Walking the streets of San Francisco on a foggy morning, a selection of journalists and I make our way to the event space where Sega and Creative Assembly were set up. This will make the third time I have had hands-on time with the newest in the Total War franchise, Total War: Three Kingdoms, and this time we finally had a chance to see how the single-player campaign will play out.
After a short discussion with the team, we got some hands-on time with the latest preview build, and while it was limited, allowing only 30 turns worth of play-time, it provided a very good concept of what is to be expected with the final version. While there were a few minor bugs and things were not quite as polished as players can expect with the finished product, what was on display further cements that this is a Total War game to get excited about.
Jumping into the campaign, we got to play as the enigmatic Liu Bei, and thanks to the humble origins of this leader, we started with no base or town. We had to build and unify the empire from nothing. But thanks to Liu Bei’s personality, he does start with a few tricks up his sleeve. Firstly, militia units require no upkeep cost. Yes, you will still have to pay out to purchase the units, but once you have your army, it will be much cheaper to maintain.
Second, and most fun, is the ability to take over towns and settlements using influence. Again, there are limits on this power, and influence is a resource like any other, but if you are someone that wants to spread your empire while spilling as little blood as possible, this is one way to do it, and I had a lot of fun using this mechanic during my series of playthroughs.
The team at Creative Assembly have taken a slightly different approach with Total War: Three Kingdoms. Yes, there is still the option to go all in with brutal historical detail, and while the hero units have leadership and some special stats, they are still small pieces in a greater conflict.
New for this game is Romance Mode, where the book, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, is taken more literally. Generals and major players are larger than life figures on the battlefield, and each one of them can take on armies and come out victorious. While not exactly “realistic”, it is this mode I had the chance to play while at this session, and it’s a new way to look at a historical Total War game that was a blast to experience.
These heroes not only make up some of the most exciting segments of the battlefield, including duels, but are also how you allocate heirs, set up kingdoms, and sort out alliances. It makes for a slightly different Total War experience, but once you dive in and see how it all plays out, each new move leads to unpredictable outcomes.
Granted, 30 turns is not enough to really sink your teeth into a Total War title; it barely scrapes the surface on what is possible with the game, but what was on offer felt solid, well designed, and strikingly beautiful. Creative Assembly is known for their graphics and the ability to push strategy games forward both in terms of gameplay and in visuals, and Total War: Three Kingdoms is no exception.
From the overworld map to the fields of battle, it is evident in every aspect, from the UI to the gameplay, how much work and care went into building the experience of Total War: Three Kingdoms. Jumping into a fight with a faction will test your mettle, especially when dealing with siege warfare, and often the battles in which you find yourself can cost you dearly to achieve a victory. But throughout, the little details are always present and make the playthrough come to life.
If you have a PC that can run Total War: Three Kingdoms at the best possible settings, it is a real spectacle to witness and experience, from the day-night cycle to the way battles unfold and units interact.
However, even the most visually stunning game is nothing if the gameplay does not hold up. Thankfully, Creative Assembly has taken time to make each section of the game feel rewarding, from the minute to minute feeling on the battlefield to each turn of the open world, it is an engaging and nail biting experience throughout.
Seeing the power and intricacy of diplomacy first hand really gives Total War: Three Kingdoms a more cerebral feel when compared to past titles. There are countless outcomes, with each alliance pushing you and your faction one step closer to victory. Each choice and trade needs to be considered against the larger goals, and force you to really consider what you would be willing to give up to win.
It also throws a bit of unpredictability into the mix, as factions build up units and resources, the trades they are willing to make and accept are in a constant state of flux. Will you deny an alliance request due to the cost, only to need them as you find yourself surrounded? Playing the same 30 turns around four times, I found myself facing countless difficult choices, all with advantages and disadvantages. It is staggering to think how diplomacy changes over a full game of Total War: Three Kingdoms.
I have not even touched on spies, the selection of commanders and heirs, or the other various complex systems at play as you struggle to take over China. Total War: Three Kingdoms is a dense yet interesting experience, and one that I only scratched the surface of during my time.
Creative Assembly has a track record of crafting elaborate strategic worlds from some of the most exciting and tumultuous periods of history, and with this release they are once again pushing what is possible. There is a lot to like about Total War: Three Kingdoms, and from what I have seen it has only made me more excited of what is still to come.
With the state of the demo, I feel hesitant to recommend Total War: Three Kingdoms flat out. This is clearly an early build, and there is still a bit to go before it is ready for players to jump in and experience as a total product, but what is on offer so far has that spark that makes me excited for release day.