Total War: Three Kingdoms - Everything we know

Total War: Three Kingdoms is set in ancient China during the tumultuous Three Kingdoms era, in a game that promises to celebrate the period's legendary heroes on and off the battlefield. It's the first big new Total War game to go back to a historical setting since the fantastical Warhammer and Warhammer 2, and it promises some big changes to the Total War Formula.

We've played it, and it's a more character-driven Total War than ever before, with far more powerful heroes in combat than the leaders of previous games. Diplomacy has also been overhauled, and we're still learning the ins and outs of its new systems.

Here's everything we know so far.

What is the Total War: Three Kingdoms release date?

Total War: Three Kingdoms was originally due in fall 2018, then March 2019. It's been delayed, and now the Total War: Three Kingdoms release date is May 23, 2019.

Are there trailers?

The most recent trailer gives us a look at how the more realistic classic mode will work in Total War: Three Kingdoms. Essentially battles will last longer and heroes will be more vulnerable in combat.

Three Kingdoms' trailers are mostly focused on its heroes. Here's one for Dong Zhuo.

Here are a couple more videos showing off more Total War: Three Kingdoms gameplay. First up is its new diplomacy systems.

And spies, which have also been reworked for Three Kingdoms.

The debut trailer sets the scene, shows off some gorgeous battle scenes, and introduces several heroes from the era. You see heroes duelling, too, which is a new battle mechanic in the game.

What's the setting of Total War: Three Kingdoms?

The game is set in second-to-third century China after the dissolution of the Han dynasty. Dong Zhuo rules through his puppet, the child emperor, and two leaders—Cao Cao and Yuan Shao—form a fragile alliance to take him down. The power struggles of the period have since been mythologised, most famously in Luo Guanzhong's 14th century epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms. 

Total War: Three Kingdoms is heavily influenced by the romanticised story, in which the heroes possess almost superhuman combat and tactical prowess. This will be reflected on the battlefield, where combat specialists can take on a unit of one hundred enemies single-handedly. On the official Total War blog game director Janos Gaspar says that "characters are very much the cornerstone of the game: their interactions, friendships, rivalries and personalities drive the campaign game like never before."

As well as Cao Cao and Yuan Shao, the trailers show Liu Bei, Zhang Fei and Guan Yu standing together, and the gameplay features Lu Bu, Zhang Liao, and Xiahou Dun. The heroes and their allied warlords eventually form the three kingdoms of Cao Wei to the north, Sun Wu to the southeast, and Shu Han in the southwest. It looks as though the game will cover the events from the fall of Dong Zhuo onwards. Given Total War's sandbox nature, will three kingdoms form in every game once Dong Zhou has been toppled?

Whatever happens, you'll be playing to unite China under your rule. This is the first time Total War has visited Chinese history, which means all-new units, battlefields, and commanders.

What's new?

Instead of picking a faction, as is traditional in Total War, you pick a character from a choice of 11. Playing as that individual, you recruit generals who come with retinues. You can find unique items for each character and their mounts, as Lu Bu shows in gameplay trailer. There are different classes of hero with different active and passive abilities in combat. Guardians are combat masters that can soak up damage, while Strategists can debuff enemies at range. Commanders, meanwhile, excel at buffing nearby friendly troops.

The heroes you bring into battle determine the makeup of your army. You can bring a collection—five are shown in one army in the gameplay trailer—heroes and their retinues into a fight, and the units in each retinue depend on the hero commanding them. The interpersonal dynamics between heroes will have consequences on the battlefield. If two heroes bond over the course of many battles, when one dies the other may fly into a frenzy and observe a period of mourning afterwards.

Heroes are hugely important on the campaign map too. You can give them assignments in your settlements to boost stats like food production or citizen happiness. As well as those useful production bonuses, these activities can improve a hero's contentment and keep them loyal. Some heroes are better suited to this admin work than others, however, so it pays to look at their traits and their philosophical alignment. 

