With less than a month to go before the originally projected release, Total War: Three Kingdoms has suffered a setback. Eleven weeks have been added to the development schedule. Some fans will no doubt despair at this fact, while others will take solace in the prospect that the additional time will help Creative Assembly match the epic scope and revolutionary bent of the ancient novel by which the game is loosely inspired.
Heretofore, the Total War series has taken as its basis history unadulterated, but the upcoming entry changes that. Instead, Three Kingdoms mixes in the literary and mythical thanks to the debt it owes to Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
That text has been well served in video games by the Dynasty Warriors series, but its enormous, epic scale suggests a fittingness to the hectic grandeur inherent in real-time strategy and tactics games. Previous Total Wars—Rome, Napoleon, Attila—have offered vast lands for the interplay of factional fighting, but the action is inevitably of a disembodied type. Players engage in the rise and fall of empires, but never see the human impact.
The myth-history divulged in Romance of the Three Kingdoms has the potential to change that. The novel tells of the end of the Han Dynasty, and casts the feuding would-be emperors and their advisers as larger-than-life characters. Creative Assembly is tapping into that literary vein via the ‘Romance’ game mode, giving gamers who have previously been turned away by the dispassionate approach to narrative a reason to care.
In this new mode, users are able to assume direct control of generals (who have superior skills and special powers) while on the battlefield. This trait alone promises to personalise the experience, humanising the soldiers on the frontlines rather than featuring them as nothing more than numbers.
These powerful generals is just one of the areas in which Creative Assembly is introducing “some revolutionary features.” Another, convergent with and possibly also more game-changing, is the ‘guanxi’ mechanic.
Each of the generals has a unique personality and expectations for the behaviour of their warlord, and the player’s failure to cater to them could lead to dire consequences. The novel features this kind of discontent as leading to defections and assassinations, and one hopes that Creative Assembly will not shy away from ending the player’s journey early if they do not take the appropriate actions.
Giving players people to root for—not just distant leaders but also those on the battlefield, the likes of Liu Bei, Guan Yu, Zhuge Liang, Cao Ren, or Sun Jian—the game rewrites a genre-defining script. By placing a greater premium on characterisation, this ‘Romance’ mode promises to reduce the narrative distance common to grand strategy games, making Total War: Three Kingdoms more appealing to gamers with a proclivity towards narrative-focused titles, at least in theory.
Grandeur is a given. Previous Total War games have established the series’s ability to portray conflicts like few others. Three Kingdoms promises the personal. Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a novel of sweeping scope, rousing at some points and devastating at others. If Creative Assembly can tap into and recreate that cadence, then it may open its games up to a previously untapped audience and simultaneously pave a new path for the future of the grand strategy genre. More time will only ensure the game achieves such a revolutionary ambition.