After diverging into fantasy and science fiction with Total War: Warhammer and Halo Wars 2, and a small jaunt with Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia, Creative Assembly is ready for another full-on, historical Total War title. Well, sort of. The next game in the franchise is Total War: Three Kingdoms, which will be rooted in history, but also play around with the fantasy a bit.
Total War: Three Kingdoms is based on the epic 'Romance of the Three Kingdoms', written by author Luo Guanzhong. It details a tumultuous period in China's history stretching from 169 AB to around 280 AD, as great men and women fought to establish their rule over the nation. It's a story that's been tackled in Koei Tecmo's long-running series of the same name and their Dynasty Warriors spin-off, but it's a first for Total War. Koei Tecmo has had sort of a lock on Romance of the Three Kingdoms for years, so what does Creative Assembly believe it can add to the tale?
"The Total War mix of epic, real-time battles and the grand campaign," Total War Brand Manager Patrick Lally explains to USgamer at a pre-E3 event. "That scale you have between the macro and micro-elements of strategy that you get only with Total War. That's what the bread-and-butter of this is. It's also the level of polish—that aspect that we bring to all Total War games."
I said that Total War: Three Kingdoms will play around with the fantasy a bit. That's because while Luo Guanzhong's 'Romance of the Three Kingdoms' is partially a historic document, it's also a dramatic retelling of those events. The author added fictional characters and embellished upon the exploits of that period's great heroes. Many of the battles happened, but not quite in the same manner.
Total War: Three Kingdoms is tackling that duality with a new option for players. The base version of the game will focus on the more fantastic version of events, which Creative Assembly and Sega public relations insist on calling the "romanticized" version. Those Total War players that would prefer to stick with historical accuracy will have a new Classic Mode, which tones down the game's heroes and strips out events that weren't recorded in historical records.
"We were aware that there was the romanticized retelling of this period and the historical stuff," says Lally. "It was kind of like 'How do we stay true to the modern view of this period, while also being true to the historical facts and figures?' The only way to do it was to have this extra Classic Mode and be able to say, 'Okay, with Three Kingdoms you have these romanticized larger-than-life characters' It's all dialed up to eleven. In the Classic Mode, it's more what you'd expect of Total War. Historical authenticity and accuracy; it's more grounded, more realistic."
When Lally talks about larger-than-life characters, he's not lying. I'm sitting down with Total War: Three Kingdoms at a pre-E3 event, tackling the Battle of Xiapi. This battle is a good example of the kind of split apparent in the normal mode and Classic Mode. The actual conflict took place in 199 AD, as the famous Lü Bu occupied the city of Xiapi in China's Xu province. I take command of rival Cao Cao's army, which seeks to control of the city. In the narrative, Lü Bu's forces fell after a prolonged siege, with the peerless warrior finally surrendering after he found he was surrounded. In the historical record, his own followers captured him and opened the gates to Cao Cao.
That's two very different series of events, and Total War has to tackle both. I'm playing in the romanticized mode, with the overall siege being broken down into a single battle. Cao Cao's troops are outside the city with siege weapons; it's up to me to break down the city and face Lü Bu in combat. Once I broke through the walls, I was able to see how heroes change the feeling of Total War's combat. When Cao Cao hits a mass of enemy soldiers, I see five men just go flying. In the normal mode of Total War: Three Kingdoms, these units aren't just key to the conflict, they're like superheroes. Switch to Classic Mode though, and things change.
"If you want to play the historical mode of the game, you can dial back the fantastical element of Lü Bu killing five or six units all in one go, and he'll become part of the retinue," says Total War Community Relations Manager James Given. "The great thing about Total War games is every game is a sandbox. Dialing back those heroes is just the beginning, the whole campaign will change."
"We're going to use the 'Records of the Three Kingdoms', which is the historical texts of this period, to craft a separate set of events, to make sure that's all grounded for Classic Mode. There will be some overlap with the romanticized history," says Lally, referring to the historical take on the era by author Chen Shou.
The heroes like Cao Cao, Lü Bu, Xiahou Dun, Liu Bei, or Guan Yu, are what makes the Romance of the Three Kingdoms sing. They can even take part in one-on-one cinematic combat if two rival heroes meet on the battlefield. Total War: Three Kingdoms is trying to present these heroes in that epic light and in doing so, offer player some tactical variety.
"Characters are the beating heart of Three Kingdoms," Lally tells USgamer. "They've got their own unique personalities and motivations. That's where the variety comes into play, this huge cast of characters that we have. Who you bring on the battlefield is such a key thing in terms of these heroes. It also affects what kind of retinues they can recruit. Tons of depth there.
That said, players can also expect tactical options in the form of new units and formations. Given promised that later in the campaign, players would have access to more unique formations. He also pointed to a hybrid unit in the game, a spearman that's also archer. This allows the unit to help break through enemy lines and hold positions, while laying down ranged fire at the same time.
Generally, ideas introduced in mainline Total War titles find themselves being brought forth into later entries, building on the Total War canon. Heroes in Total War: Three Kingdoms seems like an expansion of the concept of Legendary Lords in Total War: Warhammer, so I ask both gentlemen if fans can expect to see epic heroes and Classic Mode being brought to future titles.
"Every Total War game has its own kind of approach. Every game approaches the source material differently," says Givens. "We have loads of teams within the studio and they all have their own personal direction when it comes to a new title. We have so much to work with. There's stuff they can borrow if it works in the foundation of the time period."
One thing that's apparent in the demo, but not in the screenshots we were given for this preview, is the new art style. While the soldiers and environments in combat still retain the detail and realism players have come to expect from the Total War series, unit cards, the campaign map, and the overall user interface look to be inspired by Chinese paintings and calligraphy. It's an interesting look for Total War, which has always been a bit utilitarian in that department; hopefully Sega and Creative Assembly will show that off more in the future.
"The art team has done tons of work," says Lally. "The artists have been able to define the core pillars of visual rules. It's been about stripping back the unnecessary, but making sure that the key bits of information are there. When you look at those unit cards for example, you need to be able to see, 'Oh, these guys are archers. There's calvary nearby.' It's about helping the player out so they have key information. It looks stunning as well."
Total War: Three Kingdoms was originally coming to PC in Fall 2018, but the publisher recently announced that the title was pushed back to Spring 2019. So you'll have to wait a bit longer to see what Creative Assembly is cooking up for this Chinese epic.