This is not a revolution, but a step in the right direction.
During its long history, the Total War series has covered many historical periods, from the Japanese Age of Howling Provinces and Ancient Rome to the Napoleonic Wars. But in 2016, the developers went on an experiment, releasing the game Warhammer: Total War, to which a sequel and several DLCs then went.
The game was successful and earned high marks from critics. However, hardcore fans of the series recalled the times of historical strategies and waited for the studio to return to the roots. Finally, it happened – on May 23, Total War: Three Kingdoms, dedicated to the civil war in ancient China, known as the Age of Three Kingdoms, came out.
The new game has both unique mechanics and solutions that have been transferred from one part of Total War to another for many years. But if you compare the Three Kingdoms with previous games in the series, then surprisingly it looks most like not the Shogun, also dedicated to the civil war in the East, but to the chronological predecessor – Warhammer: Total War.
The basic system of Total War remained unchanged. The player in turn-based mode manages his lands, gathers armies, negotiates with other factions, organizes mining and trade in resources. And the battle takes place on a tactical map in real time. But it is precisely here that the most serious difference of the game from other “historical” parts of the series lies.
As the developers have repeatedly stressed, the Three Kingdoms relies not only and not so much on historical data, as on the novel “Three Kingdoms”, written in the XIV century by Luo Guanzhong. This is one of the most influential works in Chinese culture, comparable in importance to the works of Shakespeare in the English-speaking world.
“Three Kingdoms” is based on real events of the 3rd century AD, set out in the Chinese chronicles, but this, first of all, is an artistic text, the author of which had a certain creative concept, its own ideas of good and evil, plot and composition. He clearly indicates which Heroes are commendable, and which are censures, emphasizes the importance of personal connections and characters in political events, and romanticizes individual leaders and warriors. Also received and Creative Assembly.
In the standard game mode, which is directly called “romantic”, the Heroes, commanding the troops, are extremely strong units. They belong to different classes, and “combat” Heroes are able to single-handedly disperse several enemy units or even single-handedly seize a small city. And Heroes, whose skills are based on command, give the surrounding units serious bonuses. In addition, in the battle they challenge each other to fights in the best traditions of the films of the UN.
Those who played in the previous “historical” parts of the series will remember that the unit led by the commander of the army was often quite strong, but could not single-handedly change the course of a major battle. But something similar was present in the games of Warhammer, although even there the commander’s abilities were inferior to how powerful the Heroes in the Three Kingdoms were.
The developers stated that the “romantic” mode can be turned off by replacing the “classic” mode, in the spirit of the rest of the series. But in their combat system there is no other bright chips. Battles are not bad, but without Heroes they look like the “arithmetic mean” of everything that was in Total War over a long history.
Reflecting what we see in the game – the civil war inside the once united country – the developers made the recruitment of troops and, accordingly, the battle tactics of most factions similar. There is no diversity of units in the spirit of Medieval or Rome. And although it looks logical and plausible, without Heroes, the same army of spearmen, horsemen and riflemen are not that interesting.
Heroes of Sword and Fan
Of course, there are some differences in terms of available units. Each faction has several unique types of soldiers. Carrying out the Reforms – a local analogue of the research of new technologies, the player opens up even more additional units, for example, siege weapons. Finally, each class of Heroes also opens its own type of units.
Another difference is the Three Kingdoms – the troops are not replenished here in the city, but in the army itself. This system, by the way, was actively used in Warhammer: Total War, where a number of factions did not have cities at all, although they tried it even earlier, in Total War: Attila.
But in Three Kingdoms, the collection of soldiers around Hero, and not the city is not a particular, but the central mechanics, emphasizing that the game, following the book, is built around characters, not nations. And this can be seen not only in the rules for replenishing armies.
To begin with, each side of the game is not a country or a clan, but one of the characters of the Three Kingdoms or chronicles of that time. His character is revealed through unique mechanics pushing for different styles of play. Ominous tyrant Dong Zho has an indicator of “intimidation”, ensuring the loyalty of those close to him; the merciful and just Liu Bei – the “unity” that increases the productivity of the peasants, and so on.
Each such character has a yard – a set of Heroes serving him. The unit acts as a commander, but the Heroes have other functions. They manage individual provinces, occupy positions that give bonuses to the entire faction as a whole, carry out assignments that give short-term advantages.
Also, each Hero has its own features, parameters and even a small inventory. And most importantly – they have a relationship with each other, determined by random events, the similarity of characters and other factors, in particular, the desire to avenge their dead friends.
The player is recommended to follow these relationships: a character dissatisfied with his overlord can desert. And although the Three Kingdoms are far from the intricacies of Crusader Kings II, the game apparently progressed precisely in this direction, replacing the abstract loyalty of the faction with a complex “social network” that unites all the characters in the game.
Finally, in the Three Kingdoms for the first time in the history of the series, a spying system appeared, also tied to the Heroes. The character sent with the corresponding task will transfer to the service of another overlord, becoming his commander or official, and simultaneously performing the player’s instructions.
