Back in May 2019, I was able to review Total War: Three Kingdoms. Without a doubt, I considered it as one of the best Total War games around given its refreshing mechanics, optimization, and visuals. Its first Chapter Pack DLC, Eight Princes, released in August 2019. Sadly, it couldn’t reach the heights set by the base game. Almost half a year later and we’ve got Mandate of Heaven, the latest Total War: Three Kingdoms DLC. Is it worth your while? Let’s find out in our official review.
Note: For more information, check out our Total War: Three Kingdoms guides and features hub. Please be reminded that this review was completed while playing Romance Mode and that some bugs mentioned herein may be fixed prior to Mandate of Heaven‘s release.
Three Kingdoms: Mandate of Heaven – The story so far
Total War: Three Kingdoms – Mandate of Heaven brings you a new start date for your grand campaign. It’s set eight years before the base game’s 190 CE scenario, a prelude to the time of warring lords and chaos that led to the rise of new heroes and the fall of the Han. In Mandate of Heaven, you’ll experience the tumult that started it all: The Yellow Turban Rebellion.
In 182 CE, the Han Dynasty’s bountiful rule came at a price. Plagues and droughts devastated the countryside and the corruption of the eunuchs knew no bounds. Enter Zhang Jue (or Zhang Jiao if you’ve played Koei Tecmo’s games based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms novel). Self-styled as a divine mystic of the Way of Peace, he became a beacon for the disgruntled masses. Together with his brothers Zhang Bao and Zhang Liang, the trio gathered followers and terrorized Han commanderies.
Historically, the Yellow Turban Rebellion was but a flashpoint, a moment in time which hardly lasted a year or so. But, the ramifications of this incident would be felt for generations. Though the initial revolt was suppressed, regional warlords became more emboldened and the intrigues of the court led to the unraveling of dynastic rule.
The Mandate War of Total War
Total War: Three Kingdoms’ Mandate of Heaven DLC lets you choose from several new rulers:
- The Han Emperor Liu Hong and a distant imperial relative Liu Chong. They’re also aided by Lu Zhi, a wise lord who served as a tutor for the next generation of officials.
- Arrayed against these Han luminaries are three new playable Yellow Turban leaders — the aforementioned Zhang Jue, Zhang Bao, and Zhang Liang.
- Also playable in the 182 CE scenario are characters from the base game: Cao Cao, Liu Bei, Sun Jian, Dong Zhuo, and Liu Biao. Tao Qian also becomes playable in both the 182 CE and 190 CE campaigns as he’s part of a free update/free downloadable content (FLC).
Each leader has his unique perks and mechanics. For instance, Liu Hong’s campaign will be vastly different from everyone else’s given that he starts the game as the Emperor of China with numerous ministerial positions available. His focus is on managing the disparate power blocs within the court using political influence, all while keeping imperial subjects in line.
Historically, the Han Emperor’s hands were tied by the eunuchs and their bureaucratic influence in the imperial court. In effect, your goal is to curb their excesses to bring stability to your realm, all while the revolt is ongoing. Once the Yellow Turban Rebellion occurs — also known in-game as the “Mandate War” — the entirety of the Han Empire will become embroiled in a massive conflict against Zhang Jue and his cohorts.
As for Liu Chong, Lu Zhi, and the other Han warlords, they’ll follow the victory conditions similar to the 190 CE campaign. That means you’ll focus on increasing your prestige and rank, building your kingdom, and eliminating your rivals. At the same time, you’ll have to ensure that the Mandate War against the Yellow Turbans swings in the Han Empire’s favor.
Speaking of the Yellow Turbans, their faction mechanics will also come into play whether you’ve chosen their leaders or if you’re going up against them. Zhang Jue and his cohorts will call on other menacing commanders — He Yi, Gong Du, and Huang Shao, or as I call them, the “Gen 2 Yellow Turbans.” The zealous peasant rabble will cause the ebb of “Fervor” in regions, leading to drops in public order and additional rebel spawns that muster in various territories.
For lack of a better term, we could just consider the Mandate War akin to the most chaotic Royal Rumble you’ve ever seen in Total War: Three Kingdoms. Numerous events, Han Empire mechanics, and even the evolving sandbox ensure that you’re kept on your toes for the first few turns.
The evolving sandbox
Total War: Three Kingdoms – Mandate of Heaven not only puts you at the very beginning of the troubles that led to the Han Dynasty’s collapse, but it also lets you experience the evolving story (or “history,” rather) as you continue onwards with the campaign. For instance, some events automatically create emergent factions:
- Kong Rong starts as a minister in the Han Emperor’s court. A few turns later, he’ll leave to become the governor of Beihai.
