What Total War: Three Kingdoms is learning from its Warhammer cousins (and Crusader Kings II)

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They’re climbing the walls. Hundreds of tiny warriors are using grappling hooks to scale the stone barriers of a Chinese settlement, as I look down on the battlefield from my perch at E3. I bite my lip and pretend to know what I’m doing. Yes, swordsmen, through the breach. Spear dudes, down the middle. Grappling hook men, up you go. Only stinky Romans use anything as primitive as a ladder to assault a city. But oh no, I’ve forgotten my heroes. Three horsemen that are now hundreds of metres away from the action. These units are what Total War: Three Kingdoms is all about. Special warriors, similar to the powerful hero units of the Total War: Warhammer spin-offs. I send them in and they slaughter dozens of soldiers, holding entire battalions at bay. But the enemy has one of these heroes too – Lü Bu. And he LOVES to kill.

Three Kingdoms is the first “full fat” Total War game set in non-orc history since Total War: Attila (although what counts as “full fat” in Total War circles seems to be a lively debate). While fans of dusty military history might be pleased by this, it’s also clear from these hero units and other elements that developers at Creative Assembly have learned from their Warhammer days, despite this being made by a different internal team.

I was playing the Battle of Xiapi in spring 199 AD. At this time in Europe, Rome is reaching the height of its power, with Emperor Severus swanning about Iraq trying to bust down the walls of Hatra. But in China, all sorts of complicated shenanigans are occurring. The Han dynasty, China’s reputed “golden age”, is falling to bits and the country is splintering into the Three Kingdoms, the states of Wei, Shu and Wu. I can tell you all this because I’ve just learned it from Wikipedia. This lack of knowledge is one of the reasons Creative Assembly feel it’s right to set their next strategy game in third century China. It’s an under-explored period in videogames (unless you’re a Dynasty Warriors diehard) but a significant moment in world history.

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History, however, can only give you so much. Here, events of the campaign will also be lifted from The Romance of The Three Kingdoms, the 14th century Chinese novel that covers the same period. There’ll be two modes. A Classic mode will let you play through a more historically accurate version of events, while Romance mode will give you all the colour of the novel.

“What’s in the book matches what’s in the [history],” says Janos Gaspar, game director, after I play the demo. “But it has the texture that we usually don’t get as historians. It’s telling about emotions, it’s telling about relationships, behaviours, motivations. Not just of single people but for a wide cast.”

The studio used biographies for Napoleon in the same way, he says, to add colour to that era of history for Napoleon: Total War, and here the idea is similar. They want to use both sources: the historical record as told by boring old taxes, inheritance records and army reports, and the “larger than life” characters and sometimes-mythical events of the Romance. Since the novel has all the significance in East Asia as Robin Hood or King Arthur does in England, says Gaspar, leaving it entirely out “would be a shame”. Although they will still give you the option to play through the facts without embellishment. In the historical Classic mode, major characters will be embedded with their men, for example, lacking the superheroic specialties of their Romance counterparts. They will be “more mortal”.

But there’s also something a little Crusader Kings about the champions of this new campaign (in the Romance mode at least). Or to hear Creative Assembly talk about them, it seems that way.

“We do have the concept of ‘persistence of character’ in the Romance mode,” says Simon Mann, senior designer.

In other words, characters will die in battle, but they will also be captured, wounded, hired, released and develop in other ways. The studio wanted to bring the concept of Guanxi, an Eastern philosophy of social standing and personal networking, to the sieges and skirmishes of this installment, says Mann.

“You break it down and… your family is one set of connections, your friends are another, your enemies are another, your boss is another part of those connections. It’s all about your kind of network. We really wanted to bring that to the game.

“The characters build their relationships with one another as you play through your campaign, so people form friendships, rivalries, bonds. And this is based on their personality types, the actions that both the player and the AI do on the campaign map and in battle.”

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Gaspar expands on that. When you’re recruiting, for example, you’ll have to keep a character’s family connections in mind. Not just their battle-stats.

