If someone were to tell you that it's been five years since the last historical main entry (sorry, Atilla) in the Total War series you probably wouldn't believe them. It sure doesn't feel like we've gone without Total War since Total War: Rome II launched in September 2013. But for all the Arenas, Warhammers, and Sagas, there hasn't been a new main series entry since Rome II. This time around Creative Assembly are breaking new ground as they take on ancient China with Three Kingdoms, an area rife with political intrigue and conquest across the Middle Kingdom.
The game begins in the year 190 CE and as you've probably guessed by the title it's set during the Three Kingdoms era and so pulls from the historically accurate Records of the Three Kingdoms as well as the more poetically licensed Romance of the Three Kingdoms (which was written in the 14th century). It's familiar stuff, even if you're not a student of history or literature, as you'll most likely have stumbled across a Dynasty Warriors game or two over the years.
In many ways, the time era is a perfect fit for Creative Assembly as the Total War engine excels in the sort of rock-paper-scissors warfare that cavalry, pikemen, and archers constitute. Creating formations and flanking opponents is key to your success on the battlefield. However, don't be fooled into believing that Total War: Three Kingdoms is treading the same ground as previous Total War games; the setting and nature of the conflict has informed the design and tweaked it a great deal from what we're used to. The larger than life characters from the Romance of Three Kingdoms are going to be very different beasts to manage than your generals from previous games. They all have relationships with each other, they come with their own retinues, and they can switch alliances if it suits their motives.
Managing your allies and rivals will be an important part of the experience, and the strategy component will bleed into the tactical battles as encounters, outcomes of duels and the like, can have a major impact on relationships that will then transfer over to the strategy map. This is also true for buildings. Buildings destroyed during a siege battle will now also be wrecked on the strategy map, meaning you'll need to consider your tactics more carefully depending on what you need the town for. There will also be more options in terms of breaching the walls around a city and attacking from multiple directions, allowing for more tactical variation.
We briefly mentioned duels, but this is a major new mechanic where two great warriors challenge each other on the battlefield. This, in turn, will build and influence relationships, and a decisive win could even turn a defeat into a victory as the troops of the fallen leader might flee or lose morale. It'll be important to pit the right warrior in these, but more so you'll need to keep certain units, the strategists, out of harm's way. The strategists bring perks for all your units, but they aren't great at actual combat and as such, they need to hang back and be kept safe. A great warrior like Lu Bu can potentially do a lot to win a battle on his own, even if during the demo we saw he was made to flee after winning a couple of duels. You can interrupt duels if you don't want to risk losing the unit (some honorable warriors will tend to spare those they best, and will instead gain favour with them or their family members), but there is a cost to that as it's not the honourable thing to do. Neither is ambushing or backstabbing, of course.
During the demo, we're told that a lot of work has gone into the defensive AI and now it won't just retreat towards the capture point when the walls have been breached during a siege. Instead, they will look for natural chokepoints in the layout of the town to try and create an advantage against the incoming invaders. This is meant to create this little skirmishes that could potentially turn the tide of a battle or at least make the latter part of it more interesting.
In terms of the style and visuals, Creative Assembly has looked to Ancient Chinese art for inspiration, and it makes for a very distinct and vivid colour palette. In many ways, it helps with the readability of what are naturally large and sprawling battles. We didn't get a chance to take in the strategic map during the E3 demo, which is a shame, as from what we've seen this is perhaps where the game has gotten the biggest boost as far as visuals go.
It's a bold new direction for the series, not just in terms of the setting, but in terms of the focus on individuals rather than armies (not that there aren't plenty of soldiers). A direction we're eager to spend some quality time investigating...