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Total War: Three Kingdoms Preview - E3 2018

We observe a demo of Creative Assembly's upcoming historical strategy game

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The Total War strategy series has held a firm spot within the genre for years now. The unique combination of a large campaign map with turn-based progression, city / unit management, and the large and chaotic real time battles has proved to be a winning formula for many years. So much so, that the series has expanded beyond its traditional historical settings into spinoffs such as the Total War: Warhammer series. But in 2019, the series will return to history with Total War: Three Kingdoms. Developers at Creative Assembly are eager to return to a classical setting, and to bring players their take on the history of China between the second and third centuries AD. We had a chance to speak with the developers and observe a demo of a battle at E3 2018.

The most immediate standout feature of Three Kingdoms is the focus on the art style. The developers highlighted their desire to have clean, modern, brushstroke style visuals, and the brief cinematics before the battle certainly matched that description. The bright and colorful visuals of the natural environment and nearby mountains also helped set the scene. Even the unit cards were stylized in a similar way. The battle we were about to observe was a historically inspired clash, and not just a random skirmish during a campaign. The developers took control of Cao Cao, a strategic mastermind hero character who has cornered Lu Bu, a military general and a fierce fighter who also backstabbed many. This was the Battle of Xiapi. Cao has weakened and cornered Lu Bu in his reinforced settlement, and has arrived to deliver the final blow.

The camera swooped over the map, showing Lu Bu waiting in the center of town, while his soldiers manned the outer walls – which already had weak spots due to Siege Escalation mechanic which begins each battle with potential damage to structures. The invading army under the player’s control had the option to assault from any direction, as the town was centrally positioned on the battle map. We chose to assault at the weakened parts of the wall, sending in some heavy spear troops to take the brunt of the fighting. The defenders were mostly under-equipped militia, as most of Lu Bu’s army had been either defeated or abandoned him at this point. It also made sense to avoid the front gates because that central road was guarded by towers.

Cao Cao, being a strategic hero, rode together with his units, which allows a passive ability to use advanced formations, and boost morale. Meanwhile, the archers in the back were moving back and forth, providing ranged support, and using fire arrows to reduce the defender’s morale. The battle mechanics were certainly instantly familiar to any Total War fan. A notable new feature is loyalty, where each hero has units that are loyal directly to them, and they all appear grouped together in the player’s army HUD. The cavalry rammed through another line of defenders, and went around for another pass – the AI is said to be improved for the mounted units. Another new AI change is defenders making a choice to withdraw and regroup deeper in town, rather than just fight until they are wiped out. As the army was working its way through the town, the developers talked some more about the grand campaign mechanics.

There will be many hero units throughout the game, but because this Total War covers an internal conflict, there are no national tensions, but rather it’s all about relationships and personalities. Heroes can become friends, enemies, and even abandon their faction and switch sides – a new idea for a Total War game that traditionally had all units bound to their cause. As the battle progressed, the generals on opposing sides could be heard taunting each other with story-specific lines of dialog. The heroes will improve over the course of the campaign, however their relationships and personalities are predetermined, which could affect their feelings towards the player and their actions, and cause the abovementioned desertions and betrayals. Players can also recruit new generals, but if they choose not to, they could join an enemy faction. You’ll also make decisions like killing or sparing enemy generals, which has impacts on the story and the rest of your army.

The team worked with historical experts and based the game on the book Records of the Three Kingdoms, which in turn provides the basis for the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. To that end, the game will feature a Classic Mode where the developers tried to preserve as much accuracy as possible, and if players follow the sequence of events as they occurred, the same historical outcomes are likely. The hero units will also be very much human, and can be lost on the field of battle. On the other hand, the default mode in Three Kingdoms will present hero units as they were romanticized in the books, making them very powerful and charismatic heroes that can turn the tide.

Back to our demo battle, the army has fought its way to the center of town, and Cao Cao has come face to face with Lu Bu. The two units then engaged in a duel, a new minigame of sorts. They started off on mounts but quickly knocked each other over and began a melee tussle. The game displayed their respective power struggle in the UI, and players will be able to utilize a couple of different attack moves which, if timed correctly, can turn the tide of the duel. With a few well timed attacks, Cao Cao emerged victorious. I asked if the player could force his army to intervene and help “cheat” during the duel, and while you can, that would be considered dishonorable and reduce moral of your own soldiers – but it could also save the life if your hero if he is losing. Another key decision is to kill or spare the life of Lu Bu, to change history or let it run its course.

After the battle, we took a quick glimpse around the town. The districts are well laid out, and key structures that you build in the campaign map are now present in battles. As such, it’s possible to destroy buildings like the granary or barracks and this has negative effects reflected in the overworld. If you end up taking over the town, you’ll of course have to repair everything that was lost during the siege.

Total War: Three Kingdoms marks the return to historical settings for this franchise, since the last major game of Total War: Rome 2 in 2013. From what we’ve seen at E3, the developers at Creative Assembly are taking this quite seriously, and looking to offer players a deep and historically-inspired experience. The gameplay changes being made will be quite important, especially if you’ve been away from the series for a while and skipped the magical Warhammer spinoff.

Total War: Three Kingdoms will be released in 2019 for PC.

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