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

11. Romance is a new way to play

“You can’t really tell the historical story of the period without the personal stories from the novel as well. The character relationships are important in both game modes, it’s important to the historical background,” Walter tells us and – wait, two game modes? That’s right, Three Kingdoms will feature two primary ways to play, Romance and Classical. Romance is where fact and fiction collide, as Creative Assembly looks to draw on the larger-than-life presence of the heroes that dominated the stories – their myth and legend shaping the way they impact the battlefield. “In Romance mode you get to know the characters,” says Walter. “They will have a big impact, whereas in Historical/Classic mode it’s more grand-scale – the focus is on big armies and manoeuvring your forces.”

10. You can strip it back if you want to

It’s worth noting that while a lot of the focus – particularly when it comes to the ways in which Creative Assembly demos the game – has been on the Romance mode, the studio is keen to stress that Classic mode is still the Total War game that you veteran players know and love. There’s still a lot of time, care and attention going into this core way to play the game. If anything, it puts more attention and focus on some of the minutiae. For example, the artificial intelligence has been overhauled, requiring a clear attention to detail and sharp reactions to fend off encroaching armies; the engine can now render out thousands of authentically designed warriors onscreen at once and there’s a day/night cycle that changes the composition of battles.

9. It’s still the Total War you know

In spite of all of these big sweeping changes to the core dynamic, Classic mode will still be the Total War you know and love. You won’t be able to rattle through dozens of enemies at a time, nor will they be as impervious to damage from regular units as they are in the Romance offering – in fact, generals will come with bodyguards in the Classic configuration to better depict how these characters were treated at the time. We’ve been told that elements of Three Kingdoms such as random events, the appearance of certain characters and the implementation of broader elements from the Romance Of The Three Kingdoms novel won’t appear in a Classic campaign. If you want your campaign to be pure, the option is certainly there for it.

8. Character is still key in historical mode 

While you’ll see characters effectively able to take on entire armies by themselves in Romance mode, the generals will be more tempered figures in the historical setup. That doesn’t mean, however, that they are to be ignored entirely. In fact, managing the generals and dealing with their relationships, the drama and the betrayal that helped define that era of conflict is still going to be a huge appeal to the campaign. “These character relationships influence other game systems. They create a lot of interesting challenges and sort of spawn interesting decision-making that you will have to do,” says Burrows. “It’s less about juggling positives and negatives or doing spreadsheets of calculations, but rather about being a really strong leader.”

7. You can duel other heroes to the death

Given the mythical nature of these generals and the power they can have over the turn of battle in Romance mode, you’ll be happy to know that there are ways to take rival generals out of play. It’s a risky manoeuvre, putting your own hero at risk, but it can so often turn the entire tide of a battle. You can challenge a rival on the battlefield to a duel as the battle rages on around them. The two characters meet and immediately engage in a fight to the death that in our preview proved to be a real spectacle to watch in action. You’ll also be able to activate abilities in the fight to try and help your hero out, though its win conditions are ultimately a blur of class, experience and morale; kill a hero’s brother, for example, and you should expect to see them launch into a near-unstoppable grief-fuelled frenzy. Duelling is one of our favourite new battle mechanics.

6. You can’t trust anybody

This period of history came to be defined by bloodshed and betrayal. Total War has the former, with its ridiculous battles that pit tens of thousands of soldiers against one another in active combat. But it now has the latter too, introducing a system that allows you to implant operatives within enemy armies to bring them down from the inside – though the same can also happen to you too. “You’ve got to constantly wrestle with the idea that someone in your faction might be a spy,” teases Stewart, who tells us that players will need to pay careful attention to who they are promoting in their ranks. “There’s an element of difficulty and challenge in that system, especially as you keep progressing through the campaign. It’s one of the big things to be excited about, it makes the characters feel like they are part of a world.”

5. Great entry point for new players

Of all of the Total War games that have arrived in the last 19 years, there’s an argument to be made that Three Kingdoms is going to perhaps be the best entry point for genre newcomers that the series has ever seen. That, we’re told, is an intentional decision on Creative Assembly’s part – it’s concerned about how easily new players can become involved with the fun.“I think often Total War is seen as this very strategic, half-historical simulation... but it is very much a personal game about characters – that’s especially true of Three Kingdoms,” muses Burrows, who notes that while a lot of work has been done to gradually introduce the systems and to scale the difficulty in a more effective manner, all of it is driven through those heroes.

4. How the difficulty scale works

Creative Assembly knows that its games can look overly complex and imposing on the surface. It too is aware of how difficult they could be to play, particularly for new players. The focus this time around has been on reworking the opening hours of the campaign – especially in Romance mode – to better bring players of all experience into the fold. “With some of the older games we had this problem where the difficulty curve is biggest at the beginning,” laughs Walter, who acknowledges that this is akin to throwing you into a burning building before teaching you how to fight the fire. “For Three Kingdoms we tried to push more towards an experience where you start in an easier environment. We want you to get to the more difficult bits organically, without forcing you to sit through tutorials. It should be an organic experience.”

3. Exploring the fun of Total War

“This is something we keep exploring and looking into, because as much fun as the Total War games are and as great as they are, they can be large, multifaceted beasts,” laughs Stewart, maintaining that if there were to be a good kind of beast, Total War would be it. But Stewart, a veteran of Creative Assembly, knows only too well what challenges the studio faces when trying to make the game more accessible to new players. That’s something it is trying to change in Three Kingdoms. “What we have focused on is that when you first start playing, if you don’t particularly have a lot of experience, is we wanna sort of help you to get used to the systems slowly, so by the time you’re 20, 30 turns down the line, you’ll actually understand what’s happening in the game,” he says, although we wonder aloud what a player should do if they are still struggling at that point... “Just turn the difficulty down, there’s no shame in it,” he laughs. “Put it on easy, no one cares.; no one’s looking.”

2. It feels fantastic

Whether you love the idea of this being such a character-driven game or are approaching it with caution, we’re pretty sure that you’re going to fall pretty hard for Three Kingdoms. The battles feel suitably epic – stressful and invigorating in equal measure. The refined control systems feel excellent, making it comfortable for us to direct large forces across the battlefield and quickly re-organise when it all goes horribly wrong. The art direction is unlike anything you’ve ever seen from the series, it’s beautiful to behold. Creative Assembly isn’t pulling any punches as it returns to the historical core of Total War. The wait to its Spring 2019 release date is going to be difficult to bear.

1. It’s left us eager for more

Getting hands-on with early preview codes can often be difficult to assess, particularly when its scope is limited. We haven’t, for example, had the opportunity to sample the turn-based tactical side of play – manoeuvring our generals and army across the huge map in an attempt to gain dominance over China. But we can say that we’re incredibly eager to. What we’ve had the opportunity to preview has left us impressed. Creative Assembly knows what it’s doing, and it rarely makes a misstep when it comes to its core historical wing of the long-running series. But if the attention to detail we’ve been able to divine from the overlapping mechanics and systems is apparent and represented throughout the rest of the game, it’s pretty clear that this is going to be one for the history books

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.