Total War: Three Kingdoms review — Best in the series, best in the settingTime: Jan. 9, 2020
Before getting into the game itself, it’s worth discussing what the setting of the Three Kingdoms
means, as a whole. In the most superficial sense, it’s a series of civil wars that ended the Chinese
Han Empire from the late second century CE into the third. But more than that, the Three Kingdoms
era has become a defining event of the literature and culture of civil wars, the way that the fall of the
Roman Republic, the Wars of the Roses in England, or the American Civil War create legends for their
cultures. This is the story of larger-than-life figures, engaged in a titanic war not just for territory but for
strategy and politics and morals, perhaps reaching its pop cultural peak in John Woo’s film Red Cliff.
What you’ll like
They’re people, not units
At its core, Total War: Three Kingdoms is about people. When you create armies, you do not start
with a general and then add 20 units, as has been the case with every Total War since the original
Shogun. It’s different in this game, where you have a character in charge of a retinue of up to six
units big, of which three are allowed per army. This adds up to full armies being normal-sized for
Total War, but with huge amounts of personality added, because each third is attached to a person,
and each has their own identity and interaction with one another.
The colors, children, the colors!
This isn’t a difficult or complex process. But it is a satisfying one, with comprehensible and
interesting causes and effects. It’s not the only one in the game, either. Total War: Three Kingdoms
is built around a clever and aesthetically satisfying set of intertwined systems based on the Chinese
elements. Each of the five elements —Earth, Metal, Water, Wood, Fire — corresponds to colors:
yellow, purple, blue, green, and red.
Each of these connects to character classes, buildings, and unit types. So, for example, green is
the color of Champion classes — the best duelists — which corresponds to agriculture and peasantry
in building types, and spear infantry. A Champion will generally have spear infantry accessible for
them to recruit to their retinue, whereas sending them to help build infrastructure tends to be in ways
that increase food, population, or taxes.
Playing the map
And … all that isn’t even the best part of Total War: Three Kingdoms. The series has always
struggled with maintaining a strong campaign from beginning to end, but in this incarnation,
Creative Assembly seems to have solved the issue. Its Chinese civil war is dynamic and fascinating,
with almost every playable faction having their own strategic decisions to make with far-ranging repercussions.
As Cao Cao, who historically set up a power-base in the center of China and then took over the north,
I pushed south to see what happened — which ended up with me as a power, but not quite a superpower.
I was surrounded by smaller factions, and I found it easy to end up at war with everyone around me.
This ravaged my economy thanks to a lack of trade partners, forcing a constant dance of diplomacy to
knock out what rivals I could as fast as I could before losing key territory to my true enemies.
Fighting it out
Speaking of the battles, which I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about, I still wish they were like
Shogun 2. In that game, the goal was to rout enemy armies, a process that tended to occur fairly quickly
and involve rigid formations and key attacks to trigger a cascading rout. In almost all the Total Wars since,
the goal has been to destroy enemy armies, a process which makes battles tend to be scrummier and slower,
often ending with small groups of units bashing each other in the face until one comes out.
That said, if that’s the direction Total War is going, Three Kingdoms is the best incarnation of this kind
of tactica l battle, with the possible exception of late-game combat in the Warhammer games. The addition
of the general units, who can turn battles with their skills or their straightforward combat prowess, makes
watching those battles end still be entertaining, and tends to hurry it along before it gets interminable.
Whenever I’ve played Three Kingdoms-set games in the past, I’ve always wished for an ultimate game
in the setting. Dynasty Warriors but with more tactics, Dynasty Tactics with more emergent narrative,
Romance of the Three Kingdoms but with better balance and more action. This always felt like a pipe
dream — but Total War: Three Kingdoms manages to accomplish it.
Likewise, whenever I’ve played a Total War, I’ve always wished for a campaign mode as good as the
battles, an endgame as fascinating as the early game, and a difficulty that matches my skills.
Not impossible, but not expected — until Total War:Three Kingdoms.
So I really don’t have sufficient superlatives to use here. Beyond best-in-setting and best-in-franchise,
Total War:Three Kingdoms is a game that instantly contends for best of the year, or best in its genre.
The setting and franchise here give it high expectations, and Three Kingdoms surpasses those expectations
at almost every level.