20 things you need to know about Total War: Three Kingdoms

If you own a PC you should probably be playing Total War. It’s as simple as that; it doesn’t matter whether you’re a history buff looking to take command of some truly epic battles, or an inquisitive player eager to watch thousands of little soldiers smash into thousands of other little soldiers until your graphics card shatters into pieces. Total War is a strategy series that offers something for everybody; that’s in spite of how imposing or complicated it may at first seem. That's why we've put this together, everything you need to know about Total War: Three Kingdoms.

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Listen, we get it. This is a niche genre, one that requires more investment than your typical action- adventure, FPS or RPG. Maybe you caught a Let’s Play on Twitch and became immeasurably terrified by the speed in which the game plays, and the way in which some players can orchestrate complex manoeuvres with thousands of troops under their command in seconds. Perhaps you tried a Total War at a friend’s house one time only to switch it off minutes later as they erupted into fits of laughter, teasing you because you dared to pull the difficulty down to easy – some wounds never heal. And hey, maybe you watched a trailer and the scale of the campaign map and the size of the armies scared the living bejesus out of you. Look, everybody has their reasons for approaching the genre with caution, but we’re here to tell you that if you’ve ever had even a passing interest in Total War that this is going to be the game to finally try it.

Three Kingdoms takes place in a fascinating period of history; it’s a story bound by love and loss, driven by heroes and villains, resulting in some of the bloodiest conflicts known to humanity. Creative Assembly is leveraging all of this to build its latest and the results are certainly impressive. With a renewed focus on characters as a way of building tension and a more immersive campaign experience, we honestly believe that Three Kingdoms will be the perfect refresher after the fantasy excursions of Total War: Warhammer and spin-off sagas found in Britannia. This is a Total War experience that’s going to surprise veteran players, though it’s also going to be accessible enough that new players will find entertainment. 

That’s a difficult line to walk and that’s why we’ve had senior game designer Leif Walter and writer Pete Stewart join us after a recent hands-on session to help walk you through everything you need to know about Total War: Three Kingdoms.

20. It’s a long time coming

It’s already been six long years since the release of Total War: Rome II. If you too have been eager to see Creative Assembly return to its historical roots after so many years of dealing in fantasy, then you’ll want to pay attention to Total War: Three Kingdoms. The studio is breaking new ground here, ushering in huge revisions to its classic formula, drawing from its recent experiments and rich legacy in the genre to deliver a Total War that feels fresh and emboldened to usher in sweeping change. Three Kingdoms is pushing the series in a new direction, taking bold strides to deliver a Total War game that could quite easily surpass what we believed it was capable of.

19. A first for the series

Three Kingdoms is the first Total War game to be set in China, with the tactical action framed around what Creative Assembly describes as, “one of the most turbulent times in Chinese history.” It’s difficult to believe that it has taken this long for the studio to get here; China is unquestionably one of the most requested locations for the studio to settle on, offering an aesthetically diverse array of battlegrounds, a roster of rich, historical characters to become acquainted with, and a host of well-storied conflicts that can be easily leveraged for Total War’s typically large-scale battles. It is, as lead writer Pete Stewart tell us, “sort of the perfect Total War setting.”

18. What’s in a location?

Three Kingdoms picks up in 190 CE, just as the notorious Han Dynasty is on the verge of collapse. Senior game designer Leif Walter describes it to us as a “very exciting period in history, where this long-lasting dynasty of almost 400 years is crumbling. And then, in the ashes of it, you basically have all of these new warlords emerging,” he says, teasing the 11 different characters we will have the opportunity to take command of across the campaign and in multiplayer. “It just made for a perfect sort of battleground for a Total War game.” In the Three Kingdoms campaign we will have the opportunity to fill the void of power quickly emerging, forged in the fires of conquest as other powerful warlords plan their own ascent to regional dominance.

