Total War: Three Kingdoms has had a couple of Chapter Packs/DLCs already. Eight Princes and Mandate of Heaven came and went. We know that more will be in store such as a look at the rise of Sun Ce in the Southlands, and the conflict between Cao Cao, Liu Bei, and Lu Bu. Further onwards, we’ll likely see the formation of the historical Three Kingdoms of Cao-Wei, Shu-Han, and Eastern Wu, and even Zhuge Liang’s campaign against the Nanman.
Still, it’s also time to reevaluate Creative Assembly’s overall strategy when it comes to releasing future DLCs. I’m speaking of ideas and concepts that can be gleaned from Koei Tecmo’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms (RTK) franchise and Paradox Interactive’s grand strategy titles. Likewise, we should also take a look at the DLC models for other Total War games.
Total War: Three Kingdoms and the RTK comparison
The first and most obvious comparison to be made is between Creative Assembly’s Total War: Three Kingdoms and Koei Tecmo’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The newest Total War title and Koei Tecmo’s long-running franchise both deal with the same period, events, and characters, but the two are quite different.
Still, the way Romance of the Three Kingdoms has been presented over the past few decades will make you wonder just how far Creative Assembly will tweak and expand on their product. For instance, most RTK games already provide you with numerous scenarios. Often, the first scenario would have the Han Empire facing off against the Yellow Turbans (much like Mandate of Heaven). After that, you’ll have scenarios such as:
- “Lu Bu, Riotous” – Lu Bu vs. Cao Cao vs. Liu Bei.
- “The Battle of Guandu” – Cao Cao vs. Yuan Shao.
- “The Three Visits” – Liu Bei stuck in Xinye, waiting for Zhuge Liang to enter his service.
- “Liu Bei, King of Hanzhong” – The zenith of Shu-Han’s prosperity before the deaths of Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei.
You can see more examples in this Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI video from YouTuber Checkpoint TV:
While each scenario does have interesting lords for you to pick, you can play as any other faction leader — or, at times, roleplay as any officer — as the sandbox continuously evolves. Then again, this creates a twofold problem:
- First, it’s that each Romance of the Three Kingdoms game and scenario can become repetitive and formulaic. If you already know the right moves, and if you’ve got the right officers for the job, you’ll often find yourself dominating most of China as any warlord. You’ll no longer bother with other scenarios if that’s the case.
- Second, it’s that Total War: Three Kingdoms, as far as the base game is concerned, only has one scenario (190 CE). Additional scenarios will likely become paid DLC.
The question therein is: How can Total War: Three Kingdoms provide refreshing and reinvigorating scenarios without getting bogged down by the mid to late-game slog, all while justifying each DLC’s price tag?
Events and scenario transitions
One answer I can provide would be events and scenario transitions. Specifically, it’s to ensure that events would continue to fire as you progress later in the game. Meanwhile, those future scenarios/DLCs can have prerequisites that you can meet to lead to desired outcomes.
In Total War: Three Kingdoms – Mandate of Heaven, the above is more of a janky and underutilized concept. In our official review, I enumerated several bugs as well as a lack of events that could’ve kept you playing longer. Things are only exciting for the first few turns. After that, you’ll hardly encounter anything worth your while.
For instance, Zhang Jue and the Yellow Turbans didn’t have anything of import past the Mandate War; no diplomatic changes or quirks that made you feel as though this spiritual revolution of the masses was truly supplanting the Han. It’s restricted to the same old mechanics that you’ve seen from his followers.
Don’t even get me started on Liu Hong. The Han Emperor’s Mandate of Heaven campaign can end within a couple dozen turns. After that, it’s a simple waiting game to amass enough points so you can annex vassals.
In the case of the Han lords, including Dong Zhuo, here are some findings:
- There’s a bug that can prevent the capture of Luoyang and the dissolution of the empire, leading to every faction being stuck in a binding imperial alliance.
- There’s no event chain that has Lu Bu assassinating the tyrant because of Diaochan.
- Similarly, there’s no outcome where Yuan Shao eventually leads a massive coalition.
- Dong Zhuo tends to form coalitions where his underlings are the “historical protagonists” of the Three Kingdoms era.
- Oh, and the puppet Han Emperor can escape your clutches even though you’re more powerful than your rivals.
With these flaws in mind, the next questions are:
- How will Total War: Three Kingdoms manage scenario transitions and events as more DLCs are added?
