Total War: Three Kingdoms Review
A small village held by a rogue army was an ideal starting point for my invasion of China. Feeling brazen, I charged forward – scouting the area and getting close enough to estimate the size of the enemy’s forces.
Upon consulting my advisers, they were confident a head–on attack would be sure defeat for my troops. The whole of Yangzhou’s military were waiting within the wooden walls of this tiny village. A fresh approach was needed.
I appointed a new general from my ranks, the young but fierce Lady Bian, and armed her with a battalion of spearmen and archers. Her orders were to go around the village and wait in the nearby forest to the east. Once the battle began, she’d flank the enemy, giving me an advantage. But to do this, I’d first need to negotiate passage through an adjacent territory, otherwise, our movements would be seen as an act of war with a larger faction I really didn’t want to piss off.
I made a pact with this large neighbor: I’d offer a monthly stipend of gold as well as reinforcements should they ever get invaded. They agreed to my terms of non-hostility and Lady Bian made her move.
It was now the dead of winter. With Bian’s forces close enough, I reformed my troops. We surrounded the town. The enemy was still strong but I knew I could starve them out. I ordered my troops to maintain a siege line and cut off their supplies weakening them for the battle ahead.
Once the snow broke I attacked.
Lady Bian joined us on the battlefield, bringing her troops behind the enemy as planned, leaving enemy archers exposed. I could taste a decisive victory.
We charged. The enemy halted, issuing a surprise challenge to me. Rather than fight with armies, their general wanted to face my general in a one on one duel to death. Drunk on my own strength, I accepted.
Our heroes both rode out ahead of our troops as they watched in silence. Dismounting, the generals drew their blades and entered a dance with death that would leave only one standing. The enemy hero fought honorably, but ultimately was no match for my champion. It was over as quickly as it began. Victory! Or so I thought.
The enemy archers, seeing their commander fall, were enraged. They launched a volley of arrows toward my front lines, killing countless of my troops. This dishonor would not go unpunished. I rallied my cavalry and charged into battle. There would be no mercy today.
This is Total War: Three Kingdoms. A game with rich mechanics that layer upon one another to give you an incredibly nuanced simulation of warfare and empire building politics. You are a conqueror setting out to rule China. But your mileage may vary depending on whether you’re familiar with this series or if you’re a newcomer.
Newb Friendly Campaign
When you first start up the game you’re asked whether you’re new or a series veteran. For newbies like myself, you’ll be pleased to know there are quite a lot of helpful hints, popups and explainers. Early objectives are designed to teach and there’s even a character-narrator who provides tutorial-like information with all the pomp and flare to keep you in the zone.
That said, the sheer volume of information coming at you at any point during the campaign could be paced better. I’ve played games with deep tutorials before, but rather than break it out to let concepts sink in, the campaign can fire information about a new mechanic at what feels like every turn you take, overloading your brain’s cognitive ability to maintain the last piece of information received. Understandably, though, there is a lot you need to learn.
The meat of this game is in its campaign, which allows you to pick from several faction leaders and embark on a many hours long story of battle, politics, defeat and victory. Each hero has different advantages, disadvantages, implied difficulty and a unique resource to manage. After selection, you start in an assigned area of China with some troops and now it’s up to you how you want to begin your journey.
What’s refreshing in Three Kingdoms is just how many options you have at your disposal to maneuver and how each strategy has consequences. You can negotiate with neighboring Lords on a variety of outcomes to further your agenda. Do you want peace while you bide your time? Well this lord appears to be poor, they’ll respond favorably to a monthly stipend.
Do you just need temporary entry into an unfamiliar land? Perhaps trading supplies will get you far enough.
Want to really forge a strong alliance? Perhaps you marry off your descendants to strategic rulers. Then you can backstab them later.
This variety in Three Kingdoms never wavers, including actions taken by the computer-controlled opponents. I once spent a few turns on diplomacy only to learn my father was assassinated by a smaller nation. I threw caution to the wind and sent my entire military might at my father’s murders, eventually exacting revenge. The Lord who had sanctioned my father’s murder tried to negotiate for peace after losing a few of his cities. I offered no mercy and eradicated him, ultimately executing the ruler and sacking his capital.
