Generally speaking, there's going to be two ways to play the main campaign in Total War: Three Kingdoms. On the one hand, there's going to be a so-called Record mode which should be much like the Campaign mode from every historical Total War game to date. On the other hand there's the Romance mode, a new twist on the historical formula that the studio has been perfecting over the years whereby the more prominent figures from China's legendary Three Kingdoms era are portrayed larger than life with almost superhuman powers. It's not quite fantasy, but given what the other half of the studio has been working on over the last five or so years, you can see why the period was chosen and how the design came together.
The other reason why The Creative Assembly picked China circa 190CE is that the period was a veritable melting pot of power-hungry warlords and political disharmony. Set just after the Yellow Turban rebellion and the fall of the Han empire, the landscape is fractured and, by taking on the role of one of the key players of the era, you'll be tasked with unifying China and eventually becoming Emperor.
In recent Total War games we've been seeing more characters and stronger narrative themes, and that looks set to continue in Three Kingdoms. Famous figures from the era such as Liu Bei form the core of this campaign, and they'll be doubly important to your experience if you play Romance. The word "squishy" was used more than once to describe the same characters in the more historically accurate portion of the game, so it's really down to the player to choose whether they want the personality of their generals to vein through the campaign, or whether they prefer to just keep things more naturalistic. For what it's worth, when the game lands in March we're almost certainly going to play the Romance mode.
The steady evolution of Total War continues apace, with CA refining elements here and there, but despite the studio's best efforts to streamline things the sheer number of features and changes means that the first few hours of the game are going to be fairly heavily tutorialised with a talking head in the corner of the screen constantly whispering nuggets of wisdom to guide you. The UI is very busy, and with so many levers to pull and buttons to push, even a relatively seasoned player is going to have to take time to acclimatise themselves, adjusting to the new state of play.
That said, cluttered as it can feel at times (and we didn't even get to the end of the 30-turn demo), it does look rather swanky. There's a painterly style to the UI and in-game artwork that really sells the period, and the art team should be especially proud of themselves. There were some really nice touches, such as the animations on the unit tiles that revealed when they were taking fire - an eye-catching yet practical detail that we really liked. Best of all was the skill tree, which was one of the most elegant designs of its kind that we've ever seen.
When it comes to expanding and enhancing your hard-fought territory, CA has introduced five different elements that feed into and contrast each other. We Xing, or the five elemental phases, are colour-coded and look like an interesting elaboration for campaign players to consider, although just how accessible this system remains to be seen. During our admittedly brief introduction to the game, we didn't really have long enough to get to grips with it. The five different elements relate to ways of potentially developing your fledgling kingdom, so while one lets you increase food production (something that looks extremely important in Three Kingdoms, and another thing we struggled to really work out during the demo) another will give you benefits in a different area, such as trade and commerce.
Another part of the experience that has enjoyed something of a revamp is the character progression. Once again you'll be able to level up your generals and other key characters in your court and position your trusted subordinates where you please, but the presentation has improved and the renowned characters of the era are given a bit of extra room to breathe. Again, the system felt very busy and there was a lot going on, but with a bit of time and patience there looks like a lot of strategies waiting to be explored as the relationships between characters are going to be key. Apparently diplomacy has been given a (much-needed, in our humble opinion) overhaul and now we're told there's a lot more meaningful dialogue with the AI-controlled faction leaders. Those interactions, as well as the things that happen on the battlefield, will feed into an emergent campaign with a touch more personality. That's the plan, at least.
We played the start of the campaign as Liu Bei, putting down the local Yellow Turban uprisings, before turning our attention to our neighbours. We didn't get too far into things, but one aspect that instantly caught our eye was the campaign map, and we thought it was rather beautiful (that painterly art style really did speak to us). Starting off in the Dong province it's the usual attempt to exert influence on a growing region, although not everything comes down to brute force. One example had us inherit some lands from an elderly neighbour, meanwhile there are local diplomatic discussions ongoing that will impact your campaign. Mimicking the era means that there are alliances being made all over the place, and there will almost certainly be opportunities to exploit that come about because of faction politics beyond your control.
That said, managing the satisfaction levels of the population and engaging in political scheming only forms one part of the Total War experience, and it's on the battlefield that much of the game is decided. CA's emphasis on historical figures manifests itself in interesting ways, most notably in the duels that take place between key characters during battle. By selecting one of your named generals you can invite an opponent to go one-on-one, and if your fighter wins it can mean a big morale swing. These duels play out against the backdrop of the battle itself, and it was all too easy to get sucked into this micro-narrative (especially with all the trash talk that goes on between the characters mid-battle) when in fact there were bigger fish to fry.
Using intricately designed units drawn from the historical record, factions clash across a range of battle types, with sneaky ambushes, resource-driven skirmishes, and full-stack armies smashing together at regular intervals. By and large, it's the same Total War experience that fans will know well enough, although there have been a number of tweaks so that the gameplay better suits the theme. Perhaps our favourite addition in terms of the real-time battles actually comes via the preparation phase just before a fight, with CA implementing an auto-sort system that puts your units in a logical formation, and thus moving your troops to a new starting position before a battle is less laborious now (unless you like to micromanage things, in which case you can still do that).
After playing through a number of turns and fighting a handful of battles, we came away feeling good about what we'd seen and played, but we're also conscious that there's a lot of complicated systems at work and it's hard to say just how intuitive the final product is going to be. While we trust the studio to pull it together, Three Kingdoms era China has got to be one of the more nuanced and challenging eras that they could have chosen. We'll find out more when we finally get to sit down with the finished game in March, but judging from the couple of hours we spent playing the game in London, CA is cooking up an ambitious Total War game here.
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