Creative Assembly have been sating PC owners' lust for accessible, but deep unit-based strategy games since the original Shogun: Total War back in 2000.
For the most part their track record has been impeccable, successfully translating historic conflicts from Feudal Japan to Ancient Britain. In between we've visited Roman Europe, the dawn of the United States of America and Napoleon's military career. We've even entered the fantasy world of Games Workshop's Warhammer.
Total War: Three Kingdomsis the thirteenth major release in the series, in amongst countless expansions and DLC packs. It's fair to say that Creative have got their game formula pretty-much polished.
Three Kingdoms takes the series to China for the first time. Set in 190 CE, region is in turmoil and it's up to the player to defeat the warlord Dong Zhou. The game draws from two sources, 14th century novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, by Luo Guanzhong and the Record of the Three Kingdoms written in the 3rd century.
My utter lack of knowledge of Chinese history and literature made the game, initially, a bit less inviting to play compared to many of the other Total Wargames. I had the same issue with Warhammer- in not having any frame of reference. The narration a tad annoying and the story seems a little over-blown. I soon got over my unfamiliarity with the setting.
In any case, the gameplay will still be very familiar to Total War fans. Newcomers may find themselves a bit overcome at first, but Total War games are easily the most accessible history wargames out there. New players may still want to check out the Total War Academy video tips on the Total War website. These videos are also available in-game.
As with previous Total War games, there are two elements to Three Kingdoms, real-time battles and the turn-based campaign map. Whilst I spent hours tweaking my faction's assets and relationships on the campaign map, as far as I'm concerned, the real-time battles are the icing on the cake.
The real-time battlefield combat has armies face each other on the battlefield and player commands individual combat units. Players can opt to play one-off battles from the main menu.
The campaign map is the heart of the campaign mode. This is where armies are raised and warriors recruited. This is also where players form diplomatic ties and manage their settlements.
The campaign mode offers players two very different ways to play the game. The default is the Romance setting. For this, whilst the historic facts are the same, the heroes are super-powerful and possess special attributes on the battlefield.
The Romance campaign offers faster more dynamic gameplay. Purists may want to switch to the Record campaign, where the warlords have the same vulnerabilities as regular warriors on the battlefield. This offers players a slower pace, requiring more frugal management of your army's fatigue and stamina.
The user interface has had a significant overhaul since Total War: Warhammer II. It's more refined and quite a bit more subtle. It took a while to get used to and I'm still not sure that I like it. But for newcomers, the design is a lot less clunky and overbearing that in previous games.
Both the campaign map and the battlegrounds are immaculately rendered. This is probably the best-looking Total War game, ever. The campaign map has an almost painterly art-style. The units on the battlefield are animated in such a lifelike manner. The way the houses fidget as they stand around is a particularly nice touch. Battles have always been fascinating to watch, but in Three Kingdoms they are amazing.
Total War: Three Kingdoms feels a bit like a soft reboot for the series. The focus on a tighter narrative, is very similar to that of Total War Saga: Britannia. Visually, it's the best entry yet. Baring the usual steep learning curve of strategy game, Three Kingdoms is a great jumping in point for the series. Veteran players, may find the new look takes a bit of getting used to, but this is still very much Total War.