“Characters have a relationship network,” he says. “They have property, you could almost say they have feelings, and you have to reason with that. When you’re recruiting a character you no longer just look through the stats and think: ‘Yeah he brings this trait and that’s good because later on he will be a better warrior.’ But also: ‘Hm, maybe I will pick this guy. He’s not great but he has good friends.’ And that might be very useful later on…”

But their temperament also matters. Gaspar gives the example of a ‘charitable’ person who might not get on with an ally who is ‘greedy’. This in particular is very Crusader Kings II, and a little different from the personality quirks of, say, Total War: Warhammer, where traits have more practical effects. A ‘lazy’ trait in those games, for instance, simply limits your movement range on the campaign map.

But in Three Kingdoms, traits might have a knock-on effect in terms of diplomacy, to the point where one character might leave the faction of another, fed up with their greedy ways, among other problems. Close ties will also be important in the heat of a skirmish. If there are two brothers in the same battle, says Gaspar, and one of them dies, that’ll have an effect on the surviving bro. He may lose morale, or he might go berserk. If there are two rivals fighting for the same side, they’ll both fight harder, trying to “outperform” the other.

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On top of this, the result of a battle may also affect how one character sees another on the campaign map, and if that brother does die to an opportunistic spear between the ribs, there will be “mourning period” where the morale and attitudes of his family members and friends are affected.

“Even maybe for years afterwards,” says Mann, “you might be feeling the hurt from an event like this. So now you don’t have to treat these characters as pawns, they’re humans with real ideas and depth of character you have to manage and control.”

All of this sounds interesting. A romantic war filled with drama in a setting that isn’t immediately familiar (at least to folks with big blind spots in their world history, like me). However, it remains to be seen how much depth all those relationship-twisting mechanics will have. And even if this interpretation of Guanxi has depth beyond a few intentional personality clashes, we don’t yet know how clear it’ll all be to the player. Even when moving my troops around on the map, I was reminded how much effort it takes to truly know a Total War game.

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In the short demo, I didn’t get a lot of time to bring myself up to date with a series I haven’t played in earnest since Medieval II. So it was hard for me to tell exactly how much has changed after such a long absence, and how much I need to re-learn. But it still feels like a game that offers more to those excited by small historical details – the weapons used by certain units, the effects of fire arrows on certain troops, the effectiveness of certain fortifications, and so on. Hovering my mouse over the units, I could see there were a lot of stats to read, a lot of details to learn about tiny men. And that means, for a Total War amateur, it still felt like a game of geometry and slow positioning. Of basic flanking and having greater numbers. Although I did notice the AI reacting to my advances by pulling back its troops to strategic points, rather than simply routing or throwing its swordsmen into the grinder.

The fights between heroes aim to bring a little more to the map than triangles of horses poking rectangles of archers. While my soldiers fought two long and farcical skirmishes in separate parts of the city, I sent one of my important horsemen to challenge the enemy’s hero – Lü Bu. But this enemy general is a beast of a fighter. Did you know he killed his own dad? It’s true; he’s a dad-killer. He quickly stabs his way out of trouble, causing my bloodied hero to flee the entire battlefield in fear. I also could have broken this duel off early, but it would have resulted in a drop in morale for the surrounding troops.

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Mann suggests I use another hero, a general who is more specialised at going head to head with fellow warriors. I click on Lü Bu once more and my hero heads straight for him, ignoring all the other clashes around him. They fight, and I see the menu for my hero. Each special character will have abilities to use during these dramatic scraps. One of my hero’s abilities – Blinding Fury – does a massive chunk of damage in one hit. I use it to deliver the fatal blow to the enemy commander. The battle is over. Lü Bu is dead.

I mean, I knew this was going to happen because the demo blessed me with a ridiculous amount of troops, and it was introduced as “Lü Bu’s last stand”. But still, victory feels good. I didn’t get to see the campaign screen, or how this win would affect the map of China, not to mention the invisible network of relationships lying underneath it all. And I suspect that side of things (among other details too small for my feeble brain to pick up during a tired E3 day) will be the real measure of worth for fans of Totes War. But by learning from their Warhammer outings, and (it seems) from Crusader Kings II’s familial feuding, this trip to the east has gained some promising features.

Total War: Three Kingdoms is due out in Spring 2019. Check out our E3 2018 tag for more announcements, trailers, news, and goodness knows what else.

