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You need to be a jerk to win as Lü Bu in Total War: Three Kingdoms' latest expansion

(Image credit: Creative Assembly)

When Three Kingdoms describes Lü Bu as a one-man army, it isn't exaggerating. In the several hours I've spent with the A World Betrayed expansion, I've seen China's greatest warrior cleave through entire enemy units, single-handedly routing them before moving onto the next. And the next. And the next. Hell, even China's greatest warlords can't fight Lü Bu one-on-one. Though Total War: Three Kingdoms leans heavily on the romanticized account of the waning years of China's Han dynasty, Lü Bu's strength on the battlefield reaches Dynasty Warriors levels of absurdity. He's basically unstoppable—but that doesn't mean Total War: Three Kingdoms - A World Betrayed isn't challenging. Lü Bu might always win the battle, but the war is a different story.

Lü Bu's campaign might be one of my favorites so far, even if I suck so badly at it I've had to restart a few times.

A World Betrayed is one of Total War: Three Kingdoms' bigger expansions. When it launches on March 19, it'll add two new playable factions, a bunch of new challenges and story events for existing factions. It's a lot to dig into, and I've yet to experience most of it because the biggest draw is finally being able to play as China's most infamous warrior, Lü Bu.

Before A World Betrayed, Lü Bu was only available as a general starting in Dong Zhou's service. If players wanted to have him lead your entire faction, you'd either need to use mods or rely on a lot of luck, marriages, adoptions, and politicking in order to make it happen. But A World Betrayed lets you play as Lü Bu directly, and gives you a host of new faction mechanics to wrestle with in the process. One of Three Kingdoms greatest strengths has always been how it takes the personalities of these mythological warlords and translates them into interesting playstyles (like Yuan Shao's relentless need to form alliances). But Lü Bu's campaign might be one of my favorites so far, even if I suck so badly at it I've had to restart a few times.

Warrior without equal 

All you really need to know about Lü Bu is that he was an unstoppable warrior whose only real weaknesses were an inability to see the big picture, and one beautiful woman. He's a little like Jaime Lannister from A Song of Ice and Fire: A warrior of unparalleled ability who plunged the realm into further chaos by murdering his tyrant liege, creating a nasty power vacuum. But as good as Lü Bu might be with a spear, he's an awful leader.

This is all reflected in Lü Bu's unique faction mechanics. Right off the bat, the general suffers a penalty to corruption and construction cost because "administration is a tedious task, fit only for eunuchs and weaklings." It also doesn't help that Lü Bu has an extremely weak start position, owning only one minor settlement that, when you start a new campaign, is besieged by Cao Cao's forces.

Lü Bu's early campaign is enormously challenging to survive—and yes, I'm willing to admit that's likely because I'm not great at Total War. Cao Cao's numbers are initially overwhelming, and Three Kingdoms offers you a way out by letting you join Liu Bei next door, trading one minor settlement for another and prematurely ending a war against a far superior army. But even then, there's little room to grow without making some powerful enemies, and Lü Bu's poor leadership makes it hard to survive. With a few short-sighted decisions, I quickly found myself bankrupt again and again.

The main faction resource Lü Bu has is Momentum, which is gained through defeating enemies in battle. Each point of momentum increases the satisfaction of your court and your movement range, but if you manage to fill the bar high enough your troops will begin to fight harder and replenish much faster. Momentum also decays slowly each turn, punishing inaction and passivity.

The idea, then, is to keep Lü Bu on the war path as long as possible. This is reinforced by other unique systems, like Mercenary Contracts that you can sign with other warlords to fight their battles for them, earning gold and reputation. Each time you defeat a legendary general, you'll also earn permanent bonuses, encouraging you to get out there and kick all types of ass.

In a grand strategy game, playing so recklessly like that is a bit terrifying. It's also exhilarating.

As a naturally more cautious player, I really struggled to keep Lü Bu's momentum up. Like the character himself, you have to be willing to punish weakness, aggressively declare war, and go screaming into battles you know you might not win. In a grand strategy game, playing so recklessly like that is a bit terrifying. It's also exhilarating.

After defeating armies in battle, Lü Bu's own armies have the unique option to rally, resetting their movement points, replenishing their numbers slightly, but starting out tired if they engage in another conflict. This effectively lets you string battles together for as long as your units can hold out, gaining huge Momentum bonuses. In those moments, when my armies are cleaving through enemy territory, I feel unstoppable.

But, like I said, Lü Bu is a terrible leader. The reason I had to start over so often is because it's ridiculously easy to over-extend your empire. Early on, for example, Lü Bu has such little territory to his name it's hard to field an army without depleting your coffers. Joining forces with Liu Bei gives you some assistance, but only for a few turns. If you don't manage your conflicts carefully, it's easy to piss off all your neighbors and then lack the funds to survive their inevitable beatdown. And as good as Lü Bu is in single combat, even he can't fight off entire armies.

If you're familiar with the Three Kingdoms period of ancient China, you'll understand that this is exactly the kind of predicament the real Lü Bu faced, and I love how adeptly Total War reflects this in his campaign. Though it is possible to rewrite history (in my current campaign Lü Bu has become one of three emperors), it's also fun to play a campaign that's so authentic to one of China's ill-fated heroes.

The real Lü Bu spent his brief years as an independent warlord jumping from one ally to the next, desperately trying to carve out a small piece of a fractured empire for himself. But his bad temper and inability to strategize eventually led to his defeat and execution. As frustrated as I was having to start over, I love how my four failed campaigns really echo that struggle.

If you're up for a new Total War: Three Kingdoms campaign, at $10 A World Betrayed is a no-brainer. Adopting his hyper-aggressive playstyle and actually surviving longer than 30 or so turns might not be as challenging for you as it was for me, but regardless A World Betrayed does a great job telling the story of one of Three Kingdoms' most iconic heroes.

Steven enjoys nothing more than a long grind, which is precisely why his specialty is on investigative feature reporting on China's PC games scene, weird stories that upset his parents, and MMOs. He's Canadian but can't ice skate. Embarrassing.