- Yuan Shao also leaves the imperial court to strike out on his own in Ye province.
- From 185 to 190 CE, the bandit commanders Zheng Jiang and Zhang Yan appear in the mountains leading their troops.
- There’s also an event chain that leads to the sudden death of the Han Emperor. The power struggle between factions leads to the death of Grand Commander He Jin, the machinations of Empress He, the ousting of the eunuchs, and the rise of Dong Zhuo.
For the last example, you can choose to keep Liu Hong alive and end the Yellow Turban Rebellion before things get out of hand. Likewise, completing the Mandate War allows you to continue the campaign to further consolidate your power. If you’re playing as any other faction, however, then be prepared to see the tyrant Dong Zhuo run amok. In a way, the evolving sandbox lets you experience an entirely different situation come 190 CE. The transition lets you continue onwards with the campaign to meet new officers or experience the events therein.
Easy mode empires
With numerous features and mechanics to keep you excited, Total War: Three Kingdoms – Mandate of Heaven feels like the perfect starting point. You even get to experience the origin stories of beloved (and hated) characters that you’ve become familiarized with from the base game.
However, Mandate of Heaven also has some glaring flaws. Firstly, Liu Hong’s mechanics simply lacked depth. Even a means of granting titles and ranks to other lords, since you’re playing as the Han Emperor, doesn’t exist. It also surprised me that, although officers do have court factions that they supported, you can’t really “flip” their loyalties via decisions, events, or relations. It was possible to recruit someone talented like Liu Bei and never promote him to a higher ministerial position since doing so would lead to penalties.
I can also take note of how ridiculously easy it can be to finish off the Yellow Turbans even at higher difficulties. It’s possible to complete Mandate of Heaven‘s campaign in 30 or so turns by just slapping Zhang Jue and his brothers in the north. You won’t even need to bother with the revolts in other parts of the map. Oh, and, here’s the kicker: the ending cinematic is still the same as Total War: Three Kingdoms‘ grand campaign.
The “grind” imperial alliance
Total War: Three Kingdoms – Mandate of Heaven presents grand imperial alliances and an epic clash that spans the length and breadth of China. Perhaps the most obvious shortcoming is that hardly anything was done to improve its diplomacy system and war coordination.
One mechanic which seems to be bugged at the moment is war coordination between Liu Hong and his imperial subjects. That option simply isn’t available. It’s only possible to mark war coordination targets if you expel someone from the Han Empire, wait for a few turns, vassalize them, and then call them to war. As for Zhang Jue and the Yellow Turbans, this mechanic does work from the get-go but still feels wonky at times.
It made no sense at all since Total War: Three Kingdoms – Mandate of Heaven was supposed to present you with this idea of a great upheaval between the Han and Yellow Turbans. Sadly, you had to go through hoops just to even mark targets for your allies.
Other noticeable issues include:
- Ma Teng and Han Sui no longer becoming hostile during the Liang Rebellion event if you have a non-aggression pact.
- Huge penalties with numerous imperial subjects (90% payouts and tributes given).
- Cao Song’s wife inheriting his lands instead of Cao Cao.
- Tao Qian’s demise no longer leading to an event chain involving Cao Cao and Liu Bei.
- A highly touted feature of being able to recruit retinues while in non-hostile territory also doesn’t work; only replenishment does.
- Liu Hong, Empress He, and the eunuchs having a special quirk where they can’t be deployed on the field and they can only be used for assignments or court positions. Still, they retained the default officer skill trees which include “battle-only” perks such as increased unit speed, retinue attack/defense boosts, vanguard deployment, and actual combat abilities (seen below).
The mundane of heaven
I’m not entirely certain why the skill trees of these officers weren’t changed to reflect their special quirks. It’s as though these concepts were envisioned but left incomplete.
As for the other playable Han factions in Mandate of Heaven, since their victory conditions are similar to the 190 CE start date, you’ll find yourself recapturing the same settlements, marching past the same fields, traversing the same mountain paths, and attaining the same lord ranks. Yes, Total War: Three Kingdoms‘ world map is still the same as before. Given that you’re seeing the same locations, you’re bound to feel that very little has changed. For one thing, it creates a sense of familiarity… and also a sense of mundane repetitiveness.
