By Joseph Luster

At this point, Sega and developer Creative Assembly’s Total War franchise is about as dependable as can be. Each entry and spinoff has something new to offer to longtime players and newcomers alike, and the latest focuses on one of the most interesting eras of historical warfare. True to its name, Total War: Three Kingdoms is all about the age during which the once-majestic Han dynasty was on the precipice of complete collapse. As chaos takes over with the enthroning of the new Emperor Xian, various warlords throughout China rise in an attempt to take down the manipulative and oppressive Dong Zhuo, and all of their conflicting ambitions serve up the perfect setting for another excellent strategy game.

Creative Assembly handles this epic subject matter with aplomb, delivering a narrative that’s every bit as exciting as the tactical gameplay for which it serves as a setup. At times, the combination of the story and the tutorials necessary to get the ball rolling can feel a bit overwhelming, but for the most part Three Kingdoms offers up a gripping, multifaceted campaign that will keep aspiring strategists glued to their screens.

Similarly overwhelming are the sheer number of options presented to players from the very beginning, including 11 different leaders you can choose to begin your sprawling quest for dominance. Within each you’ll find specific traits that can be advantageous, as well as unique units that could turn the tide of battle if used wisely. The game’s generals give you plenty of different ways to approach any given situation. If you choose to play as Cao Cao, for instance, you can look forward to a boost in diplomatic influence, which may serve you well in playing other nations against one another. The diplomacy system has been overhauled nicely, too, and even those who just want to get straight into battle will find something interesting to keep them coming back to diplomatic options in more engaged and informed ways.

Speaking of battles, these will feel pretty familiar to anyone who has played previous entries in the Total War series. That’s either fantastic or disappointing depending on who you ask, but it’s not always something you need to concern yourself with during every session. It’s easy to simply set your battles to auto and handle other aspects of the job in the meantime, just be aware that this means the outcome is way more of a gamble than usual. It’s often worth the risk if you just aren’t interested in a particular skirmish, but your success is at the mercy of a randomly generated number system, so keep that in mind before choosing to roll the dice for every single battle.

If you’re used to games like Dynasty Warriors, which take this period and run with it in over-the-top ways, you can get a taste of that absurdity in Romance mode. It’s here where your generals will rush into battle with superhuman success rates, complete with spectacular moves that no mere human could possibly withstand. For those who prefer the more historical lens, stick to Records mode and lose yourself in the harsh reality of battle. Either way, strategy fans are going to have a good time with this one. Total War: Three Kingdoms is a sterling example of the genre that should serve as solid inspiration to any other developers looking to deliver similar Desktop General thrills.

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