Total War: Three Kingdoms Interview and Impressions

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Published on September 10, 2018

At PAX West this year, I was given the opportunity to play Total War: Three Kingdoms, the latest historical entry in the Total War franchise. The games takes place in China during the Three Kingdoms era, a time of war, political intrigue, and legendary heroes. During my playthrough, I was joined by Chris Budd, Project Technical Director on Total War: Three Kingdoms, as well as James Given, Community Manager at Creative Assembly, and was able to ask them a plethora of questions on their upcoming title. A huge thank you to SEGA for setting us up with an appointment during the Expo.

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With every new Total War entry, the fans are always wondering what era we are going to next. What’s your thought process when deciding potential eras and how do you land on a final decision?

Chris: With Three Kingdoms it was fairly easy. With the Three Kingdoms period and China in general, there is a huge rich history of not only the records of the history of the time, but also this romanticized version with the Romance of the Three Kingdoms novel. It was a fantastic setting to Total War and lends itself so naturally to the big battles, political intrigue, spying and all of the things that make Total War, Total War.

A big part of this era are the famous generals. With that in mind, what do you guys have planned for the interactions between characters?

Chris: So with this game, we have really gone all-in on the characters. Like you said, with the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the books are so focused on the hatred and love and the friendships and rivalries between all the characters. We’ve basically built the entire campaign gameplay around this.

With previous Total Wars, you would recruit your generals, use them on the map, and they would exist in your faction only. Now we’ve got systems where characters that you recruit who are banished are sent back into the recruitment pool. These characters then “roam the world” which can allow other factions to pick them up. So not only do you get characters persisting around the map which can let them build friendships or rivalries amongst each other, but you may also promote a someone in your faction above another person causing the second person to get jealous, worsening your relationship. If you banish someone, they might appear in another faction and they might really hate you and fight against you on the battlefield. The worst case being if you fight a nemesis on the battlefield, your characters will duel to the death and one of you must die. The whole gameplay is really built on this characterization.

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Can you give some examples of this with some of the other agents in this game like spies or diplomats?

Chris: A really cool part of characters being able to go off into other factions is the spying and espionage aspect. Now if you recruit a character as a spy, you can actually send them back out into the recruitment pool and they might get picked up by another faction. If they get picked up by another faction, you now have a spy in that faction. While they are in that faction, they build up a cover and that gives them the ability to use stronger and stronger actions. Those actions are also situational. Say that they make your spy a governor. You might be able to force a rebellion in that region. If they might it right up to the food chain to an heir, they might even be able to incite a civil war in that faction. This mechanic is not only building the characterization but is a way to really decimate an enemy faction.

So would you say that the addition of these mechanics are one of the biggest changes to the game and the campaign map overall?

Chris: Yeah, you are really going to feel these characters. You are going to know the ones that are stronger in your factions. You’re not going to want to lose them because if you do lose them they are dead. They are gone. You will build a relationship with these characters and they in turn will build a relationship with other characters in the game. The whole of the mechanics of the campaign has been crafted around that.

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In terms of the visuals, what sort of improvements have you made on the engine and the graphics in general?

Chris: Our graphics guys have been very hard at work and they are a very talented group of people. [In the game] there is some newer temporal anti-aliasing, so you get nice smooth images. On the campaign map, you saw there was some new depth of field which gives it a nice, like, tabletop feel. We’ve also done a lot of work on the animations to get the wushu martial arts right for the duels that you will see on this map. You may have also noticed that we transitioned to nighttime on the campaign map as we went into this battle. We are going to have a dynamic day-night cycle going on.

I’ve noticed that the units have changed in a battle and that each character has their own group of people that follow them. Can you explain this a little further?

Chris: So those are the retinues. An army now consists of up to three characters and [up to six] retinues. The retinues are strongly affected by their characters in battle. If you lose the character, their retinue will take a massive morale hit. You really have to make sure you take care of which units are associated with that character.

In battle, what sort of mechanics do retinues provide?

Chris: Although units are part of a retinue, they can move freely as in the older titles. There are buffs provided if they stay near the character that they follow, so depending on the character you may want to keep all units in a retinue together.

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How did the team deal with the balance of the character units in battle?

Chris: With the Three Kingdoms period, we have the romanticized version and then the historical version. We felt from the start that we needed to do both versions of them justice. So you are playing the romanticized mode. The characters have huge amounts of HP, really high damage attacks, and are absolutely unique with superhuman abilities. In the Records mode, it will be a lot more historically accurate, so your generals will lead a bodyguard unit, so more like the traditional generals of Total War. Characters will have a skill tree like in the past where you can customize them as the game progresses.