I’d go back to the Han Empire as an example. Once you’re done with Mandate of Heaven‘s campaign, there’s hardly anything that’d keep you occupied. You’re waiting for a few turns to annex your imperial subjects since there are no other important happenings. I noticed only a handful of post-campaign events, some of which were already part of Total War: Three Kingdoms‘ 190 CE campaign.
- The deaths of Sun Jian and Sun Ce if you’re not controlling them, and Zhou Yu joining your force if you already have Sun Ce in your roster. These events are part of Total War: Three Kingdoms‘ original campaign.
- Jia Xu joining around turn 66 due to his “lust for power.”
- Some imperial court events also fire, albeit very rarely. Some are even anachronistic such as the new emperor (Liu Hong’s son) being approached by the Ten Eunuchs (even though I’ve already removed all the eunuchs from my roster). These events are also bugged since they don’t change faction influence in your court.
- Lu Bu randomly appearing in your territory to ask for a city (seen below). Declining his demand leads to war, and you could eliminate him quickly. He doesn’t even run back to Dong Zhuo. He just disappears forever. As far as I know, this event happens for all factions, so it’s not as special as one might think. Even in my playthrough as Zhang Jiao had him capturing an existing Han settlement before I wiped him out.
- Other faction leaders that I’ve picked do have some unique events during Mandate of Heaven‘s short campaign. But, things go awry once you go past that and continue playing. There were various events from the base game which I found harder to trigger now due to the sandbox concept, one which Mandate of Heaven made even more chaotic. In the end, you’ll simply have the plain/generic “found a weapon” or “deepened relationship with officer” events.
- As the Han Emperor, I was never able to find unique generals spawned by events such as Diaochan, Dian Wei, and Gan Ning. It’s not that the event chains never popped up, it’s that they’re not even listed as active characters for any faction.
There were also a few nagging issues that remain unimproved. Examples include still not being able to check officer skill trees “in-panel” prior to recruitment, removing officers from the character panel as opposed to having to scroll down your court’s list, arranging commanderies by income while assigning an administrator, inheriting lands if you recruited a faction’s heir, managing your heir’s development, and more.
As for battlefield tactics, I hardly changed my bread-and-butter moves. Then again, I’ve also encountered a few instances of enemy armies not bothering to attack me (including archers) as I attempted to lure them with my general. It also goes without saying that many of Mandate of Heaven‘s “40 new battlefield units” won’t really seem as unique at first glance.
The newly-added deployable items in Mandate of Heaven might pique your interest, certainly. During battles, you’re able to place certain objects on the field such as flammable oil, wooden stakes, and towers. Their addition adds a new dynamic tactical layer which would be refreshing to those who like custom or multiplayer battles. Plus, some might enjoy setting their enemies on fire using these traps.
Yet that’s another design flaw that presented itself. You can have up to six of each of these deployables in Mandate of Heaven‘s custom battles. However, you’ll only start with one by default during the campaign. That means wasting more turns researching reforms just for extra battle items. Quite frankly, it feels like another unnecessary hurdle since you won’t see their full potential until you’re fairly late in the game.
The Zhang Gang and whack-a-mole
Compared to the Han Emperor’s consolidation of power, the Yellow Turban campaign in Total War: Mandate of Heaven, might be more exciting at the start due to the challenge. You win by capturing the capital Luoyang or by holding 50 settlements. It’s an uphill climb since dozens of warlords will start gunning for your head. Think of it as similar to Dong Zhuo and Lu Bu turning Chang’an into a meat grinder against the Anti-Dong Zhuo Coalition forces.
Although”The Zhang Gang” have their work cut out for them, the flaws inherent in a prior DLC are still present. These include fairly slow officer recruitment and captain retinue promotion, lack of diplomacy options or family management, and the like. Imagine being considered as the prophet of an entire movement, and yet you’re still going through the aforementioned “jumping through hoops” to enact diplomatic proposals with your subordinates.
Funnily enough, there’s another bug that’s tied to the Yellow Turbans’ faction mechanic. The peasants spawned by Fervor/low public order are supposed to be on your side, but they end up at war with both the Yellow Turbans and the Han Empire. Take a look at the screenshot below. There are Yellow Turban forces allied with Zhang Jue (spawned by the Mandate War event) and a hostile one (spawned by the Fervor mechanic/low public order):
Even worse is the fact that the AI has no clue how to deal with Fervor. Player-controlled Han leaders may just construct buildings that’ll decrease Fervor over time, but the AI seems to be inept in this case. You could also see random Yellow Turban generals wandering around aimlessly not knowing where to go, and some unique lords may also join this congregation of rebels once their faction has been defeated.
