I had a few qualms when I was reviewing Total War: Three Kingdoms – Fates Divided. The Chapter Pack DLC, one that adds a new 200 CE start date focusing on the epic clash between Cao Cao and Yuan Shao, was something that long-time fans and Romance of the Three Kingdoms enthusiasts have been waiting for. And, yet, I started asking myself how I would be able to fairly judge a DLC when a free update that accompanied it changed so much more.
As such, I continued playing. From newcomers Liu Yan and Liu Zhang to old favorites like Liu Bei and Sun Ce, I tried to ascertain what the DLC and free update bring separately to the table. In any case, please be reminded that this Total War: Three Kingdoms – Fates Divided review is based on several playthroughs with Romance Mode selected.
Your own Battle of Guandu
The year is 200 CE. With the defeat of Lü Bu, Cao Cao and Yuan Shao are eager to fight for hegemony in the north. Elsewhere, Liu Bei is allied with Yuan Shao, and Sun Ce (who’s supposed to die soon), is poised to strike deeper into the Southlands. To the southwest, Liu Zhang inherits from his father, Liu Yan, with all the pros and cons of such a move. This is the setting presented to us in Total War: Three Kingdoms – Fates Divided. Cao Cao and Yuan Shao are the stars; two childhood friends who became bitter rivals as they vied for supremacy. It really is fitting since their epic clash was a flashpoint moment in China’s Three Kingdoms period.
What’s depicted in the DLC’s start date is a grand campaign with multiple battlefronts and armies. Like a game of chess, or Go (also seen in the announcement trailer), you position your forces while waiting for an opportune time to strike. In Cao Cao’s case, as it played out historically, that opportunity came at Guandu. Although Yuan Shao’s forces outnumbered him, the crafty Hero of Chaos raided and burned the Fatuous Lord’s supplies at Wuchao. Soldiers panicked and morale plummeted, leading to the utter collapse of Yuan Shao’s entire army.
Small moves culminating in a pitched battle — as it was in history. It’s also how I approached Cao Cao’s and Yuan Shao’s campaigns in Fates Divided. But it’s just unfortunate that we don’t actually get to see a Battle of Guandu (that doesn’t exist in-game as a historical battle).
The Hero of Chaos against the Fatuous Lord
In a couple of playthroughs as Cao Cao (who leads the Duchy of Wei), I positioned my forces to ensure a pitched battle. Bolstered by the redoubtable Guan Yu (whom you capture on your first turn), Yuan Shao’s forces were no match. In just three turns, I annihilated several armies, captured Yan Liang and Wen Chou, and, should I choose to do so, I could execute Yuan Shao right there and then. To the south, I trounced Liu Bei, but he proved to be slippery. Another foe, Gong Du (the last Yellow Turban faction leader), walked straight into my ambush. From there, Cao Cao’s ambitions would know no bounds.
On the other side of the coin, there’s Yuan Shao who leads the Duchy of Song. He was known for his tone-deaf responses to his advisors (which probably explains why he eventually had to face the music). The point is, you’ll still make those careful moves as Yuan Shao, waiting to waylay and encircle Cao Cao’s troops. It just so happened that Cao Cao had vast territories which lengthened the entire process.
You’ll realize that these two already lead powerful factions in Total War: Three Kingdoms – Fates Divided. However, the crucial moments of their campaigns are condensed within the first few turns. The rest, like many Total War campaigns, would turn into filler as you played Whac-A-Mole with the remaining hostiles.
It also bears mentioning that these two warlords are racing to reach level 7 to unlock the Northern Army’s ancillaries and soldiers. The Northern Army is comprised of the Han Dynasty’s professional troops, and colonel ancillaries give you several mid to high-tier units at your disposal. The downside is that these units come around the same time that these warlords can become King. As such, they tend to get neglected in favor of imperial counterparts or faction-specific variants. Still, the ancillary’s bonuses are quite good to have. Moreover, these units can be used in custom battles as long as the general is a major part of Wei or Song.
Liu Yan, Liu Zhang, Liu Bei, Sun Ce, and unique officers
The 200 CE start date really changes how you’d approach Liu Bei’s and Sun Ce’s campaigns. The former has a bunch of officers and fertile lands. Without the threat of a rampaging Lü Bu, you’re pitted against a Cao Cao who’s distracted on multiple fronts. As for Sun Ce, he actually did die in 200 CE. But, his faction mechanic, Reckless Luck, allows him to continue onward with Wu’s expansion. In this particular scenario, most of the Southlands has been pacified and Sun Ce drives to the west and north. Eventually, he’ll have bouts against Liu Biao and Cao Cao.
Meanwhile, Liu Yan and Liu Zhang are lords made playable by the DLC. The father-son duo share the Aspiration and Inheritance mechanics. Liu Yan is playable in the 190 CE and 194 CE start dates, as these are when he’d be able to complete objectives for Aspirations. He may also choose to step down in favor of his son, which triggers the Inheritance mechanic. This grants bonuses and penalties depending on how long it took for you to pass the mantle onto Liu Zhang (who, by default, only leads the faction in the 200 CE start date). In my case, though, I swapped my heir to Ma Chao and was able to reach King/Emperor rank once he took the reins.
To be clear, Daddy Liu and Junior are the only new playable lords. Owing to the fact that they’re part of the same bunch, Total War: Three Kingdoms – Fates Divided does feel a little light when it comes to introducing new leaders or factions.
