Total War: Three Kingdoms review: The fight to unite China

Sega and Creative Assembly have produced the most ambitious Total War game to date, offering a mountain of content for ancient Chinese history buffs.

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The Total War games have been around for nearly two decades, arriving under various publishers and spanning both historical and fantastical premises. The latest entry in the series puts the focus on the period in Chinese history when the Han Dynasty began to crumble and the country was thrown into a sixty-year period of bloody battles. Striking a balance between tactical battles and an empire building campaign, Total War: Three Kingdoms offers an exhaustive amount of things to do that will likely delight series fans and Chinese history buffs.

A land of warlords

Total War: Three Kingdoms offers up a variety of ways to play the game, including straight skirmish battles across single player and multiplayer modes, but the real attraction is found in the campaign mode. Players will be asked to choose one of the available factions and begin a quest to bring all of China under their rule. Accomplishing such a task is easier said than done, as the process will require hours of battle, diplomacy, and settlement building.

At the top of these factions lies a warlord. The game eventually offers the use of up to twelve warlords in total. Each warlord offers a unique playstyle, as well as passive buffs or liabilities when it comes to dealing with other factions. The warlords each have their own starting position in the campaign mode, with some offering a much stiffer challenge than others. Depending on which warlord you take, you may gain benefits to troop morale, find recruitment of new retinues to be easier, increased income from tributaries, and more.

Territories at war

Each territory under the player’s control and within these areas are towns, settlements, farms, or other points of interest, including natural resources. Players can direct their warlords to advance on new towns or spots on the map. When this happens, a prompt for battle appears, offering the chance to go into battle for control of the given area. Players may also opt to delegate the responsibility for the encounter, which can save time for towns that are not well-defended or reinforced with enemy strength. Most of the time, going directly into the conflicts is the way to go.

Once you elect to enter battle, the warlord brings along his following units. In Total War: Three Kingdoms, units are large groupings of a certain type of troop, like swordsmen, archers, or mounted calvary. Each warlord may bring along some of the universal unit types and also have access to specialized units. As warlords grow in rank, these specialized units become available for recruitment and each faction has unique units available, should the requirements for rank and skill tree unlocks be satisfied.

Prior to battle, the units can be selected and moved across a designated area so that players can attempt to put themselves in a better tactical position. Once the fight begins, players will direct their units to move and attack across the battlefield. Things like background objects and elevation are determined by where on the overworld map that a battle is initiated. The opposing units will duke it out until most troops are killed or they become surrounded and begin the process of running from the battle. If the unit is able to successfully move to safety, they may have the chance to re-enter the fight once they regain composure. If players have fast-moving calvary, these retreating units can be attacked before this point and fully defeated without the opportunity to return.

Opposing generals can also have duels where they move towards each other on horseback in short encounters. On the battlefield, the warlords are almost like superheroes. They have the power to take on individual units by themselves and will likely make short work of the opposition if they are ranked up and using good gear. Having them on the battlefield reminds me a bit of when Dreadnaughts would drop into play during Relic’s Dawn of War II battles, simply overpowering and tossing around lesser units. Warlords that are defeated in battle may also drop items that can be equipped to offer additional bonuses.

The superhuman warlords are a part of the game when it is played in Romance mode. If players are looking for a more realistic take on battles, there is an additional play mode called Records. In Records mode, the commanders are treated like normal human beings and will find themselves susceptible to being shot and stabbed to a much greater degree than what is found in Romance mode. During my play time, I felt that I had more fun playing with Romance mode. Seeing my warlord wreak havoc on the battlefield felt great. On the flipside, seeing the enemy single-handedly wipe out higher-rank recruit units was a bummer.

Expanding your influence

Outside of battles, the campaign mode revolves advancing on enemy positions and choosing to occupy or ransack the various towns and villages. Taking over new places gives money and infamy. You need money to make things happen and infamy helps to build your reputation among the other faction competing for control of the country. You also have the opportunity to recruit units when moving into a new place.

While battle is one way to gain power, Total War: Three Kingdoms also allows players the opportunity to lean heavily into diplomacy. Depending on which warlord you have and the number and strength of your supporting characters, you may be able to simply talk your way into amassing power and control. While I never successfully did it myself, it is possible to have a rival give over control of units or territory.

