Total War: Three Kingdoms lets you wrest control of ancient China in a multitude of ways. From bringing down empires from within with the new espionage system, to manipulating the game’s complex and dynamic social structure to create a web of diplomatic allies. As this is Total War, however, you can of course take control at the point of a spear, capturing provinces and besieging settlements in the largest and most beautiful battles to grace a Total War game yet.
This latter point is particularly important. The Creative Assembly’s depiction of Ancient China is inspired in large part by the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Romance is famous for its intensely detailed descriptions of characters, particularly when it comes down to what they are wearing. The novel paints the heroes and generals of the Three Kingdoms period as larger than life figures, who wore vibrant and ostentatious clothing and armour as a mark of their prestige.
In Total War: Three Kingdoms, the Creative Assembly bring some of that colour to the battlefield. Every unit in Three Kingdoms looks dramatically different compared to others, boasting unique colours and distinctive armour sets, while the warlords who lead Three Kingdoms’ armies stand out through their extravagant uniforms and unique equipment sets, which can be looted by the player if that warlord is defeated in battle.
This bolder art-style comes alongside some significant technical improvements. Three Kingdoms features the most detailed animations seen in the series yet, making battles both more thrilling to watch but also faster-paced. This added detail is highlighted by Three Kingdoms’ new duelling system. During battles, generals can square-off directly in spectacularly choreographed one-on-one fights.
Three Kingdoms’ battles are also more dynamic than ever, with your actions both before and during a battle affecting the state of the battlefield. For example, when besieging a settlement, the longer you maintain the siege before assaulting, the weaker your enemy’s defences will be. Their forces may be fewer due to starvation, and fortifications may even crumble as your generals lay the groundwork for their assault.
The improvements to Three Kingdoms’ battles go far beyond the cosmetic. The way armies are deployed has been completely overhauled. In previous Total War games, each army was commanded by a single general. Now, however, each army is overseen by up to three generals, with each general overseeing both the recruitment and command of up to six units. What’s more, each general specialises in recruiting and controlling a certain set of units. They may be cavalry specialists, for example, or able to field a mix of infantry and siege units. Hence, fielding a balanced armies with a diverse roster of units means recruiting an equally broad range of generals.
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Generals also bring to the battle both their knowledge of formations and their particular set of skills in battle. Formations play a much more important role in Total War: Three Kingdoms, as many units have formations specific to them. The Protectors of Heaven, for example, are a heavy-spear unit which are also capable of firing flame missiles. But they can arrange themselves in a formation to combine these abilities, creating a spear-wall at the front while firing flame missiles from the back.
In this way, having a healthy selection of generals enables greater tactical options in your battle. But generals can also affect the outcome of battle in more direct ways. In Three Kingdoms’ new “Romance” mode, generals can trigger several powerful abilities that are linked to their class. Vanguards for example, can deal huge damage to individual units and across broader areas. Commanders, meanwhile, can use their leadership skills to increase the offensive and defensive capabilities of their soldiers. These abilities can also be deployed during one-on-one duels.
As a result, your generals play a more significant role in Three Kingdoms than any other Total War. If a general is killed in a duel, for example, not only will the units under his command take a huge morale hit, you will also lose the ability to field those units, as well as their unique passive bonuses and active abilities. Moreover, Three Kingdoms’ new battle structure lends a personal element to every conflict, as each clash between generals can have potentially huge ramifications. Prepare yourself for the most dramatic battles in a Total War yet.