Heroes are colour coded according to the Chinese philosophy of Wu Xing, which consists of five elemental forces: water, wood, fire, earth, and metal. Fire-aligned heroes are likely to be capable frontline warriors like vanguards, or champions. Blue water strategists can debuff frontline heroes, essentially quelling a fire character. It's more subtle than traditional rock-paper-scissors arrangement, however. Elements don't hard-counter one another, but there can be friction between them that you might want to take into consideration when you're forming armies. Bad relationships can affect a character's satisfaction.

In our first Total War: Three Kingdoms preview senior designer Simon Mann told us "we have this satisfaction mechanic which is about how a character feels about where they are in life, like their lot within your faction or an enemy faction, and that's something that's driven by all of these relationships and events that occur in every game."

Heroes will also allow you to adopt formations in your army, though these abilities will unlock gradually over the course of the campaign. Mann's example suggests that bringing a high level strategist into battle might allow heavy cavalry to access the diamond formation.

These major changes to how armies work are reflected in a stripped down UI evident in the first gameplay trailer. We also know that agents are getting "very surprising" changes, but don't know precisely what they are yet. 

The diplomacy system has been rebuilt from scratch to allow for more complex negotiations. Your proposals can include a much greater range of agreements and resources. You can ask for various forms of vassalage and offer specific treasures in return, for example. A new 'coalition' status allows factions to work together towards a specific military goal without becoming embroiled in a full-scale military alliance.

As a campaign progresses warlords will destroy or recruit one another until large power blocs form. They won't necessarily form the same alliances that occurred during the three kingdoms era of history, but the campaign is designed to culminate in huge showdowns between large alliances. The advanced diplomacy system should also simulate fewer dawn-out conflicts. You won't have to take every piece of an enemy's territory, because an enemy warlord who has lost a few major battles is more likely to bend the knee at the diplomacy screen, in theory at least.

So is it mythological or historical?

Total War: Three Kingdoms is leaning into the rich fictionalised version of the era that we see expressed in Romance of the Three Kingdoms and, indeed, the Dynasty Warriors hack 'n slash series. This plays into the game's extensive new hero systems, which are designed to simulate some of the shifting allegiances of the period. We've yet to see these play out on the strategy map yet, though. The art direction also reflects the romanticised take on the era that pulls from art reflecting the period. It's similar to Shogun 2 in this regard. 

If you don't want to field heroes that can kill hundreds on their own, Total War: Three Kingdoms features a 'classic' mode that shuffles heroes into units and reduces their strength to believable human levels. Some of the more fantastical random events and characters won't turn up in this mode either. It's designed to be a more vanilla take to please long-term fans of historical Total War games.

What do we know about the heroes?

The Creative Assembly has profiled several of the playable warlords in Total War: Three Kingdoms. Here are summaries of a few of them; for more details read up on each on the Total War blog.

Dong Zhuo
"The Tyrant" is a Vanguard class hero, described as a "brutal despot who rules with an iron fist, governing through fear and intimidation." Zhuo starts with Hong Emperor Xian as his vassal and can use intimidation as a resource to maintain control of his territory.

Liu Bei
Liu Bei functions as a Commander class in battle. His heritage lets him claim territory from Han without needing to fight anyone, and he's so charismatic and inspiring his militia units fight for free.

Cao Cao
Another Commander hero, Cao Cao is extremely good at diplomacy. So good that with enough respect he can stage proxy wars between rivals. Speaking of diplomacy, the new system will actually let you trade your kingdom for a horse.

Ma Teng
A Han loyalist who serves as a Vanguard hero on the battlefield. His armies gain extra military supplies and his troops can generate food in the encamp stance. He has access to regional cavalry patrols that "improve military supplies for armies in adjacent commanderies". They deplete supplies for invading forces too. Ma Teng is good at food.

Sun Jian
An aggressive Sentinel hero. His units get guerilla deployment in enemy territory, and his armies also gain superior replenishment in enemy territory. Armies also enjoy reduced mercenary costs and greater character satisfaction.

Here are some Total War: Three Kingdoms screenshots

Here are a few in-engine stills that look as though they were taken from the siege scenario in the gameplay trailer.

Based in Bath with the UK team, Tom loves strategy games, action RPGs, hack ‘n slash games, digital card games… basically anything that he can fit on a hard drive. His final boss form is Deckard Cain.