Total War: Three Kingdoms was released on 23 May 2019, and proved to be an immediate success, going straight to the top of the list for some. Set in ancient China during the Three Kingdoms era, it fuses history with romanticised legends. Three Kingdoms also introduced many new elements to the Total War series and greatly upgraded the diplomacy system.
Here’s why we think Three Kingdoms is the best Total War game.
Best of the last few years
The release of Total War: Three Kingdoms came out in 2019, just two years after Total War: Warhammer 2, which has always been a contender for the top Total War game. Thrones of Britannia was not a failure by any means, but saw a significant drop in user reviews on Steam, achieving a ‘Mixed’ overall rating.
Thrones of Britannia was also the first of the Total War ‘Saga’ games, which focused on a specific time period in history, for a more ‘focused’ experience, whereas Total War games focus on a larger period of history or fantasy story. The next Saga game, Troy, was also a slight flop, achieving slightly better reviews than Thrones of Britannia, but still falling short for similar reasons: lack of content and being too easy or boring.
Three Kingdoms has therefore been the shining light of the Total War games in the last six years, giving it the advantage being of the most up-to-date version of a historical Total War game, and currently leading in size and spectacle. Warhammer 3 had a rocky start, and for many, didn’t improve on many of the aspects of Warhammer 2 and therefore doesn’t seem like a contender.
Strong, exciting combat
The combat in Three Kingdoms is some of the strongest of the entire series. The variety of units, strategies and battlefield terrains available to the player is vast and means that battles will differ hugely. Strategy in the game can be defensive, and adopt a variety of ranged attacks from units like trebuchets, ballistas, archers and mounted archers, to more close-range units like Protectors of Heaven. Attacking strategies have a range of cavalry to choose from, as well as a variety of formations, such as Loose for charging infantry under fire and Wedge for increasing cavalry impact. Upgrading the character levels and units unlock more advanced formations such as Spearwalls, Turtles, and Hollowed Squares.
The different strengths of different character classes will also give the player extra abilities on the battlefield, for example, giving your Strategist the ‘Resourcefulness’ skill will add the flaming shot ability on the trebuchets.
Characters also have a certain class, which determines their strengths and abilities. Here is a list of all the five classes of character, each one with their own abilities and variations:
There are also five ‘atrributes’ in each character, which can be levelled up (Expertise, Resolve, Cunning, Instinct, and Authority). This means that you can shape characters to have certain strengths.
Varied campaign characters
Your campaign character will be the main character in the loose story that you will follow. Just like on the battlefield, your choice of character will affect which abilities and strengths are available to you. More strategic characters might promote a more passive style of campaign, but characters that champion vanguards as their main characters promote attacking head-on, and using their abilities to secure ground.
The campaign selection screen will give the player some guidance on character selection, as well as the strengths of each character, under Playstyle Focus. For example, Cao Cao’s Playstyle Focus is ‘Diplomatic manipulation’. But picking Sun Jian as the main character will recommend ‘Expansion’, suggesting a much more aggressive playstyle.
Characters also have a certain ‘currency’ that goes with their campaign, giving them certain abilities to use against other factions and strengthen your position. For example, Cao Cao gains a ‘Credibility’ faction currency, which allows the player to disrupt other campaigns.
Three Kingdoms introduced Romance mode, which is where your characters will have immense strength and supernatural abilities. The game gives you the option to play in Romance mode or select Records mode. In Records mode, the characters will be like regular units as they are in other Total War games: they will be as vulnerable as any other unit. This is a great addition to Total War, as Romance mode changes your hero from being a support unit (or entirely absent from the battlefield) to a key unit that can lead your entire army.
Some players find Romance mode frustrating and taking away from a realistic Total War experience, as the strength of the characters means that many defensive elements such as spear walls become redundant. But the option to choose between the two modes means that the game respects both styles of play.
Diplomacy in Three Kingdoms is what made the game stand out for most. Building on the regular diplomacy that most of the games in the series have (essentially if another faction likes you or not), there are added facets which increase the nuance and skill of being a successful diplomat.
The diplomacy is delicate and involves a ‘Trustworthiness’ level, which will determine how likely other factions are to complete a deal with you. If you have a history of dodgy deals or commit atrocities, factions will steer well clear of you, even if you offer a good deal.
Three Kingdoms has not only diplomacy for other factions but also domestic diplomacy. You will have to monitor your Court, Family Tree and relationships between characters.
Court is where you can pick certain characters to fulfil certain roles, and most importantly pick your faction heir. This can be a tricky process, as not all characters will get on, and you may create conflict. This can cause dissatisfaction and even betrayal.
Here you will be able to monitor your royal bloodline and ensure that you know who is related to who. The death of an heir can be a disruptive event to your campaign, as picking a new heir outside of the family can cause huge rifts.
This is where you will be able to check the relationship between your characters, as well as their relationships with characters in other factions. This can be handy if you have marriages across factions, or are looking to form an alliance.
Rich storytelling & artwork
It was inevitable that Total War were going to cover the Three Kingdoms, considering it is one of the most bloody yet romanticised periods of world history. The storytelling of each of the characters is subtle but relevant, meaning that you can take the campaign in any direction you like, but still enjoy the unfolding of the story. Creative Assembly also hired Rafe de Crespigny, a respected sinologist, to help fine-tune the historical aspects of the game.
The artwork of the game is also highly impressive. The cutscenes blend beautifully into the menus and campaign screens, creating snapshots of scenes using the ‘ink burst’ style.
Creative Assembly’s future?
Three Kingdoms might also be the best Total War game for many years to come, as Creative Assembly’s popularity has been waning.
Towards the end of its roughly two-year development support time, Three Kingdoms suffered some review bombing due to Creative Assembly releasing relatively sub-par DLCs for those two years (with the Yellow Turban Rebellion update the only one to receive overall positive reviews) and then dropping the game, suggesting that a sequel was in production.
Check out this video released by the development team, and the comments below it:
The general consensus seems to be that Creative Assembly are quickly prioritising profit over the quality of the games, and dropping games very quickly after release even if there are still problems. Warhammer 3’s release was turbulent at best, with most complaints about the game being that it was broken, and redacted in many ways from Warhammer 2. It should also be remembered that Creative Assembly also raised the price of Warhammer 2 back up to £39.99 (it was under £20 for a long time) when Warhammer 3 was released – another sly way of obtaining more money from new fans interested in trying the older titles.
We will be watching closely to see what Creative Assembly does next, whether we will see a Total War: Three Kingdoms 2, and whether Creative Assembly can fix up its declining reputation. Warhammer 3 made a turnaround, and managed to repair a lot of the issues and fix up the reviews, so perhaps there are even greater Total War titles to come. But as it stands, Three Kingdoms remains the overall the strongest Total War game, for its gameplay, setting, artwork and replayability.