The first things I noticed were the fire arrows.
I’ve been playing Total War games for long enough that I get weirdly hung up on minutiae. The stuff that you probably don’t notice so much at first but—after dozens of hours or a dozen games across almost twenty years—you find yourself fixating on. The way formations of soldiers get strung-out as they move, and the way they dissolve as a battle turns into Mo-Cap Mosh Pit in the center of the map. The ways the games sometimes don’t feel right, or the little micro-managerial tasks you fall into the habit of performing in order to keep your soldiers from doing something self-destructive.
So when two developers from Creative Assembly gave me an E3 demo of the Battle of Xiapi, an historical siege battle in Total War: Three Kingdoms, I found myself distracted from what they were saying by long streaks of flaming arrows soaring through the air. It looked like a neon roller-coaster hanging suspended in thin air between the armies of Cao Cao, and the defending forces of Lu Bu, anchored at one end by hundreds of archers and at the other by a burning cityscape.
“Hang on, sorry,” I said, pointing at the screen, “Are those special siege units or can archers really shoot that far in this game?”
Designer Leif Walter paused, mid-explanation of the Battle of Xiapi. “Well, they’re elite archers,” he cautioned. “But yeah, it’s part of the epic scale we’re going for with this game, getting that almost ‘arrows so thick they blot out the sun’ effect with the archers.”
The intended effect might be predominantly aesthetic, but I couldn’t help but feel thrilled at the sheer space that seems to have opened up on the Total War battlefield for Three Kingdoms. I’m not sure I’ve seen a Total War battle that felt so sweeping since the series was using sprites.
I’ve gotten used to the way Total War battlefields can all feel a bit compressed, like they’re taking place on one of those museum diorama tables. The way the armies have to stand too close together, the way the edges of the map are often crowding the flanks, and in most of the recent versions, the way ranged units have to get within shotput-range before they’re really effective. There’s a bit of room for the armies to maneuver but, once the battle is joined, it tends to take place in one giant clump.
Here, archers were firing from what felt like across the map over the city’s outer walls… which were themselves a huge distance from the city center. It felt like you could have fit several siege maps from Total War: Warhammer or Thrones of Britannia into this landscape. Assault troops sprinted toward the walls, leaving the archers far behind to continue their bombardment, while the beleaguered defenders began to recoil retreat up the wide, grid-like city streets to the next layer of defenses.
Set aside all the new features in Three Kingdoms for a second—the cast of heroic characters with their shifting allegiances, the way army construction is tied to the heroes in your army—there might be no bigger change in this game than in how it uses distance and scale. In its scale, and the drastically different roles that scale allows for units on the battlefield, Three Kingdoms feels like it might break free from the rigid rock-paper-scissors army constructions that have been the series hallmark since Rome 2.
I wasn’t even fully aware of how much it had been quietly bugging me until I saw Three Kingdoms break free from some of those constraints. In most of the recent Total Wars, ranged units have been forced to stay pretty much on top of their supporting infantry in order to fire, and that’s basically meant that every Total War battle for the past few years—be it fantasy, medieval, or ancient—has felt like two wads of troops being shoved at each other across a dance floor. And more than position or maneuver, the most important factor in deciding those battles has been how each unit matches up against its opposite.
Do you have anti-armor troops attacking the armored unit? Do you have light cavalry to rush enemy skirmishers? It’s almost like a card game, where the 3D battle is just a graphical representation of how well one side has hard-countered the other in the deployment phase.
Total War: Three Kingdoms looked a lot more like the kind of game I like to play: Tons of room for armies to dance with each other, and so much open ground that cavalry and ranged units can function independently of line infantry.
And god, the cavalry. Another dream come true that I saw during the demo: Charging cavalry units would ride-through formations they hit to come out the other side, so that they could disengage, ride to a safe distance, wheel around, and launch another charge from the opposite side… all without the player giving any additional orders. Having watched cavalry units wedge themselves inside infantry scrums for years, re-enacting the Charge of the Light Brigade with every battle, it was a huge relief watching the cavalry’s AI behavior start to supplant some of the fussy micromanagement those units have always demanded from players.
While the developers were quick to point out that it’s still more effective to micro-manage cavalry—to ensure they don’t get stuck and to fully re-form their formations—the automatic behavior should at least make them a little more self-sufficient on the battlefield.
Sieges in particular seem to have been reimagined with a lot of influence from Attila. The developers pointed out that the outer walls of the city were already breached in several places, a product of the “siege escalation” system that will cause defenses to weaken the longer a stronghold spends under siege. Siege engines like battering rams, on the other hand, look like they’re either gone or heavily de-emphasized. Siege artillery still does massive damage to defenses, but I didn’t see any infantry units having to lug ladders or siege towers around—a relief considering how much the series has struggled to incorporate those elements over the years.
Instead, armies now use grappling hooks to brute-force city walls. That means that ramparts are no longer impermeable blocks to movement for an attacking army, but instead impose major penalties to movement. That feels like it will be way easier for the siege AI to manage, and should also cut-down on the “winner-take-all” feel of the battles along a city’s outer defenses.
Even more exciting is the way the cities themselves reflect the choices you’ve made on the strategic layer. If you see a barracks at the center of a neighborhood, that’s a barracks that was built by the player in control of that faction, providing garrison and troop production bonuses to that settlement. If you burn it down during an attack, that barracks will need to be rebuilt before it provides those bonuses again, whether or not the defender manages to hold the city.
The way Creative Assembly’s representatives explained it, you can launch some preliminary assaults in order to knock those buildings out and “soften up” your target for eventual conquest (provided you have fresh armies arriving to continue the siege). That sounds miles better than the way sieges have worked in Total War for the past few games (and maybe since it began), where the two most effective routes to siege victory are either waiting-out enemy forces or attacking with such overwhelming force that you can just auto-resolve past the lackluster siege combat.
I took a lot of skepticism into my session with Total War: Three Kingdoms. But the combat preview Creative Assembly was showing at E3 seemed to have improved or reimagined many of the frustrating tics that have defined this franchise since at least as far back as Rome 2. These aren’t giant, back-of-the-box features or bullet points the way Three Kingdom’s character and narrative systems are, or the way the game will let you choose between a more realistic “classic” mode and a more heightened, hero-driven Romance of the Three Kingdoms-inspired game.
But if you’re a longtime fan of this series, trapped in a love-hate-then-love-again relationship with Creative Assembly’s long-running franchise, then the small details visible in Three Kingdoms’ gameplay footage is quietly heartening. Because it shows that underneath the flash of a new art style and the now-expected gorgeous graphics, this is a Total War game that’s taking seriously a lot of the series most annoying quirks and constraints, and restoring its sense of scale. I want to believe that it will succeed. The evidence I saw makes me hopeful that it will, though nothing has made me more wary than past experiences with major Total War releases.