It is difficult to identify a traitor – as long as he monitors the values of the corresponding parameters, the spy will not fall. Therefore, one of the means of protection is the “check of the resume” when hiring: each of the Heroes has a list of previous overlords, and sometimes it is worth missing someone who served your sworn enemy. On the other hand, sometimes spies betray their original faction and become double agents, spying on both masters.
The focus on Heroes made the Creative Assembly seriously complicate the diplomacy system. In the new game, coalitions, unions involving several participants have appeared, it is possible to vassalize weak factions and support foreign vassals in their striving for independence and enter into dynastic marriages. Some factions were given unique diplomatic mechanics — for example, Cao Cao, the conventional chief antagonist of the Three Kingdoms, incites wars between other factions, in which he does not participate.
Choose your story
Another feature of the game – the presence in it of the plot, again, borrowed from books and chronicles. The player does not just receive a global goal at the beginning of the game, but must consistently carry out tasks that promote him through the history of the character for which he plays.
In a highly simplified form, this mechanic was still in Rome II, where the system of chapters operated, but there it determined, rather, “which way to fight”: for example, the Roman factions encouraged the seizure of territories in the order in which it happened historically.
In the Three Kingdoms, tasks are more particular: for example, make an alliance with a specific character or destroy a specific faction. This system, again, appeared in Warhammer. But in the new game, the plot also branches: the player is free to follow the events of the Three Kingdoms, or try to act differently. However, the end of history is always the same – the one who becomes the emperor of China wins.
Power in the ground
The system of relationships, plot and espionage are the most striking features of the new game, not counting the “romantic” battles. But that is why they deserve criticism. It is interesting to follow the squabbles of generals and officials, but, ultimately, they define not so much.
In the 30 hours that I played in the Three Kingdoms, spies never created serious problems for me. And dissatisfied commanders and officials can be cajoleated by salary increase or replaced, since there are always characters in the game looking for work.
Of course, there is a risk that new Heroes will be worse than the previous ones, but the gap is not large enough. The bonus to the economy, which gives a good manager, is not comparable with the bonus that the player receives by capturing several cities. And in the army, the easiest way to bet on the main character and stop worrying about the traitors. So the game turns into the familiar Total War, where the main thing is to endlessly capture new territories.
About the same “breaks” the plot. In the Three Kingdoms, it is easier to accumulate so much strength that a line of potential allies would line up for you, which would include the “same” desired relative of the Hero, who needs to be friends with on the instructions than to personally entice him. Because of this, the atmosphere of political drama, which the Three Kingdoms are trying to create, and which is sometimes possible with Crusader Kings, quickly gives way to a pragmatic calculation.
Names are the Enemy of Unified China
Another pretty dumb problem is names. All parties in the game are named after the names of their leaders, taken from the chronicles. And real names are often not diverse, especially in China. For example, one of the game characters is the robber Zheng Jiang, north of the possessions of which Zhang Yan character is located at the very beginning of the game, and Zhang Yang to the south. Each of them has a unique model helps, but not much.
And there are a lot of factions in the game, and they constantly change their names – after the death of the leader, the heir succeeds him, and if they have at least a part of the name, then you are lucky. So separate groups merge into a continuous mass of names, of which only key characters for you are remembered. Sometimes it is difficult to understand what is happening at all, who declared war to whom, and why a particular character considers himself your enemy.
This is complemented by the fact that the interface in the game, especially on the screen of diplomacy, is organized chaotically. Important buttons and information hidden in the corners, or even accessible in just a few clicks. In itself, this would not have become a problem if the game had not attempted to cover so many different systems: complex diplomacy, espionage, and the loyalty of the generals, and the development of cities, and trade. Even with the experience of playing in every single part of Total War, I had a good understanding of management for quite some time.
However, technically the game is well done. The graphics in Three Kingdoms are not as stylish as they were in Shogun, but still beautiful, and some battles unfold against the backdrop of stunning landscapes. Animation duels varied. And the interface, after you understand it, is basically convenient. The main thing – to understand where to look.
At first glance, the new part of Total War is one of the most courageous experiments of the Creative Assembly, which is seriously different from the standard games of the series. Unfortunately, many of his innovations are actually easy to ignore and play in the “good old” Total War, occasionally being distracted by the funny features of the characters and their relationship.
Having understood the interface and remembering many names, you know – the revolution did not happen. But it is still a step in the right direction compared to the previous “historical” parts of the series, successfully using the decisions that the developers were pushed by in the fantasy genre.
In the end, Total War never chased deep realism. In this series there has always been a lot of historical paintings. Shogun was inspired by samurai aesthetics in the spirit of Kurosawa, Rome – by the films of the peplum genre, Medieval – by costume films about the Middle Ages. Three Kingdoms is true to this tradition, differing only in the fact that the developers directly said: you play for the heroes of a work of art, not a historical treatise.