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  • Total War: Three Kingdoms review — Best in the series, best in the setting
    Time: Jan. 9, 2020 From:



    Before getting into the game itself, it’s worth discussing what the setting of the Three Kingdoms

    means, as a whole. In the most superficial sense, it’s a series of civil wars that ended the Chinese

    Han Empire from the late second century CE into the third. But more than that, the Three Kingdoms

    era has become a defining event of the literature and culture of civil wars, the way that the fall of the

    Roman Republic, the Wars of the Roses in England, or the American Civil War create legends for their

    cultures. This is the story of larger-than-life figures, engaged in a titanic war not just for territory but for

    strategy and politics and morals, perhaps reaching its pop cultural peak in John Woo’s film Red Cliff.





    What you’ll like


    They’re people, not units

    At its core, Total War: Three Kingdoms is about people. When you create armies, you do not start

    with a general and then add 20 units, as has been the case with every Total War since the original

    Shogun. It’s different in this game, where you have a character in charge of a retinue of up to six

    units big, of which three are allowed per army. This adds up to full armies being normal-sized for

    Total War, but with huge amounts of personality added, because each third is attached to a person,

    and each has their own identity and interaction with one another.






    The colors, children, the colors!


    This isn’t a difficult or complex process. But it is a satisfying one, with comprehensible and

    interesting causes and effects. It’s not the only one in the game, either. Total War: Three Kingdoms

    is built around a clever and aesthetically satisfying set of intertwined systems based on the Chinese

    elements. Each of the five elements —Earth, Metal, Water, Wood, Fire — corresponds to colors:

    yellow, purple, blue, green, and red.


    Each of these connects to character classes, buildings, and unit types. So, for example, green is

    the color of Champion classes — the best duelists — which corresponds to agriculture and peasantry

    in building types, and spear infantry. A Champion will generally have spear infantry accessible for

    them to recruit to their retinue, whereas sending them to help build infrastructure tends to be in ways

    that increase food, population, or taxes.







    Playing the map


    And … all that isn’t even the best part of Total War: Three Kingdoms. The series has always

    struggled with maintaining a strong campaign from beginning to end, but in this incarnation,

    Creative Assembly seems to have solved the issue. Its Chinese civil war is dynamic and fascinating,

    with almost every playable faction having their own strategic decisions to make with far-ranging repercussions.


    As Cao Cao, who historically set up a power-base in the center of China and then took over the north,

    I pushed south to see what happened — which ended up with me as a power, but not quite a superpower.

    I was surrounded by smaller factions, and I found it easy to end up at war with everyone around me.

    This ravaged my economy thanks to a lack of trade partners, forcing a constant dance of diplomacy to

    knock out what rivals I could as fast as I could before losing key territory to my true enemies.





    Fighting it out


    Speaking of the battles, which I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about, I still wish they were like

    Shogun 2. In that game, the goal was to rout enemy armies, a process that tended to occur fairly quickly

    and involve rigid formations and key attacks to trigger a cascading rout. In almost all the Total Wars since,

    the goal has been to destroy enemy armies, a process which makes battles tend to be scrummier and slower,

    often ending with small groups of units bashing each other in the face until one comes out.


    That said, if that’s the direction Total War is going, Three Kingdoms is the best incarnation of this kind

    of tactica l battle, with the possible exception of late-game combat in the Warhammer games. The addition

    of the general units, who can turn battles with their skills or their straightforward combat prowess, makes

    watching those battles end still be entertaining, and tends to hurry it along before it gets interminable.







    Whenever I’ve played Three Kingdoms-set games in the past, I’ve always wished for an ultimate game

    in the setting. Dynasty Warriors but with more tactics, Dynasty Tactics with more emergent narrative,

    Romance of the Three Kingdoms but with better balance and more action. This always felt like a pipe

    dream — but Total War: Three Kingdoms manages to accomplish it.


    Likewise, whenever I’ve played a Total War, I’ve always wished for a campaign mode as good as the

    battles, an endgame as fascinating as the early game, and a difficulty that matches my skills.


    Not impossible, but not expected — until Total War:Three Kingdoms.


    So I really don’t have sufficient superlatives to use here. Beyond best-in-setting and best-in-franchise,

    Total War:Three Kingdoms is game that instantly contends for best of the year, or best in its genre.

    The setting and franchise here give it high expectations, and Three Kingdoms surpasses those expectations

    at almost every level.






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