Total War: Three Kingdoms – Fates Divided and the lack of events/dilemmas
Speaking of being a little “light,” narrative events and dilemmas are sorely lacking in Total War: Three Kingdoms – Fates Divided. When I played as Cao Cao, I was beyond giddy after being able to recruit Guan Yu. I started thinking about events related to the God of War — receiving Red Hare, defeating top combatants like Yan Liang and Wen Chou, or leaving Mengde’s faction so he can be reunited with Liu Bei and Zhang Fei. I did not encounter any of those. As for Cao Cao in general, there were some event pop-ups about his friend-turned-rival Yuan Shao, but that’s that. I didn’t even see an event where Cao Pi marries Lady Zhen.
The same can be said for Yuan Shao’s campaign. All the while, I wondered if I’d see something akin to the fractured and disconcerting nature of his court since, historically, Yuan Shao had advisors who were often at odds with one another. This was, coincidentally, exacerbated by Shao’s own indecisiveness (hence why he’s the Fatuous Lord). Likewise, I imagined that there’d be a major disturbance once Yuan Shao’s sons fought for their rightful place as heir. Sadly, the only dilemma I saw involved a relationship drop which was easily remedied by a trade deal.
Across the board, there was a significant lack of these events and dilemmas, factors that made Total War: Three Kingdoms stand out. It’s a far cry from what I’ve come to expect since Creative Assembly’s offering began by emphasizing the rich history and astounding lore thanks to Luo Guanzhong’s San Guo Yan Yi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms). Now, though, you’re looking at half a dozen mission tallies, things that reminded me of bounties in Destiny 2. It’d feel as if you’re going through the motions to complete minor objectives for a few rewards.
The free update’s rework bonanza
Everything aforementioned is solely about the Total War: Three Kingdoms – Fates Divided DLC. So, what about the free update that coincides with its release? Well, let’s just say that it’s one of the absolute best that you’ll ever see not just for this particular title, but also in the entirety of the Total War franchise.
It provides so many reworks, tweaks, and overhauls, such as the improved mechanics for Cao Cao and Yuan Shao. The former now has dozens of schemes (ploys/tricks) at his disposal, a perfect way to emphasize how cunning and crafty he is. The latter, meanwhile, can assign perks to his captain retinues thanks to the lineage resource. You’ll also notice changes to the Faction Council mechanic (they’ll offer choices on the buffs that you can get), as well as the Faction Ranks system (you’ll be able to fine-tune how your faction progresses in the campaign).
Even better, the free update includes several unique officers. The key factions have bolstered rosters: Cao Cao (Cao Ren, Cao Pi, Yu Jin), Yuan Shao (Yuan Shang, Yuan Tan, Lady Zhen/Zhen Ji, Yan Liang, Wen Chou, Zhang He), and Liu Yan/Liu Zhang (Fa Zheng).
To clarify, I’ve seen that these unique officers do appear in different campaigns even when I disabled the DLC. However, they remained unavailable in custom battles. It’s possible that this was just an oversight based on the pre-release build that I have.
The restoration of the Han
The race to become King/Emperor has never been more dynamic thanks to Imperial Intrigue. Once Emperor Xian comes of age in 197 CE, players can influence the Han Emperor to improve or decrease a faction’s standing in the eyes of the imperial court. Whoever controls the Han Emperor can even declare a rival as an “Enemy of the Han,” letting you obtain imperial favor as you beat down that foe.
To top things off, the free update lets players choose between building their own dynasty or restoring the Han Empire by having Emperor Xian/Liu Xie ascend to the throne. Although he’s a non-deployable character, he still acts as your new faction leader, and he’s got amazing perks for empire-building to boot.
Still, depending on the initial faction leader and start date, doing this can be a little tricky. For instance, picking a weaker lord or an earlier start date will have you playing “hot potato” with the Han Emperor — something we’ve seen in A World Betrayed. As for the 200 CE start date, you’ll either have to play as Cao Cao, Sun Ce, or Yuan Shao. That’s because the AI-controlled Sun Ce tends to declare himself as King within 25 turns (this will automatically force the Han Emperor to abdicate since he doesn’t control him). It’s even worse when AI-controlled Gong Du becomes too erratic and AI-controlled Cao Cao leaves his capital undefended. Since Gong Du is not part of the Han culture, the Emperor Xian will automatically abdicate as well. Even though it can potentially change the way you approach the endgame, it can be a very janky system in practice.
Total War: Three Kingdoms – Fates Divided – The DLC versus the free update
This is where those aforementioned qualms came from. Most of the review focused on what you’d get from the Total War: Three Kingdoms – Fates Divided DLC. Likewise, it goes without saying that we highlight what a DLC/expansion provides as opposed to what you’d get from any free update or patch that releases alongside it.
As you can surmise, the DLC is one of the weakest in terms of narrative events and overall content. Liu Yan and Liu Zhang, as they were historically, just aren’t that interesting. The stars of the show are Cao Cao and Yuan Shao (to an extent, you’ve got Liu Bei and Sun Ce as well). But these are leaders you’ve played countless times in previous start dates. At the very least, the 200 CE start date does present you with fairly decent campaigns for Cao Cao and Yuan Shao.
While that disappointment in the DLC is reflected in the review score (which you may or may not agree with), it’s the free update that truly shines. With so many reworks and overhauls to existing systems, and new additions to make playthroughs more refreshing and engaging, you’ll actually feel that this is how Total War: Three Kingdoms was meant to be played. Perhaps the main reason why one would grab Fates Divided is due to the notion that this DLC model, something Creative Assembly and Paradox Interactive tend to do, is what drives the development of additional free content.