What has Total War: Three Kingdoms learnt from Total War: Warhammer?

It’s now been more than three years since the last proper historical Total War game (sorry Thrones of Britannia), as Creative Assembly has focused instead on the high fantasy world of Warhammer with its magical swords, dragons and giant floating toads.

But with Total War: Three Kingdoms on the horizon, the studio is now finally returning to a real world setting once again: a decades-long conflict that changed China forever. However this game isn’t based solely on the historical events of that era, it’s drawing much of its inspiration from a Chinese novel called Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Written in the 14th century, it heavily dramatises the lives and actions of many of the real people involved.

For example, while the military general Xiahou Dun, who lost his left eye to an arrow, is thought to have then spent the remainder of his career away from the frontlines, this is not the case in this romanticised retelling of events. Instead, he is said to have pulled out the arrow along with his eyeball, eaten it in front of his troops, and then killed an enemy officer in single combat.

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So what does that mean for the game’s direction? Is this a historical Total War game, or not? We asked Creative Assembly.

“Quite quickly on,” said communications manager, Al Bickham, “we got to a point where the designers realised we needed both a classic and fantasy mode. Adding bits of one to the other just felt like a constant compromise, so we went: okay, let’s be true to the historical epic and the history at the same time.”

“That was super interesting,” added senior game designer, Attila Mohacsi. “The core of the team was coming from Total War: Attila and so we were just thinking about making one version. As we started reading through all of the source material, we kept trying to push more and more with the romance side of it and we realised we weren’t quite there.

“The game would have been quite strange for the historical audience and so we thought about going the other way: how much of the fantasy stuff can we trim down? Again, it didn’t feel right. In the end, we just had to seperate it. There was no other way that people would be happy with what we were making.”

As of yet, we’ve only been hands-on with the Romance mode in Three Kingdoms and although the bulk of the units on the battlefield were in keeping with history, there was one thing that stood out from the moment we began playing: the generals.

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Unlike in other historical Total War games, there’s no unit of bodyguards surrounding these leaders in Romance mode and they absolutely don’t need them. Just like in Warhammer 1 and 2, these characters can wade right into the middle of combat and stand their own against dozens, maybe hundreds of enemy soldiers at a time.

“Characters are the biggest thing we’ve learnt from the Warhammer games, I think,” said Bickham.

“We wanted to do it anyway,” continued Mohacsi, “but seeing how people reacted to the Warhammer characters was a great confirmation that this could work. At times we had doubts about how it would feels in a historical game, but that’s why we have the two different modes.”

A straight comparison with the legendary lords of Total War: Warhammer doesn’t quite do it justice, it has to be said. At a recent hands-on event, we were playing as Sun Ren as she fended off an enemy ambush and were surprised to see one of her abilities, a flaming arrow called Heart Seeker, oneshot a low level enemy general in the first few moments of the battle. As impressive as Warhammer’s spells can be, Total War has never seen anything quite like that.

“One major difference from Warhammer is that the skills are all very impactful,” said Mohacsi. “Every time you engage with the skill tree, you’ll have a major choice to make. You’ll have a limited amount of skill points to spend and you have to decide what’s most important to you.

“One thing we wanted to shift away from is that in previous games many units had many, many abilities, but the punch of that unit didn’t always come through. Now it’s only the generals that have abilities, but when they use them, you feel it. They make a huge difference. To counterbalance this, the cooldowns are longer, but it’s a decisive moment in the battle.”

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Total War Three Kingdoms

Each character belongs to a different class, which determines their overall playstyle on the battlefield. Sun Ren is a Vanguard, meaning she excels at fighting large numbers of soldiers with big sweeping attacks that can knock back multiple opponents with each swing.

Her brother, Sun Quan favours quite a different approach. As a Commander, he prefers to stay behind the frontline, providing huge buffs to the units around him. In the battle we played, he was able to temporarily negate all melee and ranged damage to nearby soldiers. Not some of the damage, all of it. Again, it made Total War: Warhammer’s abilities seem almost tepid by comparison.

Although we’re yet to play it, we know this stuff won’t be as powerful in Classic Mode. For a start, the generals will again be accompanied by a unit of bodyguards, just like in previous historical games. And although they’ll have access to a number of abilities and buffs for nearby units, they won’t be able to single-handedly turn a battle in the same way.

So what does that mean for Total War? In a post-Warhammer world, are there now two distinct audiences for these games? Historical and fantasy?

“Definitely,” said Bickham, “but I think there’s a big venn diagram there. There’s a lot of crossover in between as well. You’ve got a hardcore group of people that only love the history games, then you’ve got a load of people that enjoy both, as long as it’s a cool game doing cool stuff, and some people just want Warhammer. It’s a big old spectrum.”

It remains to be seen how effectively Creative Assembly can cater to both within the very same game.

Are you excited to see Total War return to historical battlefields in Three Kingdoms? Let us know on Facebook and Twitter @trustedreviews.