When it comes to strategy games, I’m no expert. Sure, I can stumble my way through a Fire Emblem campaign or enjoy a brief fling with Halo Wars. Sadly, outside of a few very late nights with Civilization, the urge never sticks. When TOTAL WAR: THREE KINGDOMS came across my metaphorical desk, I felt intrigued and intimidated all at once. This is a real strategy game with piles of options and menus that I couldn’t begin to parse. I know I’m not the only one in this situation. And if you don’t know your formations from your commanders, Total War: Three Kingdoms has a solid enough core to hook you even if it doesn’t always do so in the most welcoming of ways.
Total War: Three Kingdoms is the 12th game in the Total War franchise, focusing on the most legendary era of Chinese history. You may know these generals from other games, but Creative Assembly does a wonderful job of bringing the era to life in their own distinct way. Everything in the presentation feels authentic to the era, even down to choices in menus and music. Characters jump off the screen, both in voiced lines and with their unique abilities. There are plenty of clever inclusions that wisely adapt well-known traits into perks that fit in with Total War‘s complex campaign.
Total War: Three Kingdoms Review | Welcome to the stage of history
Three Kingdoms neatly divides into two separate styles of play. Records Mode gives a standard strategic experience, and one more traditional to Total War. You get a more intricate handle on how you can move your units, and there aren’t hero generals making sweeping attacks. Those maneuvers only come in Romance Mode, which builds on some of the mechanics introduced in the two Total War: Warhammer titles. Generals have abilities with cooldowns that can shift the tides of battle and duel with opposing generals. Everything else is just a little over the top, which fits with the epic source material.
While these two modes are pretty different, neither one is a lesser experience. I spent most of my time in Romance Mode, which seems smart for those not already invested in the series. For someone relying on in-game tutorials, the abilities and character units offer some guidance. Measuring the pros and cons of shifting infantry into a new formation? That takes some skill. Hitting the button that has your army’s leader summon a blast of wind with his staff? Anyone can get behind that.
Total War: Three Kingdoms Review | All units
As I first loaded into the game, I had the choice between Campaign and Battle. Instincts told me to go towards Campaign first, but they may have led me astray. In the campaign, Total War splits into two equal parts. There’s a hugely complex tabletop-esque metagame where you’re positioning armies and grabbing territory. Once you get into battle, the game shifts into what you think of when you think of Total War.
The best parts of any of these games are in the large scale battles you can orchestrate. Three Kingdoms is no different, letting you loose with the units and battlefields you’d expect from the time period. It’s impressive seeing just how many soldiers can appear on the screen, each one performing their own attacks in real-time. You have elaborate controls when it comes to positioning and moving troops in battle. Controlling my forces came naturally, even when I didn’t fully grasp every tool at my disposal. Just like in Halo Wars, the “All Units” button is an extremely fun strategy to deploy especially if you’re targeting a single lone soldier and overwhelming him with multiple battalions.
Basically, there’s a reason that Totally Accurate Battle Simulator and games of that ilk have struck a chord with some audience. The potential for dumb fun in this style of combat is overwhelming. Even when I tried to take my campaign seriously, the fights often devolved into a comedy of errors. Formations crumbled under my conflicting orders and troops often won in spite of my strategic guidance. While multiplayer and tougher difficulties didn’t let me goof around as much, I still had fun pushing my meager skills to the limit.
Total War: Three Kingdoms Review | Just one more turn
While battles are enjoyable even in crushing defeat, the same can’t be said of the turn-based campaign map. Despite my best efforts, there’s simply a whole lot going on here, more than any tutorial can accurately cover. There is a great system throughout the game that lets you mouse over anything on-screen to get a brief description. This helped a lot, but only in describing small parts of the experience. The mode’s overall goal eluded me for hours, as did what steps I needed to take to claim victory.
Part of the problem may be in the visuals. There are some stylistic highlights here, with upgrade menus looking like traditional parchment drawings. However, that same style obscures the bare mechanics in a way that makes it hard for a complete novice to pick up. In a mode where you get just as many options as you do on the battlefield, that’s a real problem. Where do I go to rest my troops? Why would I want to engage in the political systems with non-combat characters? Even with the tutorials, I never felt educated in my decisions here. Everything blends together into something that’s pretty to look at but utterly confusing.
Total War: Three Kingdoms Review | Closing the book
Of course, all of Three Kingdoms is extremely pretty. Despite some extreme load times on non-SSD hard drives, the game runs about as well as a PC game can in 2019. Even at relatively large scales, battles play out without hitches. You can zoom close to the action and see every clashing sword and galloping horse. The game only crumbled under pressure when I filled out every possible slot in four massive armies and had them battle. The fight chugged along at a ridiculously small frame rate, but it didn’t crash. That’s good enough for me.
In my time with Three Kingdoms, I gained a healthy respect for what Total War is. Even if it isn’t completely in my wheelhouse, the turn-based board game mode complements the battles well, providing a whole experience that can dive into whichever historical era it wants. Those historical elements hold a game with solid fundamentals that make it easy for me to want to get better at the game and grasp its many complexities. Total War‘s battles are at the heart of those complexities and they provide an exciting and highly customizable dose of strategy. If you’re willing to put in the time, you’ll find a complex experience that’s satisfyingly tough to get a grasp on and equally hard to put down.
GameRevolution reviewed Total War: Three Kingdoms on PC via Steam with a code provided by the publisher.