The Total War: Three Kingdoms reviews are out now, and you can start reading what the critics think while you wait for the game to arrive on May 23. You can already find a number of perspectives on Three Kingdoms’ strengths both as the next Total War and as its own fresh take on a much-recounted period of Chinese history.The release of the Warhammer games over the past few years marked a potential schism for the series, long a plaything for those very into history. Here were two strategy titles that, rather than sticking to a time period like Medieval Europe or Shogunate Japan, were set in a fantasy world, and rather than agonising over musket accuracy threw realism out the window in favour of magic powers and RPG-like gear loadouts.Total War: Three Kingdoms is absolutely swimming in big ideas – plural – to its detriment and its strength, which is probably inevitable given the deeply, intrinsically philosophical era in which it’s set. Three Kingdoms China starts with the fall of the Han Dynasty, around the late 100s to early 200s CE, and predictably it’s a time of fractured alliances and political upheaval – so far so Total War.
It’s game of two halves. On the one hand, there’s the relatively leisurely business of running your kingdom, where you take turns with opponents (AI or human) to move stacks of soldiers around, adjust tax rates with one eye on your population’s contentment levels, and build facilities such as schools and garrisons.Before recruiting armies, for example, you must appoint a commander, whose attributes go some way to determining which troops you’ll hire and how they perform. You can also promote characters to positions at court, from town administrator all the way to prime minister, to shape the operation of your empire.These personalities age and evolve over the course of each playthrough. They don’t just develop new traits – a scarred visage that sparks terror in combat, a charitable outlook that makes them popular with peasants – but they also develop friendships and grudges with other characters.You’ll learn which of your neighbouring rulers can be bullied without consequence, and which will rally against you.This beautiful but fractured land calls out for a new emperor and a new way of life. Unite China under your rule, forge the next great dynasty, and build a legacy that will last through the ages.Choose from a cast of 12 legendary Warlords and conquer the realm.After several years, we finally have a true Total War experience in Three Kingdoms. Covering almost everything that a fan of strategy genre craves, Three Kingdoms is one of the most complete entries in the TW series and one of the best strategies in recent years.I feel like I’m negotiating with them, rather than the usual puppetry and mummery of diplomatic systems. Likewise, when I manage my underlings — generals, administrators, spies, family members — I feel like I’m getting to know real people in all their variety.
Total War: Three Kingdoms embraces the story it’s inspired by, Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, rather than strict historical accuracy. Soldiers can run around the battlefield seemingly forever without getting tired. Their leaders are larger-than-life figures with complicated backstories and rivalries, who carry legendary spears and are able to defeat entire units single-handed.Selecting no will actually reduce the number of hints you’re given with a further option to shut them off outright. Selecting yes will practically guide you by the hand to figuring out how the campaign map works and how unfavorable battles can have the odds shifted through smart strategic thinking.The alternative, Romance Mode, feels like an honest embrace of what Total War has really been all along, though. It’s a version of history that’s closer to an epic movie, where the broad sweep is familiar but subtleties are ignored whenever they would be inconvenient to the action.Three Kingdoms puts me in charge of a fiefdom, from which my grand aspirations take shape. I plot expansion and march my armies into neighboring domains. We engage in battle. If I win, my empire grows and my rival’s diminishes. I use my new possessions as taxation pools, which fund more armies. I take care to maintain a well-fed and well-behaved populace.A single defection may ruin your rush to victory, and it’s enjoyable to reflect on the moments of treachery, impulsiveness or calculation that have made each character who they are. This is more pressing with characters you suspect to be spies, cast out into the world by their lords in the hope that another ruler might recruit them. Given time and luck, spies may achieve high office in their target court, allowing their true patrons to hijack cities and armies without bloodshed.This might seem like an awful lot of time to spend talking about dusty books and grand chin-stroking without even getting into the game itself, but it is necessary. Three Kingdoms, I’ve come to realise, is a game that is utterly defined by its setting in time and in space – more so than any other Total War, and more than probably any other grand strategy or 4X game that I’ve played.
The balance of the game feels great as well. Whether it’s food production (used mostly as a handbrake on rapid expansion), the economy or population happiness, stuff that has previously been a frustration in a Total War game feels more generous here, as though it’s being generated more as a result and reflection of what I’ve done/built rather than a limitation being imposed on me by the AI.Good government doesn’t come easily, and the game forces you to balance keeping your citizens happy, managing population growth, paying your bills and making sure you have enough food to feed both your growing empire and your armed forces. Failing to satisfy any one and it’ll set off a cascade of other problems.
Even if my own genre proclivities will probably see Warhammer 2 remain my go-to Total War title in the short term, I’d be hard-pressed to forgo admitting that Three Kingdoms is the better title. Moment to moment, it simply plays better and, over the long haul, I suspect that the improvements to diplomacy and the quirks of the Romance mode will win me over.But it’s a small price to pay for such rich, enjoyable scheming and melodrama. Total War: Three Kingdoms is a wonderfully torrid period epic that understands the greatest stories are written about people, not empires.