Games

'The Furious Wild' Makes 'Total War: Three Kingdoms' a Little Too Goofy

But I don't want to be a tiger king?
September 2, 2020, 3:57pm
Furious Wilding
'Furious Wild' screenshots courtesy of Creative Assembly

I like a lot of what's in The Furious Wild expansion for Total War: Three Kingdoms, but I'm not sure I like it as part of Three Kingdoms. In some ways it feels like a Total War: Warhammer DLC in terms of how differently its new factions play, and how fantastical they are in comparison to everything else.

Three Kingdoms has generals of patently magical prowess in its Romance mode, but the world and the armies themselves generally feel grounded. The Furious Wild has mighty tribal warlords who command the very beasts of the jungle in their wars with the crumbling Han Empire. These new Nanman factions are fun to play with, and the politics around their grudging unification are interesting. But when you give the command to "unleash the tigers" and scores of white tigers come swarming out of the forests to ravage armies of horrified conscripts, it feels like the fabric of Three Kingdom's reality has been rent asunder as assuredly as the Mandate of Heaven.

The Furious Wild adds a huge swathe of territory in Southwest China, home to the tribes of the Nanman. Where the Han have become increasingly urbanized, the Nanman have largely kept to their villages and traditional trades. It's worth noting that The Furious Wild is careful to avoid depicting the Nanman as somehow less developed or "advanced" than their neighbors, and while some of the portrayals of the Nanman might suggest the "noble savages" or colonial myth, that's not the way they are framed nor how they behave.

Torches.jpg

A number of powerful Nanman leaders have arisen who have the power to bring the Nanman together as one nation in order to keep the chaos of the Han civil war from spreading into the rich jungle valleys of the Nanman. Playing as the Nanman, you face choices about both how you wish to unify the tribes, and about whether you want to begin transforming their society to be more like that of the Han, or more deeply committed to their own traditions.

To be clear, it feels like there's a right answer. With each tier of the "research" tree you face a either / or choice between adaptation or tradition. Adaptation lets you make the Nanman a bit more like the Han: a more ordered and specialized society, at home and in the army. If you go the Han route, for instance, your unruly infantry will learn to march in the advanced formations favored by elite Han units. Which sounds useful until you consider the alternative: fielding hordes of elite shock troops whose mere presence will terrorize anyone in their path, and who can frequently break enemy formations in the opening clash of the battle. Hmm, do you want to be "off-brand Han" or do you want to be "death itself"? Decisions, decisions.

There is a trade-off, of course. Nanman armies can rout enemy troops quickly but that's not the same thing as "shattering" them and sending them scurrying off the map. Enemy forces will fall back and rally, and the Nanman struggle to field the cavalry needed to really take advantage of the fleeing enemy. If the Nanman don't find a way to capitalize on their initial charge, they find themselves in a pitched battle, the discipline and weight of enemy units will begin to tell on them.

Tech Tree.jpg

This kind of exaggerated asymmetry is probably necessary to make the Nanman feel distinctive from the rest of the Han factions in Three Kingdoms, all of whom hew pretty closely to the classic Total War model of line infantry, ranged units, and cavalry. But it also means the Nanman are heavily min-maxed, and a lot of the things that establish their character feel jarring in the context of the core game. Their fire archers are so effective that it's as if they can call in napalm strikes. They have fighters who wield flaming blades that are straight out of Game of Thrones or an RPG sourcebook. They have tiger-handlers who can, on command, set their charges loose and somehow these dozens of tigers know who their friends are. In Total War: Warhammer all of this is par for the course: it's a fantasy world with fantasy factions. The Furious Wild highlights the ways that Three Kingdoms splits the difference between the fantasy and historical plausibility, and there are times it stretches my disbelief just a little too far. And I know this is an absurd line to draw, because we already have Lu Bu single-handedly carving through hundreds of soldiers in each battle, or there's the fact that I'm somehow delighted by the morale-boosting elephants of the Nanman. For some reason, tigers and fire-axes are the point where I go, "Come on, now."

Still, the Nanman provide some interesting dynamics in a corner of the Three Kingdoms map that was generally a sideshow or a late-game slog. I need to spend more time with both the Nanman factions and the Han factions that border them to see how they complicated the full campaign, but at first glance I'd say the Nanman are a lot of fun to play in battle, but definitely feel like they just emerged from an entirely different game than the one Three Kingdoms players are used to.