Look, I love video games. Pretty much all of ’em, really, though I can’t say I’m huge on sports games. That’s not to say I’m good at all of them, though. My skill at strategy games pretty much begins and ends with Disgaea, a series where the strategy part can be skipped via mass leveling if you so choose. You’ve got to be a little smarter than that in Total War: Three Kingdoms, but that wasn’t going to stop me from giving it a shot and getting speared until I learned a thing or two about commanding armies. I didn’t, by the way, but at least I had fun.
It’s the Romance of the Three Kingdoms! You know how that goes, right? There’s three big kingdoms all vying to take over the entirety of ancient China – Wu, Shu and Wei. You’re going to take the lead and actually get the job done, so pick an iconic leader from the era and get to work! All the big names are here – Cao Cao, Liu Bei, the works. I mean, Cao Cao is the obvious winner, much as he is in the Dynasty Warriors games, but it’s cool that there’s other choices. Did you ever play Devil Kings, also called Sengoku Basara, where he had a shotgun? That game was great.
Anyway, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not especially good at Total War, which is why it’s nice that Three Kingdoms has an option that helps ease you in just a tiny bit more. Romance mode turns generals into single-unit murder machines who fight other generals one-on-one, armies run around without being too concerned about how tired they’re getting and everything is just generally a lot more badass, while Records mode is a little more tame. I’m going to make an executive decision here and say you probably want Romance mode. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is about legendary generals killing armies, after all, and this game wants to embrace that rather than concerning itself with how much rice you need to feed your troops for another week.
Also, switching to Romance mode makes combat more accessible in a way that the strategic gameplay that frames it isn’t, but doing well in the former feels a little more substantial than doing well in the latter. Plus, it’s not like making a diplomatic faux pas will kill my troops in the same way as leading them poorly. Well, not immediately anyway.
Those legendary generals are the best part of the battles when given the chance to shine. Sure, giant armies engaging in mortal combat are one thing, but when generals get into a scuffle the camera zooms into a fantastic martial arts scene where spears, fists and feet go flying. Everyone in both armies forms a ring and starts watching until the fight is over, as is honorable. It’s cool as hell. Total War diehards are probably not going to be especially fond of the many liberties taken by Romance mode, but for my money it was the only way to play.
Either way, when you’re not killing, you’re campaigning. This involves taking provinces while keeping your province-taking generals happy, forming alliances and declaring vassals to enhance your province-taking abilities or take them with friends, and filling the provinces you’ve taken with buildings and citizens to get the most out of them. There’s a big focus on your royal court, filled with advisors and allies loyal to your cause who can provide buffs and get jobs done, and on actually shifting your armies around the map to set up the most optimal battles possible. There’s plenty I’m missing, I’m sure, but suffice to say there’s enough complexity to whet your whistle if you’re into that kind of thing.
Certainly there’s plenty to do as you try different leaders and experience the different ways that the fate of ancient China can play out, to say nothing of the multiplayer, which I didn’t spend a huge amount of time with because I’m absolutely terrible at strategy. It’s there, though! I’m sure it’s great if you’re good enough to not get stomped!
No matter how this said fate of ancient China plays out, of course, it’s going to look good. If you’ve got a nice, beefy PC that can give a Total War game what it wants, you’re bound to be happy with the results. Hundreds of troops battling before their generals meet in glorious single combat, weather effects like snow pouring down from the sky, flames illuminating a nighttime battlefield…it’s great and awe-inspiring.
It’s saying something that I ‘m able to recommend Total War: Three Kingdoms despite having spent a fair amount of time with it and still not feeling like I fully understood it. There’s just enough on the surface here to make the player want to dig deeper – those awesome general battles are great, sure, but you can only really enable them if your logistics are strong enough to keep your armies marching, and those are only going to work out if you look after your citizens, and…well, that’s the kind of depth that makes for a great strategy game. This supplies the longevity that makes Total War: Three Kingdoms worth a look.