It was 184 A.D. when the peasants, tired of excessive taxation, widespread corruption throughout the Chinese Empire and frequent famine, took their pitchforks to rebel against the rule of the Han Dynasty. Distinguished by their yellow turbans, the rebels forced the emperor to cede part of his power to the local administrators and warlords of the various provinces. Although the revolt proved to be a failure, the uprising of the turbans opened the door to a bloody civil war recounted in the historical text Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, and later readapted in a poetic key in the Novel of the Three Kingdoms written in the 14th century by Luo Guanzhong.
It was the year 184 A.D. when the peasants, now tired of excessive taxation, widespread corruption throughout the Chinese Empire and frequent famines took their pitchforks to rebel against the rule of the Han Dynasty. Distinguished by their yellow turbans, the rebels forced the emperor to cede part of his power to the local administrators and warlords of the various provinces. Although the revolt proved to be a failure, the uprising of the turbans opened the door to a bloody civil war recounted in the historical text Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, and later readapted in a poetic key in the Novel of the Three Kingdoms written in the 14th century by Luo Guanzhong.
The Three Kingdoms’ one is probably one of the most famous periods of Eastern history, the subject of numerous adaptations more or less accurate among the most disparate media: from the big to the small screen, from Japanese manga to video games, just think of the strategic series Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Koei Tecmo or the musou of the Dynasty Warriors saga by Omega Force, just to mention the best known to us Westerners. To these we can add Total War: Three Kingdoms, the last effort of Creative Assembly and SEGA inspired by the events arising from the revolt of the Yellow Turbants and the division of the Celestial Empire in the kingdoms of Wei, Shu and Wu.
The element that immediately catches the eye at the first start of Total War: Three Kingdoms is the willingness on the part of the British team to offer players more ways to enjoy the recreational experience. Before each campaign, in fact, you are asked to select the game mode: selecting Chronicles you opt for a game as faithful as possible – obviously within the limits of the simplifications play – to the historical events, for an experience very close to the Total War that preceded the two episodes dedicated to Warhammer, but it is thanks to the Novel mode that Three Kingdoms reveals its true face and allows you to fully enjoy all the innovations introduced in this last chapter.
The most important differences are found mainly in the battles. In Chronicles mode, the generals of the different armies are only slightly more powerful than the normal units deployed in the field, so their safety can be seriously questioned during any clash. In a Novel campaign, on the other hand, heroes are much more tough and able to influence the fate of a battle with a solo charge or a special ability activated at the right time. Mind you, we’re a long way from the levels of a musou, where a single character can eliminate hundreds, if not thousands of soldiers without spilling a drop of their blood: Three Kingdoms is still a Total War, and as such without strategic planning you go nowhere, not least because the opposing armies are certainly not without commanders capable of causing a paralysis between the allied ranks. In this sense, Creative Assembly reaps the fruits gained during the work on games inspired by Warhammer, offering strategic battles similar in structure to those seen in the titles dedicated to the board game of Games Workshop, clearly devoid of units that recall the imaginary fantasy, then planting the roots in a well-defined historical context. The emphasis on heroes is then amplified by the possibility of launching challenges to enemy generals, one of the main novelties of Three Kingdoms. After accepting a duel, the two characters fight each other as the battle rages around: winning the contest could not only mean the injury of the opponent or his departure, but has the opportunity to inflict a blow to the morale of the units of the enemy side, helping to put in a safe a victory already announced, or even to reverse the fate of a conflict that until then was not going to the right way.
Once you’ve left the battlefield, it’s time to administer your kingdom. Here the game system has tended to remain unchanged, although there are some new features that push Total War: Three Kingdoms in a slightly different direction than the titles that preceded it. We have the opportunity to manage what will be the new Chinese Empire through the division of the territory into various commanderies, in turn divided into cities and provinces. Unlike in the past, the latter can accommodate a single building specializing in a single predefined economic area: in a port village, for example, you can build and improve only a structure dedicated to maritime trade or river, while a pasture for horses can only accommodate a riding school that can provide bonuses to the cavalry units in the various armies under our command.
On the other hand, cities provide more slots on which to build the structures that best suit their style of play, with a progression that depends on one hand on the population of the commandery (and therefore the level reached by the settlement), on the other hand the technological and social advancement of the kingdom. In this regard, each year – divided into five shifts equivalent to five seasons of the Chinese calendar – you have to select one of the different reforms in a technological tree whose branches touch on various areas, from trade to military arrangements, from the lives of citizens to the administrative structure of the kingdom. Each of these reforms can unlock new buildings, passive bonuses that influence the income of money or the satisfaction of the population, not to mention new and increasingly advanced units to be enlisted through the special menu of creation of armies. Technological progress is rather linear, without the need to pay a certain amount of resources to start the research: simply every five rounds, in spring, a reform is applied, immediately unlocking its benefits. It must be said that during the course of a normal campaign is virtually impossible to be able to adopt all the reforms, so it is always good to aim to complete one or two branches of the tree technology on the basis of the footprint you want to give the game.
INTRIGO A CORTE
Total War: Three Kingdoms also marks the debut of a renewed diplomatic system. In addition to the classic options of war declarations, non-aggression pacts, trade agreements and the formation of military alliances, in the China of the Three Kingdoms it is possible to strengthen relations between factions through combined marriages, or to offer and request military protection in exchange for tributes and vassalage, or to marry the cause of the minor factions guaranteeing them support in the event of revolt against the powerful on duty. In essence, the diplomatic system has been expanded to such an extent as to wink at the grand strategies of the Paradox house. Unfortunately, a substantial increase in the options available to players has not been followed by a retouching of artificial intelligence, which has clearly lagged behind and is still easily deceived by exploiting its undeniable weaknesses.
Among the new features also stands out the management of spies and agents, who are no longer deployed and moved on the map of the campaign, but must first be recruited from the pool of courtiers, and then sent directly on mission through the appropriate menus. Say goodbye to the endless turns necessary to move a certain character in the target region, and then see him fail miserably despite a chance of success equal to 90%. Even the recruitment of the various armies works differently, where the units are immediately available at the time of purchase, but are not recruited to one hundred percent of the forces but need a few shifts to refuel. In essence, limits on the maximum number of units deployable per shift are removed, making a newborn army fully operational, to the detriment of the overall health of the military formations.
HEROES OF THE THREE KINGDOMS
Unfortunately, the monothematic nature of the Chinese setting lends itself to what is probably the most important criticism that can move against Total War: Three Kingdoms. The various factions appear rather similar to each other, presenting only slight differences between them. Just think that the hard core of military units is common to all, with at most a couple of specific choices for individual kingdoms (or aspiring such). This is also true for the structures to be erected in the commanderies, but in this case the differences are even smaller. The special resources available to some rulers are of little use, such as the Influence for Cao Cao, useful for improving or worsening the relations between different factions. In short, except for a few details and the initial position, which is more or less unfavourable, the various factions present a similar style of play.
What makes the difference during each campaign are mainly the choices of the players, especially as regards the characters to take to court and to which entrust leading tasks. A game system that shines especially in Romanzo mode, but that flattens substantially during a campaign developed following the rules much stricter than the Chronicles mode.
Total War: Three Kingdoms takes up the legacy of the two previous chapters related to the universe of Warhammer, presenting many new features worthy of note that show how the formula created to bring the series in a fantasy setting can also be applied in a historical context, although decidedly fictionalized. Good innovations on the espionage and diplomacy side, too bad that the artificial intelligence has not been properly retouched, representing once again the weakest dish of the entire offer. Perhaps more could have been done with regard to the characterization of the factions, but with such a monothematic setting would have been honestly difficult.