We've been following the next Total War game for some time now. During previous interviews we've had with Creative Assembly, we've learned a lot about the emphasis on characters in the campaign of Total War: Three Kingdoms, and there's a lot of potential in a game that's taking the Chinese epic 'Romance of the Three Kingdoms' as its starting point. That's why we were really excited to visit Creative Assembly in Horsham to see whether the game will offer all of the personal drama, intrigue, and barbarity that features in the original story.
First off, we wanted to know more about the campaign and the larger-than-life characters in the game. There's going to be around 100 historical characters roaming the campaign map that all have their own personal traits, and part of these traits will be influenced by their character class. The classes are loosely based on the personality of people described in the epic, such as the cunning Cao Cao or honourable Liu Bei, and the five classes impact your army in different ways. Having a strategist in your army allows for more complex unit formations in battle, for example, while Champions, on the other hand, are best at dueling and taking out other heroes. We feel CA is doing a great job so far at making the characters look like real and recognisable individuals.
However, we learned it's not just the characters that you control directly who will play a large role during the campaign, as you can send characters away as spies to infiltrate another faction too, although you can't really control what role they will take. Project Art Director Pawel Wojs told us: "You can't say, my spy should become a governor. All you can say is, you infiltrate Cao Cao and hope that he picks up on these roles. That's why it can be beneficial to send very strong characters away, but then you can't use them to work for your own faction. The risk is of course, he can be executed, or released, or released to you as a spy. And you won't know." A character spending too much time among enemies might decide to work for your enemy instead, after all.
"Every spy has an amount of cover that he builds up over time," Wojs added. "When you infiltrate another faction, he starts building connections with other people. If you undertake actions against this faction, your spy's cover will go down and they become suspicious of you. If this cover breaks down, then your spy will be captured. [...] The longer your cover builds up, the stronger the actions you will be able to perform. For example, if your spy is a governor, then eventually he'll be able to turn over that province to you, or if he's a general, the army."
"You can sort of trigger all kinds of actions and you can infiltrate a faction from within. This will allow all these cool stories to be created because it can happen to you as well. You might find out one of your most trusted generals is actually a spy working for your enemy. You could potentially unknowingly adopt a spy, who could be your faction heir. And they could take over the faction and cause a civil war. With espionage you could trigger a coup d'etat and take over the faction."
Does this sound like the personal and political intrigue of the original Romance of the Three Kingdoms? It sure does! Our latest interviews seem to add merit to the claim that the characters have their own preferences, friendships, and personal enemies that develop during the course of a campaign, and that this will actually impact your campaign story. If CA gets the AI mechanics right, the characters and spy system will add a lot to the story element of each Three Kingdoms campaign.
Regarding the campaign map, we observed a flyover of the region and we can tell you it looks massive. It might not even be just an upgraded size; China's geography is also a lot of deserts, forests, and mountain ranges instead of the large sea in the middle that we're used to from previous Total War games. According to Development Communications Manager Al Bickham, we can expect "maybe some sixty provinces and over a hundred regions" stretching from Vietnam to the Mongolian border. That creates a lot of options for creating a breakaway state or uniting all peoples under the Han Emperor's banner.
Also, in some cutscenes we noticed that some of the bigger rivers appeared navigable and had some trading ships moving along them. One of the obvious questions is whether naval or river battles are going to be in the game (the deciding battle of the story was a huge naval battle), and while we're still unsure whether this will be present, Senior Game Designer Attila Mohacsi told us "some of the big rivers are a bit different, they are more like navigable rivers. They are so big that, historically, they put troops on transports and moved through them. So yes, these huge rivers will be treated a bit different." Other developers politely declined to comment, so who knows?
Other things we came to know about the campaign map are that there will be a day- and night-cycle for the first time in a Total War game, which will also translate to daytime and nighttime battles. Unit recruitment will go through your characters too, as similar to history the characters assemble a retinue of warriors. We asked whether different regions will provide different units like in some previous Total War titles, but the developers replied that recruitment is linked only to characters and not to regions. The units available depend on the character's class, as "for example, the Vanguard class has access to shock and melee cavalry, but there are other units depending on how far you have progressed in the campaign and how far you have researched new technologies." Two-player Multiplayer campaigns will also be included, with no dedicated Co-op or Versus mode, but the spy system will allow you to either support or betray each other, so that's a plus.
Lastly, we spent some time playing a nighttime ambush battle. Our objective was to get as many units including our two hero characters to a safe spot across the map. Our first try on Normal difficulty was a success, as we managed to fight off the first wave of attackers before moving up to a hill where we could use the terrain to our advantage, in turn allowing allowed us to defeat both the second and third waves of attackers as well. At this difficulty, our tactical abilities weren't tested that much, so we decided to try the Hard difficulty one for a few times. And boy, was this difficult! We're not sure if it was scripted or the AI at work, but the enemy beat us to the most advantageous positions and attacked us from different sides, causing our units to rout several times.
Looking at the landscape and the units was a real treat, as the Three Kingdoms-period warriors look very authentic; the unit animations look incredibly realistic; trees and buildings can catch fire from hits by burning arrows, and the landscape has lots of detail and a stunning mountainous background. We were told the units we controlled were typical for a late-campaign battle, having lots of experience and weapon upgrades, and the opposing characters had notably different-looking units, though they did appear to lack a bit of colour. Let's hope that all battlefields will have the same kind of detail and not just the pre-scripted ones.
All things considered, the battle made for a next-level Total War experience, and if the AI in campaign battles turns out well, this has the potential to be the best Total War game so far. Add in the fact that the developers are working on an atmospheric soundtrack and an option to have purely Chinese voices in-game, and there's a lot for Total War fans to look forward to. Most excitingly, the spy system also seems to add the kind of game mechanics that will turn each campaign into its own version of Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
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