This latest continent-sized strategy game from UK studio The Creative Assembly blends the hard graft of empire management with some pleasantly raucous personality politics. Taking its inspiration from Luo Guanzhong’s historical novel The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, it transforms statecraft into a soap opera – or rather, reveals statecraft for the soap opera it often is. The game is set in second-century China, a realm divided following the collapse of the Han dynasty. As one of 12 would-be emperors, you move armies across a lavish, cloud-wreathed map, seizing settlements, nurturing your economy and destroying or assimilating your rivals.
It’s game of two halves. On the one hand, there’s the relatively leisurely business of running your kingdom, where you take turns with opponents (AI or human) to move stacks of soldiers around, adjust tax rates with one eye on your population’s contentment levels, and build facilities such as schools and garrisons. On the other, there are the battles, where hundreds of individually animated warriors clash on delightfully miniaturised plains and hillsides.
With positioning, troop morale and terrain all vital factors, these scraps represent Total War at its most testing and exhilarating, though you may want to delegate to the AI when the odds are firmly in your favour. They are also a feast for the eyes and ears, as spearmen dig their heels in against cavalry and skirmishers erupt from long grass to catch archers unawares. The battles are rivalled, however, by the game’s cast of opposing rulers and minions, each a volatile mixture of skills and traits.
Whether you play in Romance mode – which gives your generals sorcerous battlefield abilities – or Records, which skews to the realistic, the characters remain at the foundation, where older Total War games treated them as secondary. Before recruiting armies, for example, you must appoint a commander, whose attributes go some way to determining which troops you’ll hire and how they perform. You can also promote characters to positions at court, from town administrator all the way to prime minister, to shape the operation of your empire. Characters have their own notions of job satisfaction and a certain autonomy; overlook one for promotion or fail to supply an entourage befitting their status, and they may eventually switch sides.
These personalities age and evolve over the course of each playthrough. They don’t just develop new traits – a scarred visage that sparks terror in combat, a charitable outlook that makes them popular with peasants – but they also develop friendships and grudges with other characters. With time, these relationships come to shape your decisions as heavily as economic factors such as crop production.
You’ll learn, for instance, not to fill your court with odd bedfellows lest your chancellor lose patience with your prime minister and plunge the kingdom into civil war. You’ll learn which of your neighbouring rulers can be bullied without consequence, and which will rally against you. Many characters are relatives, and you can marry them off to other factions either for diplomatic purposes, or to be rid of somebody you find annoying.
Where older instalments in the series grew boring once one faction gained a crushing advantage, the disorderly cast here does much to keep Three Kingdoms engrossing throughout. A single defection may ruin your rush to victory, and it’s enjoyable to reflect on the moments of treachery, impulsiveness or calculation that have made each character who they are. This is more pressing with characters you suspect to be spies, cast out into the world by their lords in the hope that another ruler might recruit them. Given time and luck, spies may achieve high office in their target court, allowing their true patrons to hijack cities and armies without bloodshed. You can often deduce their intentions, however, from their employment history.
The drawback of all these machinations is an overloaded interface, even by Total War standards. Three Kingdoms has a lot to convey, and doesn’t always do it elegantly. The decision to theme icons on the Chinese elements feels like an unhelpful flourish, as does the depiction of your faction’s technological sophistication as a blossoming bough.
But it’s a small price to pay for such rich, enjoyable scheming and melodrama. Total War: Three Kingdoms is a wonderfully torrid period epic that understands the greatest stories are written about people, not empires.