30 Comments

  1. Zenicetus says:

    This network of relationships stuff sounds very interesting, but essentially this is interacting with the AI using diplomacy. And unfortunately, diplomacy hasn’t been a particular strength of the TW series.

    I hope they manage it, because it would add some interest to the strategy layer. But they’ll need a major improvement in AI to pull this off, as even a minor version of CKII intrigue and drama. At least we’ll have the more basic historical version if it doesn’t work.

    • shde2e says:

      It sounds a lot like their previous attempts to implement relationships with Rome 2 and Brittania, neither of which were very successfull. So i’m not holding out much hope.

  2. PuttyGod says:

    If I learned anything from Dynasty Warriors, it’s that you don’t eff with Lu Bu.

  3. Snake726 says:

    Good on them for having the “Classic” option!

  4. Baines says:

    I’m kind of worried if the game director actually believes that the Romance of the Three Kingdoms novel matches history, and only adds some extra emotions and motivations. The old saying was that it was seven parts fact and three parts fiction.

    Some would argue that even that is being generous to Romance.

    Historian Xi Zuochi, who wrote some of the histories of the period, only muddied the waters further. Xi Zuochi has been criticized for contradicting his own histories as well as fabricating materials. The whole interpretation that Shu was righteous while Wei was evil was a creation of Xi Zuochi, one designed to curry political favor with Sima Rui of Eastern Jin.

    • upupup says:

      Part of my worries as well. It does nothing to lessen how interesting the book itself is, but it would feel out of place in a game series that up until now has gone for a pop-history look, with the Warhammer game as the fantasy spin-off.

      I’m also skeptical about the decision to try and do both because unless the changes are manageable, and therefore not very meaningful, it would be so much work that it’s unlikely that it wouldn’t result in two weaker modes over one strong one.

      • Someoldguy says:

        You may be right, but I can imagine that there could be a big backlash if the series abandoned its pseudo-realistic roots for an exclusively cinematic approach. It wouldn’t surprise me if they studied the metrics hard after this title to see whether dropping “classic” would alienate a significant part of the customer base or not – or just letting it ossify while the other approach gets more development in future.

        I’m all for generals having personalities and that feeding into the politics, but I don’t like them being individual units on the battlefield with special abilities.

    • Mirdini says:

      If it’s any consolation the game does apparently have historians including Rafe de Crespigny consulting for it, so I’d expect the historical accuracy should hopefully not be impacted too much by using RotTK as a flavor source.

  5. Aetylus says:

    The ability to choose between Three Kingdoms and RotTK seems like an exceptionally good game design choice. The superheroiness of RotTK means that people and have fun with uber-kung-fu dudes, while the grognards can enjoy their ‘realism’.

    The “lack of knowledge” about Three Kingdoms is only accurate in the west. In the east, RotTK fills about the same space as Lord of the Rings does in the west… that sweet spot between genre-defining classic and greatest-trope-of-them-all.

    • evilgenius says:

      It is kinda insulting to compare the works of Luo Guanzhong (author the Romance books) with Lord of the rings. Better comparison might be the works of Shakespeare. As the man made 2 of the 4 Great Classical Novels of China.

      Although i find the best comparison to be the works of Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

      • gunny1993 says:

        Having read water margin, I can say that it’s insulting to compare that work to Shakespeare.

        Maybe in terms of cultural impact and ubiquity, sure. But writing quality? Only if 95% of the quality is lost in translation.

      • Aetylus says:

        I compare RotTK to LotR on the basic of impact on popular culture in their respective hemispheres.

        As a literary work, I’d compare RotTK to the Odyssey… both in terms of being a great literary classic… and in terms of being a tough, dry, slog for your average punter to read.

  6. Haplo says:

    Interesting. I’m something of an aficionado for the period (both the historical elements and the Romance elements!). I’ve been watching this game like a hawk so far.

    Koei- the Dynasty Warrior guys- also put out a grand strategy series based on Three Kingdoms, which started putting in major relationship elements sometime around the 6th installment, although not quite to the same degree as Crusader Kings. After playing the series for about 14 years or so now, I’ve slowly grown dissatisfied with Koei’s take on it, and I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing how Creative Assembly does.

