gold if it doesn't incorporate your surrounding environment in some way within the battlefield. While games within the series have always done this well, this latest installment goes to great lengths to ensure complete realism. This means that even if your tactics are good, if your positioning within the battlefield is subpar, you can still lose the battle. The game encourages you to place your ranged troops on high ground or within the treeline and it rewards you for doing so by giving your troops greater protection from enemy arrows. If you are advancing on an enemy, your decision to do so out in the open leaves you with far greater losses as a result, but if you choose to use cover you will also have greater fatigue as your troops will need to exert more effort to make it through the forest. As a commander on the battlefield, you will have to weigh the pros and cons of each decision and factor in your enemy's army composition when doing so.
One of the most frustrating parts about games like this is having to read walls of text while you are trying to enjoy the overall experience of the game. With Total War: Three Kingdoms, while there is text if you need it, the game developers saw fit to provide voice narration throughout, along with some amazing visuals. Not only do the voice actors and actresses do a great job of bringing to life the generals that they are hired to portray, but historical narration provided throughout really makes you feel as if you are living the story through your character. As far as the musical score from the game, it is not only accurate to the period, but it also helps to set the mood for each new event that you experience throughout the game.
From the moment you start up the game, you are dragged into a story that is so compelling that it is hard to ignore. From the striking visuals to the authoritative and emotional voice-over, you feel as if you aren't just playing a game, you're reliving a part of history. You can sense the care and attention that went into every detail of the game and the ideals of your characters are reflected in each decision that they make and their reactions to the choices that you yourself choose to make. You feel drawn to your generals as you learn their stories and find yourself making decisions not based so much on how you feel about a situation, but rather how you imagine you, as a leader with such ideals, might behave.
4.5 out of 5 stars
A copy of Total War: Three Kingdoms was purchased by TheGamer for this review. Total War: Three Kingdoms is currently available on PC, MacOS, and Linux.