This bloody trail of revenge scared neighboring lands while simultaneously making my close allies trust me less. This constant push and pull of actions versus consequence is where Three Kingdoms campaign shines best.
When a battle commences, you have the option to delegate it to one of your generals (it plays out automatically) or take control yourself. What this translates to is often delegating fights you know you will win outright and micromanaging the close fights where it’s unclear who will win.
Battles play out like previous games in real time. You’re given a field area with your armies and the opposition. If you’re attacking, you must move toward your enemy. If you’re defending, you have the option of waiting and seeing what formations they take.
At any point, you can pause and issue orders. Individual units are controlled as group and will skirmish when given command.
Tactics present themselves depending on who you’re facing and what your army is comprised of. I often roll with quite a few archers and cavalry. I prefer to use my cavalry as quick flankers, and use the archers to rain death on the front lines. But how you take to battles will be up to your own style.
Your armies have morale that determines whether they’re confident to maintain their attack, or fearful and must flee. Overwhelming numbers can break your troops line, sending you into fixer mode, either withdrawing that retinue or sending reinforcements as needed.
Formation abilities (like shield walling) give unique advantages to your troops and having access to hero abilities, in addition to being able to duel other heroes, really livens up the action. In my campaign, I never grew tired of the battles and if that’s all you’re after, you can jump into a skirmish without needing to start a campaign.
There are even some new twists to battles that can take place in larger cities that I’ll refrain from spoiling, but they require a slightly different mindset.
Mechanics upon mechanics
If there’s one issue I have with Three Kingdoms and the series at large, it’s the obfuscation of the player’s abilities to understand its under–the–hood mechanics. Let me explain.
There are a lot of numbers, a lot of points of decision you get to make as a warlord or diplomat. There are even branching trees that give unique bonuses. The challenge as you play is finding which ones matter, which ones will matter later, and which ones may not matter at all, with a bit of emphasis on the latter as often some may sound dire but can have little impact.
Each turn presents you with many options: building cities, restocking your army, invading, trading, etc. It’s never quite clear at first how a specific stat will play out later, often making me default to whatever need is most pressing at the time. If I’m burning gold, I’ll sweep my next set of decisions to accrue more of it but will I need more food later? Hard to say. There are certain menus and panels, but nothing is ever quite at a glance to understand how all your relationships are going (either with alliances on the macro level, or with your troops at the micro level).
It takes a lot of mouse hovering, reading, clicking and digging.
So if it’s your first time with a 4x game, take it slow and don’t worry too much. It’s okay to fail. A lot of the things happening under the hood, depending on your difficulty, don’t often need to be hyper micromanaged. But if that’s what you come to these games for, then the above will likely excite as you discover and analyze how each lever works.
China Comes to Life
I don’t often harbor on a game’s presentation in this generation. Most games, even smaller titles, look good. But Three Kingdoms comes to life when you see it in motion. Its vibrant color palette, perfectly casted voice actors, and subtle animations add up to a stellar presentation that draws you in, making you forget how many hours you’ve been waging war.
The tone is serious without being over the top, and characters come to life with their giant, expressive avatars roaming the map between turns. Callouts between armies during a battle keep the fantasy going, with generals often boasting against one another until the last minute when they turn tail.
It’s also polished. I experienced zero hiccups in my lengthy campaign.
It’s comforting to see a Total War game can still own what makes them great and challenging, nearly 20 years since the first one came to our PCs. Its lengthy campaign, layered with deep mechanics that push and pull against each other, add up to a sense of you truly feeling like you’re mastering the art of war from behind a keyboard.
Its presentation is the icing on an already rich cake. If you’re a series veteran, you’ll find much to appreciate in this new setting, and if you’ve never tried a Total War game, but always been curious, you’d be hard pressed to find a better starting point than Three Kingdoms.
Just remember, take it slow and always backstab.
***PC review code provided by the publisher***
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Total War: Three Kingdoms – Deeply Satisfying War Simulator