- Can player interest be retained if you start from Mandate of Heaven (182 CE) until such time when Zhuge Liang and Sima Yi are duking it out in Wuzhang Plains (228 to 234 CE)?
- How will you align these concepts (for players who want to follow a historical timeline) with an evolving sandbox?
The Paradox Interactive answer: Pre-game options
Outside of having clear prerequisites for event triggers, more ideas seem viable if we look at how another company has handled its offerings. I’m speaking of Paradox Interactive’s Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis, and Hearts of Iron franchises. Although all these grand strategy games have an evolving sandbox, there are pre-game options that you can tweak, toggle, and customize to your liking.
In Crusader Kings II, you’re able to create a “Shattered World” or a “Randomized World.” You’re changing the settings for de jure duchies and kingdoms, cultures, technologies, and, yes, even the spawns of Great Conquerors.
In Europa Universalis IV, meanwhile, you can create your own nation from scratch, randomize the Americas, and you’ve even got settings for “Lucky Nations.” The last one ensures that nations such as Castille, Muscovy, Prussia, and the like will attain prominence due to additional bonuses.
Hearts of Iron IV takes this a step further. The World War II game lets you tweak the bonuses of specific nations to give them an edge as the conflagration engulfs the globe. Likewise, you could change the AI settings for various countries to follow an outcome straight from the pages of alternate history novels. Fascist Australia and Canada fighting an Italy that wants more democratic powers for its parliament, all while a neutral Japan watches on? Yes, you can do that.
With these options, it’s possible for Total War: Three Kingdoms to give players more freedom in how they want a campaign to play out. Imagine being able to create your own warlord or, at the very least, no longer seeing Shi Xie becoming emperor for the umpteenth time all because no one’s curbing his ambitions in the south.
DLCs from other Total War games
While those examples come from other franchises and developers, one need only take a look at how Creative Assembly has crafted prior DLCs for existing Total War titles. There was a reason why I’ve often looked forward to Warhammer II Lord Packs, as well as being intrigued by offerings such as Attila‘s The Last Roman or Hannibal at the Gates and Caesar in Gaul from Rome 2.
It’s because, for the most part, these offerings felt unique. While certain campaign mechanics, battle tactics, and units feel familiar, the overall experience will be different from what you’ve gotten used to in each grand campaign. Even the campaign maps (for historical Total War titles) have a tighter focus on regions or provinces where a flashpoint event or conflict took place.
Total War: Three Kingdoms‘ DLCs will probably never go the route of other Creative Assembly games. We’re likely to see the same massive map of China for each and every Chapter Pack. We’ll also see new unique officers down the line (which everyone wants). These, in and of themselves, aren’t problems. After all, Luo Guanzhong’s Sanguo Yanyi, and the historical records about the time period, show a sweeping narrative and a story that deserves to be told, one that has numerous heroic characters, dramatic shifts, and twists along the way.
However, that tighter focus is something that’s been missing in the past two DLCs for Total War: Three Kingdoms. Yes, there are lords that’ll wow and excite you as you play them. Yes, there are certain quirks that’ll seem interesting at first glance. But, as you progress further, you’ll realize that you’re on the same journey that you’ve already undertaken if you’ve completed the grand campaign multiple times in the past. As someone who’s written several reviews and guides after dozens of playthroughs, this problem becomes even more pronounced the more hours you put in.
Going back to Koei Tecmo’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms franchise, the limitations of each scenario, as well as how often campaigns play out the same way after initial challenges, tend to lead you to prefer one over others: “Rise of Heroes.” That’s the one scenario where all faction leaders and officers are alive at the same time, and you’re free to make your own custom warlord entering the fray.
As for why this has become my go-to scenario? It’s because it’s the only one that remains refreshing from start to finish. And it’d be a shame if future Total War: Three Kingdoms DLCs would lead to lackluster mechanics, repetitious gameplay, poor customization options, bugged events, non-existent or janky scenario transitions, and missed opportunities that, in the end, you’d opine for something akin to another “Rise of Heroes” to keep you interested.
Here’s to hoping that Creative Assembly decides to reevaluate future Total War: Three Kingdoms DLCs to keep players interested all throughout. New characters and perks are always a given. However, we need to look and think beyond these additions if we’re to fully realize the scope, scale, and ambition of a game with this much potential.