Creative Assembly’s Total War franchise has endured for over eighteen years. The series has evolved as the years went on, adding new features, increasing the graphical fidelity, and ushering new settings into the fold.
From the fantasy realms of Warhammer to the legions of Rome, Total War has kept itself fresh through continual innovation. Now, with Total War: Three Kingdoms, it’s pushing the envelope once again, with new heroes, art style and setting. And if the demo I played was any indication, this new installment will be a treat for fans once it hits store shelves.
For anyone not in the know, the Three Kingdoms period was a tumultuous period of history for China. With the Han dynasty dissolved, three major powers looked to take control of the region: the Shu, Wei, and Wu. It’s an age filled with larger than life characters, and is shrouded in war and struggle. It’s a perfect period to take the Total War franchise, as it allows the team at Creative Assembly to take what they have learned from years of games and apply it to a vibrant and rich period.
“For this particular game, we know we wanted to do something different, something we haven’t tackled before,” Pawel Wojs, Art Director for Total War: Three Kingdom explained. “And China has always been on our minds because it has such a long and varied history. We had to do the Three Kingdoms experience because it’s so unique, in that we have the historical texts, which is the kind of reference we always work with. On top of that, we’ve got this, rich, amazing kind of tapestry of character relationships.”
Sitting down to play the demo on display, I had a good idea of what to expect. I’ve been playing the Total War franchise since the days of Medieval: Total War, and I had a good grasp of the controls, the style of play, and how units could be manipulated on the battlefield. But Total War: Three Kingdoms makes one significant change that shifts the flow of combat: heroes. In this case, Sun Quan and Sun Ren of the Wu. These units can use their power to cleave through enemy forces, or if they die on the battlefield, can cause their army to flee. If you have ever played a Total War game in the past, this addition, although it may seem minor, greatly adds to the formula.
“The most eager of designers on the team have already read the book fully, and the rest of us were starting out,” Wojs said. “My exposure to this in a more serious way was through the Red Cliff movie – and straight away, when you watch the Red Cliff movie, you get the importance of those characters. You’ve got the faceless crowds of the troops – they’re kind of there – but it’s all about those key characters.”
The importance of the characters is a major focus in the demo. Set during a night ambush on the Sun army, the demo not only shows off the diverse set of units but on higher difficulties forces the player to make the most of their tactics, as you must continually advance while enemy reinforcements threaten to overwhelm your defences. It’s here that the power of Sun Ren as an attacking force cannot be understated. Even on higher difficulties, her ability to decimate a set of units can make or break an engagement. Her unique ability to fire a powerful shot into an enemy commander worked as a deciding blow in a few of the battles I faced.
Sun Quan and his tactical support also played an essential role in the demo, especially when I cranked things up to hard. When things were looking bad on the battlefield, his ability to rally troops ensured there was a fighting chance to strike back at the opposing force. Even as Sun Ren died, his ability to rally behind his sister’s death succeeded in giving me a victory, however slight an advantage it may have been.
Talking to Al Bickham, Development Communications Manager, about these characters gave me a clear picture; these are not just throw away aspects of Total War: Three Kingdoms, they are an essential part of what makes this game work.
“What we did with characters in the Three Kingdoms is we’ve added dimension to them systematically,” Bickham said. “Characters now have a satisfaction level with their place in the world, and along with their personality, it gives them a set of drives, a set of motivations. If you recruit a new character into your faction, you don’t know much about him. It’s almost like when you do a job interview – you speak to a person for an hour, and you get some hints of their personality and skills, but it’s actually a longer association is what it takes to work with characters in your faction. You start to learn what his real likes and dislikes are. You learn he will not be happy if you give him a different job instead of being a general – that’s what he really wants to do. “
Beyond the characters, Total War: Three Kingdoms is shaping up to be a stunning experience visually. The use of lighting and shadow goes a long way in crafting a living, breathing cross-section of history. The Total War franchise has always been known for its visual fidelity, but the team at Creative Assembly has stepped up their game, crafting an epic experience from top to bottom.
Even in its early state, Total War: Three Kingdoms pushes the bar on what to expect from the franchise. In the demo, the small details went a long way in injecting character into the world. Flying battle lanterns riddle the sky as your troops set fire to the forest. As the trees burn, your forces wage brutal war on the battlefield, with the light of the fire covering the landscape in a eerie orange hue. It’s this emergent visual fidelity that sets the Total War franchise apart from the competition.
Yet, if the gameplay was not on point, all the visuals in the world could not save it. Thankfully, the core gameplay we all know and love from the franchise is alive and well. Beyond the heroes that I described previously, the core battle mechanics are still in place and feel just as tight as you would hope from the Total War franchise. The rock, paper, scissors style battle mechanics are still on full display, forcing you to use your resources to the best of your ability, with each order counting, especially on the harder difficulties.
There are many aspects of Total War: Three Kingdoms that were not on display during this demo that also sound promising. The ability to use spies to manipulate an opposing faction, along with the deep character mechanics, all sound like fantastic additions to the Total War formula. But with it not slated to release until 2019, there’s still some time before we see all the new changes.
As with any early demo, it can be hard to tell how the final product will shape up, but if what is on display is any indication, Total War: Three Kingdoms is in good hands. The team at Creative Assembly has gone above and beyond the call of duty for this installment, crafting an experience that pushes Total War in a new direction.
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