17. Drawing from a mixture of sources

It might, on the surface, feel as if Creative Assembly is asking for trouble with Three Kingdoms, its story taking influence from both historical record and a work of fiction to inform its action. But Walter maintains that this actually gives the studio the flexibility to deliver a truly epic Total War game. “We have these two amazing sources to draw from. We have the historical account, which is very factual, and then we have Romance Of The Three Kingdoms, the novel where all of these personal stories of bravado, revenge and friendship are all tied together into a nice narrative. It’s not like Three Kingdoms is pure fiction, it’s historical fiction and we certainly spent a lot of time making sure that anything from the novel is presented authentically,” says Walter, with Stewart adding: “The novel mostly follows the facts, it just kind of embellishes them in a nice romantic way.”

16. It’s all about the characters

The focus is wholeheartedly on character as a driving force for the action. The large-scale, real-time combat and turn-based tactical strategy that the series is famed for is still in place, but now all of that is driven through unique personalities and the relationships that they force along the way. It’s been a challenge for Creative Assembly to find the right balance between these elements. “In a way, this is the first Total War title that is focused on very strong characters. We’ve had previous titles, like Attila and Napoleon – that have taken on a character’s defining moment in history – but Three Kingdoms is trying to bring multiple characters to life,” Stewart considers. “This whole period isn’t defined by one person; they are all competing to define it.”

15. Built on the foundation of Warhammer

Much like in the fantasy games Creative Assembly has recently been working on, you’ll be selecting just one character (and a handful of retinues) to play across the campaign rather than an entire faction. These legendary figures can die if you aren’t careful too, with the dynasty passed down to an heir of your choosing. Walter is also keen to note that any iterations made to the systems and engine through Warhammer’s development will also be utilised here. “The main engine is developed in a modular way and each project, which basically takes the torch forward,” he says, adding, “there’s an exchange of ideas and expertise [between the teams]. We’re looking at what Warhammer is doing, and building on those ideas."

14. Social dynamics are always at play

As you enter a battle you’ll be able to bring up to three hero units with you. This doesn’t just give you more options on the battlefield but will directly determine what types of units you’ll be able to field. You will, however, need to be wary of the social dynamics at play; all of the hero units won’t necessarily play nicely together and that can have consequences that spill out of the real-time battles and into the turn-based tactics across the campaign map. While it’s impossible to know how Creative Assembly plans on balancing this system – whether it will throw up too many random elements to truly be satisfying – at this stage, though we do hope that it only serves to amp up the drama.

13. The return of unit formations

Each of the generals that are available to you in Three Kingdoms are trained in the art of war and will bring their own specialities and tactical knowledge to your army. Creative Assembly is reflecting this in a very real way here, putting more work than ever into unit formations and glorious, glorious micro-management. Unlike the Total War: Warhammer games, unit formations are indeed returning to give an extra layer of tactical veracity to the gameplay, although these will need to be learned – passed down from the generals to the soldiers. The better you integrate the various hero characters into your army, then the better prepared for battle across the campaign they will soon become.

12. You’ve got to have class

Each of the 11 characters available falls into one of five distinct character classes – Commander, Champion, Sentinel, Strategist and Vanguard. Each of these effectively offers a different playstyle and therefore a different way to tackle Total War. You’ll need to utilise tactics that better suit your chosen general, keeping an eye out for unique items and mounts to make them even more powerful. Each commander has their own skill tree, letting you advance five active and five passive abilities to better shape their versatility in the field as you see fit. This will have a huge impact in the Romance campaign, where generals can be the difference between a win and a loss, though their power is mitigated in the traditional Historic campaign.

Want to know about any cheat codes? Check out this Total War: Three Kingdoms cheats guide.

Josh West
UK Managing Editor, GamesRadar+

Josh West is the UK Managing Editor of GamesRadar+. He has over 10 years experience in online and print journalism, and holds a BA (Hons) in Journalism and Feature Writing. Prior to starting his current position, Josh has served as GR+'s Features Editor and Deputy Editor of games™ magazine, and has freelanced for numerous publications including 3D Artist, Edge magazine, iCreate, Metal Hammer, Play, Retro Gamer, and SFX. Additionally, he has appeared on the BBC and ITV to provide expert comment, written for Scholastic books, edited a book for Hachette, and worked as the Assistant Producer of the Future Games Show. In his spare time, Josh likes to play bass guitar and video games. Years ago, he was in a few movies and TV shows that you've definitely seen but will never be able to spot him in.