Game review - Total War: Three Kingdoms polished with minor flaws

In a nod to the novel, Three Kingdoms offers a Romance mode for its main campaign, which starts off in 190AD with the Han Dynasty in its dying throes and various warlords jostling for power.
In a nod to the novel, Three Kingdoms offers a Romance mode for its main campaign, which starts off in 190AD with the Han Dynasty in its dying throes and various warlords jostling for power. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM TOTAL WAR: THREE KINGDOMS

Coming hot on the heels of the glorious maximalism of Total War: Warhammer and its sequel, Total War: Three Kingdoms again borrows from rich source material, this time from the eponymous Chinese historical era (roughly 184-280AD).

The game delivers on all fronts as a Total War title, but fails to fully capture the flavour of the Three Kingdoms mythos.

Make no mistake - while the majority of Total War games are based on historical periods, this game draws as much upon a fictional mythology as Warhammer does.

This is because the narrative of the Three Kingdoms era has become conflated with its Ming Dynasty dramatisation Romance Of The Three Kingdoms, in which the period's starring figures get up to unhistorical acts of heroism like one man on a rope bridge managing to hold off an army.

These acts continue to ignite the popular imagination today, including in video-game adaptations such as the long-running action series Dynasty Warriors.

Many gamers like myself are thus somewhat familiar with Three Kingdoms nuances, and my uppermost thought when I heard UK-based developer Creative Assembly was going make a Three Kingdoms Total War game, was how well they would handle them.

I was pleased to see that, in a nod to the novel, Three Kingdoms offers a Romance mode for its main campaign, which starts off in 190AD with the Han Dynasty in its dying throes and various warlords jostling for power. In this mode, generals become demigods capable of taking on 80-man units single-handedly.

They can also challenge each other to one-on-one duels.

  • FOR

    - As polished as a Total War game can get; well-balanced and runs smoothly

    - Varied gameplay with 12 factions that all play differently

  • AGAINST

    - Some off-key notes that betray a lack of familiarity with the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which fans will pick up

  • RATING: 8/10

    PRICE: From $59 (PC, version tested; macOS)

    GENRE: Turn-based strategy

It is possible to interfere, especially if a prized general is losing a fight, but armies get a significant morale penalty for such a dishonourable act. Generals have their individual skill trees that can be upgraded. They can also be equipped with weapons, armour and horses that increase their prowess.

There are 12 factions you can play as, from the benevolent Liu Bei to the Machiavellian Cao Cao.

This is where the game shines as each faction plays very differently.

For example, I chose to go with Cao Cao, who uses a unique resource called Credibility to manipulate his rivals, influencing their opinions of each other and even coaxing them into wars against each other.

The familiar blend of Total War staples has also been refined to near-perfection.

Managing food production and money is a mostly intuitive process, helped by how characters can be dispatched to oversee matters.

Diplomacy is the most transparent I have seen in a Total War game, as numerical values are assigned to how likely or unlikely a given faction will agree with a proposed deal.

Three Kingdoms runs like a dream with no bugs in sight in the 30 hours I clocked for this review.

But there are some rough patches that break the immersion.

For example, I expected something to happen after receiving a pop-up alert that my rival Liu Bei had successfully recruited the legendary Sleeping Dragon sage Zhuge Liang.

Some 30 turns later, through no doing of mine, Liu's influence had been reduced to a single territory which was the opposite of what Zhuge accomplished in the novel.

Following the novel's storyline closely was never going to be possible in a real-time strategy environment like Three Kingdoms'. But for a game supposedly driven by the personalities of heroes and villains, this is one of the many minor off-key notes that add up to a suspicion that the developers only skimmed the surface of the source material.

I feel not enough has been done to differentiate key lieutenants from their run-of-the-mill, randomly generated counterparts. The leader duels would also be more exciting if I had an idea of my opponent's calibre.

The fact that there are randomly generated characters at all when the Romance Of The Three Kingdoms novel offers hundreds of minor characters is a disappointment.

Ironically, the character with the most personality I came across is one that Creative Assembly created from scratch, a bandit queen called Zheng Jiang with a penchant for treasure and anarchy.

If only that same level of detail could have been applied to more characters. Three Kingdoms could have become one for the ages.