Liu Bei doesn't have any territory at the start of Total War: Three Kingdoms, but he does have family. His battle brothers Zhang Fei and Guan Yu are faithful to his cause, and together they happen to form the strongest starting army in the entire game.
I have three hours or so of play to establish a foothold. There are a few strong warlords in the Dong province, so it's sensible to go after weaker forces. This is China in 190, so those weak forces are going to be the remnants of the Yellow Turban Rebellion. Liu Bei wants to crush the rebels, restore the Han dynasty to its former glory, and unite China. I look at the massive, gorgeous campaign map, and wonder how I could ever manage such a thing.
Three Kingdoms starts just after the collapse of the Han dynasty, in the chaotic warlord vs. warlord royal rumble period that eventually became three competing empires. It's a perfectly poised scenario for a Total War game, though a hard one to grasp right away because of the sheer number of competing interests at work on the campaign map.
As we noted in our last preview, the game is intensely character-driven. Every hero in your faction has a detailed stats page, gear, traits, and loyalty to manage. You can keep them happy by appointing them to senior positions and by giving them 'assignments'. Good administrators can provide very useful boosts to food production and mustering speed if you put the right hero in the right place.
Diplomacy is far more detailed, and warlords are much more proactive about reaching out to offer bargains or request military access. The diplomacy screen lets you make a wide range of offers, from treaties and various forms of vassalage, to individual toys or bits of armour that your faction has found. You can form flexible coalitions as well as traditional military alliances.
The extra detail is welcome, but I found it difficult to unpack the relationships between the factions surrounding my little empire. Three Kingdoms gives you new ways to undermine warlords, to extort land and money from them, and to even start civil wars in their territory. But it would take more than the three hours I had to really understand the dynamics of the campaign map, and to hone in on which warlords I really wanted to target, or avoid.
At one point the campaign asked me to make a choice to defend Tao Qian against Cao Cao. Where is Cao Cao? What territory does he own? Where are his armies? How powerful are they? Who is he allied with? Where is that allied territory? Do any of them have the military access to reach me? This basic information seems harder to get at in Three Kingdoms than other Total War games.
Three Kingdoms may be a victim of its own success here. The more complicated you make a system the harder it is to grasp in the space of a few hours. That doesn't mean the system isn't good, it just means it's impossible to know yet whether the Creative Assembly's talk of evolving relationships and high drama between warlords will bear out. The early turns are the busiest part of a Three Kingdoms campaign as well. As warlords swear fealty to one another and huge power blocs emerge, I can see the game generating some epic showdowns.
It's certainly a good looking game too. The campaign map makes fantastic use of China's natural beauty and variety. The battlefields are bright and colourful, and the heroes have been well realised. If you're looking for a gritty historical wargame you may be better off with Britannia or Attila. In Romance mode heroes are extremely powerful on the battlefield. Your units certainly aren't pointless, but a well-matched duel between your champion class hero and an enemy commander class hero can turn a battle around, or deliver the decisive blow.
There is a toned-down classic mode, which we have yet to try, but it would seem a shame not to go all-in on the heroes. Leaders' actions in this period powerfully shaped the course of China. It's fitting that a game should grant them legendary status and put them at the very forefront of your empire.
Total War: Three Kingdoms is out on March 7.