As you make decisions and move around the overworld map, you must eventually stop to allow the other factions to take their turns. They will also move around the map and choose to enter battle with you or each other. They may form alliances or grow to distrust one another. As turns progress, other factors like weather can have major effects on your supply chain.

Total War on your PC hardware

Creative Assembly has built a strong-looking title with Three Kingdoms. During the large-scale battles, the landscape is filled with hundreds of individual units that reveal a great amount of detail if you take the time to use the mouse wheel and zoom in the camera for a closeup. Particle effects are strong, as explosions and dust will be kicked up during fights that help increase immersion. Textures are sharp and the game offers some graphical effects that are new to the series, including screen space shadows and temporal anti-aliasing. The latter helps reduce the shimmering effect seen from foliage and larger units when viewed at a distance. The overworld territory map is fantastic, showing off lush landscapes and sporting dynamic unit movement and more. This is the best-looking Total War to date.

All the beauty comes at a price, though. Even players with enthusiast machines may find themselves on the short end of the stick when it comes to maintaining a smooth 60 frames per second, especially at higher resolutions. Creative Assembly has posted several different PC requirement lists that target various performance metrics, with their 60fps+ list requiring an Intel 8700K and GTX 1080 to maintain smooth operation at 1080p. 1440p users will likely want to roll with an RTX 2080 or better if using ultra settings is a priority. Based on my experience with an Intel 9900K and GTX 1080 Ti combo, playing at 4K with 60 frames per second will be something only possible on future hardware. Battles that are larger than 1v1 will see performance reduce even further.

Onto the Jin Dynasty

While I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never been a big fan of the series, I found a lot to like in Three Kingdoms. I did tend to shy away from the real time battles and found them to be tough to manage, but the campaign section of the game were a highlight. I appreciated the option to delegate battles when possible and attempting to play the diplomacy game was often rewarding. The overall presentation from Creative Assembly is superb. Loading screen art and cutscenes are consistently stellar. For a person who had no real knowledge or interest in Chinese history, the art was a real eye catcher for me. Three Kingdoms won’t be a perfect fit for all players, but series die-hards will find a lot to like and newcomers are sure to be impressed with the AAA-quality presentation, despite the high system requirements. 8/10 battle horses


This review is based on the PC Steam release. The game was provided by the publisher. Total War: Three Kingdoms releases for Windows on May 23, for $59.99. MacOS and Linux versions are expected to arrive shortly after release.

Contributing Tech Editor

Chris Jarrard likes playing games, crankin' tunes, and looking for fights on obscure online message boards. He understands that breakfast food is the only true food. Don't @ him.

Pros
  • Outstanding presentation
  • Campaign can be replayed with different warlords
  • Diplomacy and battle-focused players have viable paths to victory
  • Best graphics in the series
Cons
  • Punishing on modest PC hardware
  • Tough to approach for new players
From The Chatty
  • reply
    May 16, 2019 8:40 AM

    Chris Jarrard posted a new article, Total War: Three Kingdoms review: The fight to unite China

    • reply
      May 16, 2019 8:54 AM

      I'm glad Creative Assembly keeps making these. I haven't had a computer strong enough to buy one (since, like, the original ROME) but someday I could see myself going through this backlog and having a good time.

    • reply
      May 16, 2019 10:00 AM

      I’m very excited for this. Kind of fell off the Total War wagon after Shogun 2 but love the setting here and have been itching to run a campaign again.

      Any word on how the multiplayer pans out?

      I loved the ideas of Shogun 2’s MP (co op or competitive campaign and then competitive clan ladder stuff) but it was about as stable as a bucket of water balancing on top of a fishing line.

    • reply
      May 16, 2019 10:09 AM

      I wish they'd make another Alien game :(

    • reply
      May 16, 2019 11:26 AM

      Can you tell if they fixed the AI at all? The big War2 map and Thrones aged really poorly because the AI was just terrible and over relied on scripted events to create a challenge.

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        May 17, 2019 1:14 AM

        AI is pretty fucking stupid in Warhammer 2. But it depends really. Some shit they do is questionable. But there’s never a time you think they outsmart you. Often I just think how the fuck do they keep building these armies when I have twice as many provinces and couldn’t afford to keep spamming them like they do.

    • reply
      May 16, 2019 5:11 PM

      Yo please edit calvary to cavalry. They are very different.