  7. ShadeyM says:

    I really wish games would learn more from CK2. But I won’t hold my breath. Even Paradox doesn’t seem to be working that into the new Rome game. Sounds like this is more run-of-the-mill diplomacy.

    • Aetylus says:

      Yeah… basing Rome on EU rather than CK2 is a missed opportunity. CK2 character drama draped over a late Republic cast would be brutally entertaining.

  8. daztec says:

    I wish they would bring in a simulation-style option for the battles, as opposed to the standard arcade-style.

    Basically that means slowing down movement, combat resolution (especially heavy infantry vs heavy infantry), and casualty rates. Also allow units to merge into larger formations (like a phalanx) and have stronger morale boosts from formations and supporting units and tactical situation. Making it more like a table top game, which is after all the original concept

    Because the battles are so stupid, I only play on the strategic map, except when for whatever reason I want to win a grossly against-the-odds battle against the AI

    • Zenicetus says:

      With every TW game (the historical ones at least), there are always mods that eventually show up to slow down the battles. That can be solved — just wait for the right mod.

      The “larger formation” issue is a longstanding problem with the tactical battle engine. Every AI-controlled unit acts independently. That’s good, when a unit is flanked and can be turned to respond by the AI, but it’s very bad for holding a consistent battle line against things like cavalry feints by the player, to tease apart and fracture the battle line. There is no overlord AI general that tries to keep a battle line of many units intact.

      That’s been a problem for as long as I can remember in TW games. CA has never solved it, because they’re fixated on having each unit with its own AI that never submits to a “higher power” that tries to hold the army intact.

      • fuzzyfuzzyfungus says:

        One doesn’t have to like it(certainly most RTSes ignore or substantially minimize morale/cohesion/etc.); but if they are going to go with the each-unit-an-agent thing, which has valid logic behind it, it seems like they could add some additional ‘cohesion communication’ between the agents:

        They already do some of this, albeit mostly in the direction of lack of cohesion: at least in the recent TW having nearby friendlies route or die tends to damage leadership and potentially inspire further routing(unless the ones getting slaughtered are ‘expendable’; because dying is their job, so why worry?).

        Having a similar mechanic where improved cohesion can be transmitted through the parts of your army that are functioning(representing some combination of actual orders being delivered, units being emboldened by friendlies seeming confident; and the knowledge that running away is even more dangerous than holding when there is a commissar behind you).

        If you want your units to just stand fast and die for the overmind TW isn’t your game; but it seems like there are some mechanics that would fit into their overall style and modelling that would still give you a somewhat greater feeling of control(or, perhaps more interesting, make your effective management of officers/Messengers/etc. a bigger factor in whether or not you get a nice neat line of battle that refuses to be drawn out by skirmishers or whether you just get a huge mess).

      • shde2e says:

        The earlier games actually had the opposite problem. The AI formed a battle line and usually stuck to it.
        Which often meant that it just let you flank with cavalry, or failed to do so itsself.

        It also caused issues if their army composition was weird.
        Skirmisher heavy armies had most of their skirmish line stick out way too much, which made it easy to just charge them with cavalry.

  9. Blastaz says:

    I’m not sure how this is meant to be a period “underrepresented in video games”. Other than the 9 Dynasty Warriors games you have 13 Romance of the Three Kingdoms games by Koei and a quick search on steam reveals at least another three separate games: great cause, the last warlord, jade knight.

    So 26 games about that century of Chinese history – seems pretty well represented to be honest, compared to the 16-18th C wars of religion in Europe, the Warring States period in China, the pre didachdoi Classical world etc. Etc. Etc…

    • Haplo says:

      Perhaps not ‘video games’, but if you look at the author from the perspective of being a Western PC gamer, then they start to come off as underrepresented. This is especially true since of the games you mentioned, 22 of them are from the same developer, Koei. It becomes a little more difficult to argue for ‘good’ representation when an overwhelming amount of the mentioned examples are from a single voice. Furthermore, Koei’s games (both series) tend to place low priority on quality PC ports in the West.

