Review copy provided by SEGA. Reviewed on PC.
“Heaven is to be rent asunder, earth shall fall away,” the game echoes the ultimate truth in the words of Luo Guanzhong.
China’s problems shall be solved only by blood and war as the pantheon of Chinese warriors take up arms amid the dust of chaos. The great Han Empire is torn apart and the tyrant Dong Zhuo flees west. In the heat of instability, as the empire falls apart and is devoured by darkness, destiny awaits someone to reunite the warring states. The fate of the Three Kingdoms begins hence.
Total War: Three Kingdoms is Sega’s latest turn-based/real-time strategy game, a transition from the European forefront and their fantasy series, Warhammer to the Chinese mainland. It is the brainchild of designer Lief Walter and writer Pete Stewart, who in an interview with PCGamesN said, “You’re making your own romance, or your own histories of the Three Kingdoms.”
In this review, I will attempt to elaborate only on the ROMANCE game mode. Three Kingdoms opens during a period of internal turmoil in China. The fall of the Han Dynasty has paved a way for other warlords to rise to higher rungs of authority, burgeoning power expeditiously. There is not one vacant throne, but as many as three. You assume the role of one of China’s leading warlords, whether it is as the cruel and merciless general Cao Cao or the benevolent and honourable Liu Bei, your objective is to claim emperorship through war and diplomacy. The ROMANCE mode offers a wide range of narratives where your decisions would reflect on the character of your generals. Will you be a ruthless tyrant or a virtuous ruler? The choice is yours.
DIPLOMACY in Three Kingdoms has been refined and crystallised to comprise a number system which determines the likelihood of a proposition being accepted or declined. Food resources, now, can be exported to or requested from your allies on a ten-turn basis. Money can be given or taken once, or on a ten-turn basis just like food resources. Trade, however, is a step down which now requires you to share land borders between allies or rivers with trading ports. Sea trade routes are no longer available. A nation with limited trade is a paragon of weakness. On the other hand, a state with numerous trade deals and allies can emerge as a strong nation. ANCILLARIES come in different forms: WEAPONS, ARMOURS, MOUNTS, FOLLOWERS and ACCESSORIES. These are supplements which can be given to different generals to increase their attributes or give them new abilities. They can also be offered to different nation-states in return for something. The quid pro quo is fairly balanced and if you are falling short on money, you can always sell off your ancillary assets in return for money paid for the first ten-turns.
In the meantime, you can upgrade your COMMANDERIES to add more slots for buildings. Upgrade your city and the existing buildings. Build labour camps to increase population, economic buildings to increase your income per turn, government buildings to combat corruption, collect tax or increase public order by building temples or build granaries to stockpile food supplies. Construct military infrastructures to better guard your holdings or improve your outer counties by building or upgrading grain and livestock farms in order to increase food production or build mines to multiply your income.
ARMIES can be raised inside your territory. GENERALS come in five categories: CHAMPION, COMMANDER, STRATEGIST, SENTINEL & VANGUARD. Different categories of general can recruit different kinds of troops. Armies can have a total of three generals along with their own retinue of six units per general. Troops can vary anywhere from Sabre militia infantry to polearm infantry to ranged archer militia and siege equipment like trebuchets that appeared first in China during the 4th century BC. Units can form different formations: polearm infantry can form spear walls and shielded polearms can form turtle formation and hollowed squares. These defensive formations can be used to negate cavalry or infantry charges. Sword units can subsequently form shield walls. Loose formation is effective in protecting your troops against missile damage, but against charge attacks, it is vulnerable. I usually put my missile units in loose formation behind line infantry to protect them from both frontal melee charges and enemy missile damage while concentrating my trebuchets on enemy cavalry to break them. Archers can shoot both standard and fire arrows, the latter adding punitive morale penalty to the enemy unit. Trebuchets can fire both normal and flammable shots, the latter which is explosive upon contact causes significant amounts of casualty. At the same time, I focus my cavalry upon enemy missile units, charge into and rout them. One can also use them to crush fleeing units.
In ROMANCE mode GENERAL RELATIONS impact the game greatly. Any character can develop opinions about their fellow peers, whether they are in a friendly faction or an enemy faction. Their relationship is shaped by different in-game events where you have to make decisions that would mould the narrative in a way you want. Depending on these factors harmonious and disharmonious relationships are formed where characters may become friends or sworn enemies. It is convenient to drive incompatible generals out of your army or from your court as they tend to cause dissatisfaction and dissent. Since defections from ministerial positions cause civil wars, it is always better to banish generals or court officials who are in cahoots with the enemy. Executing them will make you ruthless and will lower your popularity among other generals and court officials and may even add undesirable character traits. Subsequently, court officials can be appointed to ministerial positions. ADMINISTRATORS can be assigned to settlements to increase their efficiency and reduce corruption. Other positions of power include PRIME MINISTER, CHANCELLOR, GRAND EXCELLENCY, etc; each with their own benefits depending on the incumbent official’s ability. Other than this, the ROMANCE mode has a very unique addition to it. Generals do not have bodyguards anymore (only in records mode, they have bodyguards) and now can engage in DUELS with other enemy generals. Depending on their category, rank and experience one may prove to be more effective against the another. CHAMPIONS are excellent fighters and SENTINELS are ever stronger. In contrast, STRATEGISTS are weak and fallible in combat and are best reserved to be used only for their special abilities.
