In recent years following the domination of the combat-focused Warhammer titles, the Total War series has been lacking when it comes to a major aspect of empire management: diplomacy. Three Kingdoms brings this and a slew of more personal options back to the war room in a major way.
Luo Guanzhong's epic "The Romance of Three Kingdoms" and its character-focused take on China's history is definitely the major point of interest here. The empire of the Han dynasty has all but crumbled to dust and new aspirants emerge to fill up the power vacuum. You're free to negotiate, spy and/or annihilate your way to the highest position of the realm in more nuanced ways than before. The base game is ever the same: on the campaign map, you gather troops, conquer cities and villages, advance existing technology with reforms and manage your closest allies, rivals, and enemies.
Tactical battles take place in real-time on vast battlegrounds where the fruits of your strategic labours are measured. Big battles with large unit sizes will be measured in thousands of individual tiny soldiers of various military disciplines. The familiar rock-paper-scissors take is still there with spearmen defeating cavalry, horsemen trampling over archers, repeating crossbowmen leaving spearmen full of bolts and so on.
New to the game are its two modes - Romance and Record. The former gives your mythological leader units superhero-like qualities. They can trample tens or hundreds of regular units with ease, duel opposing heroes and so forth. Even the campaign map takes on a brighter and more saturated look. On Romance mode, the likes of Cao Cao and Lu Bu are comparable to the hero units of Total War: Warhammer.
If a more historical take is more to your liking, Record mode provides something more accurate, toned down and grounded. Heroes are reduced in stature and come with a strong personal retinue instead of crushing heaps of opponents all by themselves. The biggest differences come with the tactical battles, though, and both modes are chock-full with political intrigue and personal soap opera style encounters.
The biggest and most welcome addition comes in the form of personalities and relationships not only with your opponents or allies but with your own generals and relatives as well. They each have a measure of agency of their own and satisfying or disregarding their needs can bestow life-long alliances or empire-dividing grudges leading to civil war. As characters gain experience and power, their importance to your war effort and empire's stability increases exponentially, especially in Romance mode. You can also gain, trade and sell war gear, followers and trinkets to boost your generals' stats even further.
So, to keep your sulking uber-general happy, you might want to give him a place high up the food chain in your court or marry him to a highborn relative of yours. But that, in turn, can anger someone else you'll have to deal with sooner or later. One neat option the game has is the ability to plant spies on opponent's courts. If such a person happens to gain power inside the enemy court, you can really cause some havoc from within. Or your spy might get too comfy with his new position and switch sides, ignoring your cunning plan completely. This "who's who" of second-century China feels like to biggest and best addition to the familiar Total War formula. This Crusader Kings II vibe is very much appreciated.
One slight annoyance in Three Kingdoms is its rather stylized but crammed interface. It looks rather nice (as does the rest of the game) but tries a little too much in terms of how information is presented. The layout is at times rather baffling as well with tiny icons in the very edge representing rather important information. Something similar waits in the tactical battles as well with small buttons and overall problematic placement of key information especially if you play on a large monitor.
The various units could be more clearly differentiated as well from high up. Unit colour schemes are often surprisingly muted with greys, whites, and browns, so telling your units apart from enemy's during melee combat is harder than it should be. Maybe Warhammer and its wildly varied combatants have spoiled this a bit, but constantly zooming all the way in shouldn't be required.
All in all, Total War: Three Kingdoms is a welcomed change of pace to the Warhammer series. All the good bits are still there to enjoy and once you get over the overly ambitious interface, plunging headlong into Chinese politics and intrigue will easily entertain would-be emperors for days on end.