For those new to the series, Total War is a game of three elements. The first is a sprawling, geographical campaign map divided into provinces and settlements. On the campaign map, players upgrade their own settlements, conquer their opponents’, and recruit and manoeuvre their armies.
The second is grand, real-time battles. Grand matches of elaborate rock-paper-scissors featuring thousands of individual combatants, where cavalry charges, flanking manoeuvres, and morale come together to reward both authentic historical tactics and a healthy serving of the finest cheese.
The third element – and the one Three Kingdoms makes the greatest advancements in – is the diplomatic relationships not only between factions, but between the named characters in those factions. Faction leaders have distinct personalities, influencing their diplomatic decisions. Your own betrayals and honourable acts echo across China, affecting your future relationships.
Righteous characters may baulk at your underhanded decisions, while warlike generals grow dissatisfied at languishing in extended peacetime. Attempting to enact a diplomatic treatise provides a detailed numerical breakdown of affecting factors – everything from how much of a strategic threat you pose to how much backstabbing you’ve done in the past.
All of this is conveyed through a sleek and readable UI, gorgeous painterly environments, and sound design that jumps from tranquil folk to pounding war drums. The series has had its fair share of shonky releases, but the worst I’ve experienced is two or three soft crashes in 40 hours of play, and a handful of frame drops when battles got extremely hectic. If you’re looking to put your rig through the gauntlet, there’s even an ‘ultra’ unit size option, just to make the battles even more spectacular.
There’s far, far more to Three Kingdoms than I’m able to go over here, but it’s an experience that grips from the outset and only gets more enjoyable as you pick up the nuances. If you’re new to the series, start with this. If you’ve been a fan of Total War in the past but taken a long break, this is just what you need to rekindle the romance.
As complex and involving as the politics are, there’s still nothing quite like charging armoured cavalry through a flaming catapult breach in a city’s walls, underneath the bloodshot haze of a setting sun. Both the campaign map and the fields and cities you’ll do battle over are alive with gorgeous, painterly detail.
The battles may seem like a downgrade from the Total War: Warhammer series, but almost every other aspect has been improved. A new benchmark for a venerable series.
Genre: Real-time Strategy
Format: PC (tested) / MacOS / Linux
Developer: Creative Assembly
Release: Out now