      That said, it is easier to find a game about the Three Kingdoms period than it is to find a game about the Warring States or the Wars of Religion, and there’s a myriad of reasons for that, but at the same vein there’s a lot more games about the World Wars, the Vietnam War and the Napoleonic Wars than there are games about the Three Kingdoms.

      The kernel of the author’s intent, I believe, can be summarised as “Chinese history as a whole is not a topic frequently explored by high-visibility games in the West, and this is an exception”.

      • Blastaz says:

        I’ve never played a game about Basketball before – is it ok for me to say that Basketball is a sport under-explored by video games?

        There are definitely more games about 3K than there are about WWI. There are almost certainly more 3K games than there are about Vietnam (I can think of the old Battlefield (classic soundtrack) and ’65 off the top of my head). Vietnam is not a topic that got the same treatment from video games that it did from films. There are probably more games about the Napoleonic War than there are the 3K, but few triple AAA ones (The TW game, then a couple of AA ones like the Paradox flop March of the Eagles and the TW rip off Imperial Glory(?). Most of them are fairly niche grognardy games and probably about as accessible as a result as the foreign 3K games. I’d probably wager that 3K games have sold more copies in total than games about the Napoleonic Wars. Which leaves WWII, which obviously stands untouched, leviathan-like as a source of inspiration.

        I would agree that there has only been one voice for 3K games – that of Luo Guanzhong. And this looks like it will be no different seeing as this battle is about the fall of Lu Bu – You’ve got to wonder why a strategic genius like Cao Cao chose to pursue him – and the intro video showed the peach garden oath. Indeed the fact that this “historical” game has gone for all powerful heroes shows that CA aren’t trying to do a new take on the age by balancing around “realistic” characters rather than just the legends about them.

        A better comment would be “This is the first Western AAA take on the hoary old chestnut of the Three Kingdoms period. Get ready for the upcoming article “TW:3K has cultural appropriation gone too far?” shortly after it is released.”

        • shde2e says:

          Neither WW1 nor the Vietnam war are particularly well represented though.

          And most of the TK games aren’t just from one publisher, but from one or two major series with a lot of releases. So there is only a very narrow range of them.

        • Haplo says:

          I mean there’s definitely more WW1 games than TK games, though. There have even been crops of pretty well-received flight simulators set in WW1, like Red Baron, which is nearly 40 years old.

          The difference is that there’s multiple, different-focus companies that generally put out a WW1 game a year or every few years or so. Once you remember both that -and- that WW1 games include strategy, first-persons, flight simulators, naval simulators, and the special gems like Valiant Hearts, it adds up in a hurry.

    • Universal Quitter says:

      That’s an asinine way of looking at the situation. Yes, there are a ton of Dynasty Warriors and ROTK games, but not all of them even get English releases, and they’re still only two series.

      If Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy were the only two JRPG series, think of everything else that people would be missing out on.

  10. Rindan says:

    I’m deeply skeptical. I simply don’t believe them when they start talking about relationships being meaningful. I’m sure they have a system in place. I’m sure it will dispense pluses and minuses to stats and have other in game effects. I just flatly don’t believe it is going to be anything other than a tedious, flavorless, system that you need to balance for max stats. If you really want to do inter personal relationships, it’s going to start looking more like a role playing, and I don’t mean with stats. I mean you will need meaningful ways to communicate with people and try and understand their motives. If it is just another stat you need to manage, then, well, it’s just another stat.

    I’ll wait and see; I’m just deeply skeptical and not all that excited, despite loving the setting that they have picked. The strategic layer of Total War games is just uninteresting and only seems to be getting worse. The more you know of historical combat, the more uninteresting Total War combat seems, especially on the strategic level. The tactical level is not all that exciting either. I just don’t find battles that instantly turn into a giant death ball with hero units with “specials” all that exciting. It’s extremely “gamie” to be sitting around and watching timers on buffs, like I’m playing a freaking MMORPG.

    • shde2e says:

      Yeah, this is giving me flashbacks to the dev interviews for Rome 2, Warhammer and Brittania. None of which executed their ideas very well.

  11. KOVERAS says:

    SO it’s kinda like “Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence Ascension” in terms of contacts & networking, but also a bit of the NEMESIS SYSTEM from Shadow of Mordor games ?

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