Will the skill tree branch off into different paths, like a governor branch, a warrior branch, etc, like the previous games?

James: We can’t say too much about that yet, but we will talk about that more when we show off the campaign sometime in the future.

*Albert trying to hunt down an enemy commander*
He ran away!

James: So that guy is not a fighter. He is a character type called a strategist. Basically, you can’t duel with them, but they are very disruptive and they stop other characters from using their abilities.

Chris: And they give you extra formations and the ability to select whether you want to fight a night battle and things like that.

Can you talk a little about the other character types?

Chris: Sure. One of the key things in the game are the various character archetypes that we have. So Sun Ren is a Vanguard, a very powerful melee fighter. She is great at duels, she is great at combat against other units, and she does a lot of damage. Sun Quan is a Commander. He is a fairly strong unit, not bad in a duel, but most of his power comes from the strengths of the buffs that he provides. If you look at his buffs, you see he can provide quite powerful effects in the battle.

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I just realized these archers have a new split formation ability.

Chris: As you pointed out earlier, those units can use both spears and bows. They have a special formation where the frontline is a bunch of spearmen ready to take a cavalry charge and the back of the formation will have bows and will shoot at the oncoming cavalry.

That’s awesome. Definitely lets you not have to babysit your archers all the time.

Chris: You’ll also see some cool spear formations where they can form either circles or squares.

I’ve noticed that this enemy character is a Sentinel type, what does that mean?

James: Sentinels are very much like a tank, very heavy DPS, good in duels, but are mostly there to soak up damage.

I’ve seen a bit of the duel feature in some earlier trailers, but before I enter one myself in this battle, do you want to explain the feature a little more?

James: Of course. Most of the commanders can go through a lot of your formations like a hot knife through butter. So as the battle goes on, and you have your thousands of troops, the best way to take these heroes away from damaging your front line is to duel them. Duels give you a whole host of benefits if you win them and some penalties if you lose them. Some of the buffs are targeting towards the retinue, and some of them are targeted toward your army as a whole. If you can win your duels, then your army has such a big buff that you can probably fight even when you are heavily outnumbered.

So if you have a very strong commander that is great at duels, you can begin to fight against a lot stronger forces.

James: Indeed. But you don’t have to have a duel. You can refuse them and you can even set a hero to automatically decline all duel requests. If you lose a duel though, it will not always end in death. You can flee from them, you can interrupt them, there is a whole host of things. Duels have big effects on the campaign, you get EXP, you get items, and if you have your nemesis within the campaign and you duel them in a battle, the battle must end in the death of one of the two characters.

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I noticed there were a lot of new interesting and fun features added to this game. As someone who loves Total War as a franchise, but has a hard time getting some of their friends into the series, what sort of things are you guys doing to make this title more accessible for beginners?

James: We always are well aware when we are making these games of the strengths and weaknesses. We always try to make either the UI or your first time playing as intuitive as possible, especially in the campaign. We can’t really talk about anything specific right now, but we are working on something interesting for the campaign right now. However, we are always well aware of the issue, especially with how unique we are within strategy games like with our battle system, but we always working on and trying to improve the experience for newcomers.

That’s all I had for you guys today. Thank you for your time and I look forward to when the game launches!

James: Thanks!

Chris: Thanks for playing!

Overall, I had a blast playing Total War: Three Kingdoms. The biggest change for me was having a variety of very powerful characters to control the battle with. Although the previous titles had some powerful commanders, the combat capabilities of Sun Ren and the buffs that Sun Qian can provide are extraordinarily powerful, yet fun. If you are more into the historical aspect of Total War, you can always turn the power dial down in Records mode.

The dueling ability fascinated me the most as it acts as a double-edged sword. Win the duel and be rewarded with an army-wide buff, but miscalculate to lose the duel and your troops suffer a massive morale penalty along with your commander potentially being killed. I am looking forward to the changes that they will make to the campaign map as well as a final release date for the game.

Categories: Previews

Albert Corsten

Albert has been gaming ever since he was a young lad. He mainly focuses on game reviews and co-hosting on the podcast, but you might find him occasionally drifting into non-review territory. When not gaming, you’ll find him dreaming about a new Advance Wars game.