As for the Han leaders, well, many will turn a blind eye to it as their commanderies burn to the ground. Han and Yellow Turban players will invariably just be playing “whack-a-mole” due to the AI’s incompetence. There are even times when the AI would decide to go to war with you even though multiple hostile rebel spawns surround their cities.
Mandate of Heaven‘s ultimate victory
Perhaps nothing felt stranger than when you’re about to reach the ultimate campaign victory as the Yellow Turbans well past Mandate of Heaven‘s main campaign. In Zhang Jue’s case, once you reach Enlightened rank, it’s possible for other Yellow Turban lords (such as his brother Zhang Bao) to capture one of the newly-marked pretender capitals. In turn, they’ll declare themselves as Emperor asking you to be a subject. Here’s what happens:
- Since you’re locked in an alliance, you’ll end up at war if you refuse their proposal to form an empire.
- If you do accept this proposal, you’ll go bankrupt due to the aforementioned 90% tribute penalties bug.
When I reloaded an earlier save to beeline for a pretender’s capital, I found that I could create the “Divine Empire” which gave me the same extra ministerial positions just like Liu Hong. Sadly missing were Liu Hong’s court factions and political influence mechanics and, as such, I had no means of annexing my Yellow Turban comrades in one fell swoop.
Remember what I said about “jumping through hoops” just to use diplomatic options in Mandate of Heaven? That happened for the Yellow Turbans as well. In my efforts to unite the land under the Yellow Sky, this is what I had to do:
- The Yellow Turban lords agreed to the formation of a Divine Empire.
- I immediately dissolved the Divine Empire.
- I vassalized each rebel lord by giving lands, gold, and ancillaries.
- Then, I waited for several turns so I could annex all of them. Only the non-playable Yellow Turbans faction declined.
Note: In case you haven’t noticed it in the image, some of the unique Yellow Turban lords (the ones controlled by the AI before I vassalized them) actually have spouses. It does make you wonder why they lack family options when controlled by the player.
Now, if you thought becoming recognized as a Divine Empire had its perks when dealing with the other Han factions, guess again. It’s no different given Total War: Three Kingdoms‘ prior issues when the Gen 2 Yellow Turbans were introduced. You’re either fully at war or temporarily at peace, with no other deals in between.
The rest of Zhang Jue’s journey feels underwhelming. Playing as the Divine Mystic of the Way of Peace doesn’t necessarily translate well in-game. I started imagining how things could’ve been if you, the Mystic of the Way of Peace, were slowly converting Han officers to your side — a spiritual awakening, so to speak. Han rulers welcomed former bandits who surrendered such as Liao Hua, Zhou Cang, and Bian Xi; can’t the opposite happen if the General of Heaven was victorious? I guess not.
Much like my experience with the other Han factions, finishing Mandate of Heaven‘s campaign as the Yellow Turbans felt moot and trivial. I spent a few turns waiting for any unique or faction-specific events, anything that’d immerse me in a world that’s changed with the rise of a spiritual leader. Sadly, nothing was of any import. It still seems as though you’re still playing as one of his offshoot followers that appeared a decade later.
Total War: Three Kingdoms – Mandate of Heaven: The final verdict
There were times when Mandate of Heaven did have flashes of brilliance and moments of inspiration. At times, it felt like a step up compared to Eight Princes. Then again, though Eight Princes was hardly imaginative, its features were functional. Likewise, that DLC was in development prior to the base game’s launch. In Mandate of Heaven‘s case, many of its new quirks come with inherent flaws, ones that made you scratch your head knowing that it’s been months since we last saw additional content.
In the end, I would’ve preferred a DLC with a tighter focus on flashpoint events, perhaps even those with smaller maps based on regions as opposed to fighting throughout the same countryside as you transition from one era to the next. It would be something akin to Rome II’s Hannibal at the Gates or Attila’s The Last Roman.
It’s clear, however, that Creative Assembly wanted to focus on the evolving sandbox and continuing narrative, one that Koei Tecmo has already done in their Romance of the Three Kingdoms series with each game’s numerous scenarios. I’d have no problem with that as well, and I do think Mandate of Heaven also shows Creative Assembly’s willingness to experiment and add more flavor to Total War: Three Kingdoms.
These concepts in Mandate of Heaven could make you log the extra hours to try out various lords or experience different events. Perhaps an improvement in scenario transitions, as well as more dynamic event chains and fixes to known issues would be ideal for future success. As of now, there’s barely anything to look forward to after the Mandate War has ended.