The next stop in Total War’s journey through the ages is ancient China, with a “romanticized history” game Total War: Three Kingdoms.

Sega’s Creative Assembly studio has a lot of loyal fans for its Total War series of historical real-time strategy games. But after 18 years, Creative Assembly is shaking things up for those fans. It branched into fiction and fantasy with the Total War: Warhammer games, and now it it is moving beyond pure history with the romance and mythology based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

In a first for the series, the game features a “romanticized” version of the period including generals with preternatural fighting abilities able to tackle scores of enemy troops single-handedly and heavily influence battles. However, the game will also feature a Classic Mode that offers a more grounded, historically authentic Total War experience. That’s quite a balancing act, satisfying the history buffs and making the game culturally authentic at the same time.

The romance brings in the opportunity for drama, as the period “is brimming with tales of brotherhood, rivalry, treachery, civil war, and conquest, and that makes it the perfect setting for a historical Total War game,” Three Kingdoms game director Janos Gaspar, said in a post. This Total War features leaders who can participate in battles and turn the tide.

At a recent preview event, I played a battle where the warlords squared off against each other, and then I interviewed Patrick Lally, brand manager, and James Given, community manager at Creative Assembly. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview. The game comes out on the PC in 2019.

Above: Patrick Lally (left) and James Given of Creative Assembly.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: Is this a new engine, or is it the same as one of the previous games?

James Given: For each Total War game, we have a new engine. Each one is a different iteration. It’s a very modular engine, which is something we’ve been using for a long time. Every one is different in some way, because they all have different requirements they need to cover. We’re trying to bring that kind of authenticity when it comes to China. We wanted to bring a particular feel to it. It’ll play differently than the other Total War games.

GamesBeat: Did the team making this roll off of Warhammer?

Patrick Lally: It’s mostly the Total War Attila team. We have separate teams in terms of Warhammer, the fantasy team, the Saga team working on Thrones of Britannia, and the major historical title team, which is primarily the Attila guys, but also other people as well. As Creative Assembly has expanded, we’ve hired more staff. It’s all in the one Horsham office.

GamesBeat: Attila was a while ago. Have they been working on this for a long time?

Lally: This is an idea we’ve wanted to do for a while. We’ve been fans of the era for years. Doing it correctly, it’ll be a first for this title. It’s something we’re really passionate about as a studio. It seems like such an awesome fit for a Total War game. We want to make sure we nail it when we release this. A lot of the people in the studio are very invested in this. It’s their baby.

GamesBeat: Is this similar to Shogun in some way?

Lally: They’re both art-driven games, I would say. There’s a lot of emphasis on the way the visuals look, and the way that—when you play Shogun, for example, and when you play Three Kingdoms, you’re being taken into a world that’s been created. There’s a lot of depth, and a coherence to the art style and the visuals that makes it feel like you’re being transported to this foreign place. It’s exotic. A lot of the visual style is very different. Shogun II had more of an aged, historical approach. This is more of a mixture of contemporary imagery and the art of the period. There are different styles in the artwork, but in terms of being art-driven, and a huge importance put on the look and feel of the visuals, that’s a good comparison to make.

GamesBeat: Dueling is one of the more interesting new features. It seems like it has a lot of narrative around it.

Lally: That’s right out of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms novel. When these larger-than-life hero characters meet, often they have a duel, and there’s pages and pages of how these epic duels play out. It was a big thing for the team to capture that aspect of these stories, this narrative, to ensure that’s perfected in the game. The larger-than-life characters, the Lu Bus, the Xiahou Duns, you can see what happens when they clash.

Above: You’ll fight massive battles in Total War: Three Kingdoms.

Image Credit: Sega

GamesBeat: How did you set up the duels so they work well in terms of gameplay and narrative? Do you have different dialogue when they meet in different parts of the battle?

Lally: Over the course of the campaign, characters will build their own friendships and rivalries. Based on what’s happened in previous battles, what they say will change. If they’ve clashed before, they may come out with great respect for each other. “I fought Lu Bu, he’s a great warrior, I respect him because of that.” And then next time that character meets him, he’ll speak to him more respectfully. Or it might be, “This guy is disloyal, I hate him, I’m going to try to get one over on this guy.” It affects that conversation system as well.

GamesBeat: When you hit that duel button, what happens? Does the fight just play out?

Given: They’ll fight each other on the battlefield. They’ll ride up against each other, and no one else can engage during this. It’s simply a duel between these two warriors. You can use your abilities during that battle. It’s a big step up from our matched combat system. We worked with real wuxia martial artists, some amazing stuff in the studio, where we got them in our mocap and got them to fight it out. Our brand manager got to swing a sword a bit as well, but that didn’t make it into the game. [laughs]

There are penalties if you try to run away from a duel. It’ll affect your retinue, which is a big part of how you recruit troops in the game. They’re very loyal the heroes, the warlords that they follow. If he dies in a battle, or he runs away, that has a negative effect on those troops and they’ll be more likely to run away from a fight. You can lose a quarter of your army by running away from a duel, if you hastily started one with someone you couldn’t beat. And victory also has massive implications for the battle, both positive for you and negative for whoever was slain.

Above: Total War: Three Kingdoms features a new engine with better graphics.

Image Credit: Sega

GamesBeat: Are all the characters historical, or from the story at least?

Lally: All the characters existed. The battles, predominantly, happened. Some of them are a bit over the top — they might not have played out how they’re described – but the events that happen in the game are based on history. It’s just that it started off—Lu Bu was presumably a good warrior, a competent warrior. So the story starts as, “I saw Lu Bu kill one guy,” and then it becomes “I saw Lu Bu kill five guys,” and then “I saw Lu Bu kill 10 guys.” Over the retellings it became more romanticized, more epic, and eventually you get this story about how he was unbeatable, how he could kill a whole army single-handed, he was this ultimate badass.

It’s all grounded in history. It’s just a romanticized version of history. If you want something more historical, more like the approach we’ve used in previous Total War games, we do have that classic mode that you can turn on. That dials it all back down. Lu Bu becomes a good warrior. He can hold his own against another warrior. If he’s surrounded by 10 men he’s probably going to die, because that’s what happens to human beings.

Given: You would go from having an individual hero to having a retinue. He’s part of a unit, rather than just an individual on the battlefield. It caters more to people who like historical accuracy, so they can play that. But it also gives the rich storytelling of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which, as you’ve seen today, definitely shows through.

Above: In-game footage from Total War: Three Kingdoms.

Image Credit: Sega

GamesBeat: You haven’t had to zero in on one character on the battlefield as much in previous games. Is that harder to do?

Given: Obviously this is very much a work in progress that you’ve seen today. It’s pre-alpha. We’re making ways so that when that battle happens, you’ll see spaces open up where they have their duels and these characters will be doing incredible amounts of damage to the front lines of troops. They’re going to be very prominent on the battlefield. You’ll be seeing them everywhere. There’s give and take. You’ll see them coming in, hitting big charges, being dismounted, doing these big attacks. Lu Bu just knocks troops flying. You’ll see that happen all across the battlefield, depending on what heroes you’ve brought to the fight.

GamesBeat: What kind of research did you guys get to do here?

Lally: Oh, there’s been tons of research. Some of the dev team is actually in China right now. We don’t have a team there, but we’re working with historical experts and cultural consultants. We’re talking more closely with our localization team than we ever have before to make sure we’re being accurate to the period. It’s an awesome narrative, and we have to make sure we capture it correctly, that it’s consistent and accurate and authentic.