The Total War series garners a lot of respect from both PC and strategy game circles, though the historical side of the franchise has experienced a bit of stagnation in recent years. That’s why many Total War fans, including myself, were excited when Creative Assembly and SEGA unveiled Total War: Three Kingdoms, an entirely new entry in the series set in ancient China and based on Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
This year at E3 I met up with Creative Assembly, who gave me an in-depth look at one of the game’s larger historical battles – Cao Cao’s siege of Xiapi, during which he defeated Lu Bu. I came away impressed from what I saw, as Total War: Three Kingdoms looks like it is innovating and pushing the series forward with its graphical improvements, brand new setting, and new Heroes system.
The siege started with several groups of soldiers, led by Cao Cao, sieging the city walls. The walls weren’t as frail as they looked in that gameplay footage above, but still fell fairly quickly from mass attacks by the trebuchet. Cao Cao and his foot soldiers then started flooding into the city as Lu Bu retreated to the center of Xiapi, where he would eventually make his final stand.
Sieges have been reworked in quite a few ways in Total War: Three Kingdoms. The developers have improved opponent AI, in that they will adapt to what the player is doing by retreating or bolstering forces where necessary. Cities are now set up with special districts, where players can also try to funnel soldiers into certain areas where they can be easily ambushed. According to the developers, siege escalation is also returning to the series, though I didn’t get a good glimpse at that during this particular demo.
For the most part, controls and unit formations seem to act relatively the same in Total War: Three Kingdoms as in past installments, so series veterans won’t feel out of place. However, the newly-found emphasis on Heroes and generals will definitely change things up in this entry: these main historical figures are ultra-powerful units that can quickly turn the tide of a battle.
Every general, including the main eleven Warlords of Total War: Three Kingdoms, will have their own special abilities in place to both give them an edge in combat, assist friendly units, or debuff enemies. This makes these units incredibly important, and they will likely be the linchpin to most players strategies.
As the demo went on, Cao Cao continued to siege Xiapi alongside his unit, and his cousins eventually showed up as backup. After ravaging the city for a while, Cao Cao began to banter with Lu Bu, and was eventually able to call him out to duel. During these duels, only the two Hero units fight, with players choosing special attacks to come out on top. If players want to be dishonorable, they can have other units intervene, though this will be looked down upon and have lasting effects on that general’s credibility.
The developers knew what they were doing, so Cao Cao was able to slay Lu Bu fairly easily. That being said, due to the developer’s overconfidence, Cao Cao was actually killed by some generic soldiers shortly afterwards when left to his own devices – a pretty underwhelming end for a great leader. After Lu Bu fell, his forces were greatly dispirited, and Xiapi was easily taken.
If the previously-described dueling and use of generals sounds too cartoony or unlike the series for you, Creative Assembly sounds like it still has your back. These elements are actually optional, and can be ignored when playing Classic Mode, where Total War: Three Kingdoms will function just like previous titles in the franchise.
Total War: Three Kingdoms‘ improved engine also bolsters the experience, and while visually it’s not a significant departure, there are a few notable differences this time around. Tons of soldiers were on screen at one time during my demo, and had the same care put into them as the environments. The game also accurately captured the elegant and unique style of Chinese architecture quite well; even the menus are nice looking and embellished with large brush strokes to add to the game’s theming and aesthetic.
If you were underwhelmed by the Total War: Warhammer titles or the recently-released Thrones of Britannia, Total War: Three Kingdoms may finally be the title to win you over. It’s better-looking and better-playing than past titles, takes place in an incredibly interesting time period, and actually introduces new mechanics like the Hero system that push the historical side of the series forward.
While we still don’t know much about how things will play outside these battles, I still can’t wait to try out Total War: Three Kingdoms when it releases on PC next year.