Armies work, more or less the same way as in other Total War games. In the world map mode (TBS mode), you can move your army by right-clicking on the area you want your army to go. After a definite length of marching, your armies need rest and cannot move until the next turn. Armies have four different STANCES and their movement speed also greatly depends on these stances and the terrain they are traversing. When encamped, your army will quickly build up fortifications to protect itself from enemies while at the same time replenishing. In normal stance, your army will move at a normal pace while replenishing and gathering supplies. In forced march stance, your army will be able to travel long distances at the expense of being ambushed. In ambush stance, your army will set up an ambush and automatically engage the approaching enemy. Military supplies are essential to keep your army well fed. If you begin a journey into enemy territory without supplies, your army will suffer attrition when the bar reaches zero. Supplies automatically replenish in friendly or allied territory. It is somewhat disappointing, that the developers have cut out the raiding stance that was an essential part of Total War: Rome 2, used extensively to cut off enemy trade routes, adding the income into your own. Naval battles are absent and its seriousness in Total War: Three Kingdoms seem to have been underestimated greatly. Agent recruitment is no longer an option. In previous Total War games, you could recruit agents like spies, diplomats, religious leaders and each one of them were important functionaries. In Empire: Total War, I used gentlemen to increase the rate of research, missionaries to reduce religious unrest and rakes to infiltrate, assassinate or sabotage my enemies. But these opportunities do not come to pass in Sega’s Total War: Three Kingdoms. Instead, espionage now has a separate tab where you can assign one of your court officials and depending on points they get, order them to perform several actions against your enemy. It just does not feel that interesting anymore. The view map option before beginning a battle is perhaps one feature alongside the improved diplomacy that is worthy of praise.
Coming to research, it is imperative to mention that Three Kingdoms does not have research buildings or the option to research technologies. It has been replaced by a pathetic reform system where you must introduce new reforms every five turns. The competitive value that was there before in Empire or Shogun 2 has been nicked away, you can expect to find inferior enemies just because you decided to focus on a particular branch or foes of matching strength because they chose to follow the same branch as yours. The previous ability to control (and by control I mean switch research topics whenever convenient) research that took several turns to finish no longer finds a place in Creative Assembly’s Three Kingdoms. The question remains, what good are schools and education facilities then? So far, they only affect character development and reduce the cost of agricultural buildings.
There are five arcs, each featuring different characters: COALITION, TYRANT, OUTLAWS, GOVERNORS and the YELLOW TURBAN REBELLION. Different factions have different abilities. Cao Cao can manipulate the attitude of different factions through diplomacy whereas Liu Bei has the power to unify with other factions. Liu Bei can also make others abdicate emperorship. Another very praiseworthy feature is the faction rank. Certain features are unlocked when you have conquered sizable portions of land and risen through the hierarchy. Once you reach the rank of Duke, your nation will become a Dutchy. Subsequently, you will be allowed to maintain VASSALS. Vassals can be coerced into subjugation through war or they can be subjugated if their attitude towards you is positive. VASSALS can be granted autonomy, an option conferring them with ability to wage wars without permission from their overlords. VASSALS can also be annexed. And this is one of the easiest ways, through which you can gain lots of territory. Say, you vassalise another dutchy with huge reserves of territory. Annexing this nation, there will be no penalties whatsoever and you will inherit and consume the entire nation for yourself, while also assuming control of their armies. If the area maintained by this dutchy is big enough, you can instantly rise to emperorship and other kingdoms, to invalidate your claim to the throne, will proclaim themselves as emperors too.
Total War: Three Kingdoms is set in tumultuous times. In times of great upheavals, when the small principalities of China were warring amongst each other over territory and power. The narrative revolves around a superficial plot which introduces many instances of decision making. It does not coerce you to rely on it. Instead, it is you who shapes the narrative in a way you want; people you want to make enemies with, territories you want to annex, generals you want to do away with, although within a constricted framework of choices. You are given free reigns to decide the fate of the empire you are building and how you want to build it, whether tyrannously with an iron hand, or righteously with conscience. It embodies a complex build of forces, operating in coherence with one another on the one hand and in conflict on the other. It has its moments of joy over victory and rage over defeat, where you’d feel like restarting from the last checkpoint or quitting the game altogether. It is superbly designed with new elements like the duel and the relationship system but it really feels like a missed opportunity for Creative Assembly to not include naval battles given the importance of some of the rivers in China. They have cruelly downplayed the significance of agent recruitment, a system that had been there even in some of the oldest Total War games (Medieval 2). To remove something that important is like a slap on the face of a fan who has been following the series for a long time. I miss sabotaging settlements with spies, assassinating enemy generals and disrupting army supplies. I deprecate the dismissal of some of the most iconic elements in the Total War series. But how can one be vexed looking at the gorgeous sight of night battles, where the land is lit up by lanterns and fire arrows veil the sky, a forest burning in yellowy-red haze yonder? It melts me to even hate this brilliant failure of a masterpiece, the mesmerising visuals slash out all its shortcomings like sharp wind against a thin leaf, almost hypnotically, almost magically.