The Total War series has been on a continuous track of making you feel like you’re in an ancient battle since the series began 18 years ago. And with the newest game, Total War: Three Kingdoms, that sense of immersion is getting even better, based on a demo that I played. The game will be on display behind closed doors for the media next week at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the big game trade show in Los Angeles.

Inspired by both history and myth, the PC game is set in ancient China, when warring lords and their retainers fought for control of China in the second and third centuries. The dramatic story of the warlords was captured in Luo Guanzhong’s 14th century historical novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

The game tries to capture the drama of rivalry and treachery and brotherhood by using the warlords as actual characters in a narrative-driven game. The game still has the traditional structure of a Total War game, where you move armies around on a strategic map and then dive into tactical battle control when two armies meet in the field. The engine now has much better visuals of the 3D battlefields, and it can do a much better job of depicting human leaders up close in the action.

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

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

Image Credit: Sega

When the game debuts in 2019, you’ll be able to play the “romanticized history” version with the story of the warlords, or you can play in “Classic” mode, where the warlords don’t have superhuman powers on the battlefield. Interestingly, history fans would want the Classic action to remain true to their sensibilities, but the romance version gives the game more cultural authenticity, particularly among those familiar with the Chinese literature. In any case, Creative Assembly had to walk a fine line for authenticity on both fronts.

I played the romanticized version, where the characters were stronger and could make a difference in the tide of the battle. The leaders appear as single units on the battlefield, and they have an icon above them that makes it easier to identify them. These characters can hold their own against hundreds of rank-and-file warriors, and it’s a big deal when they duel each other in single combat. (In Classic mode, these characters are only human and march at the center of a bodyguard unit).

While the narrative will be lengthy and engaging, the Total War campaign map will be a sandbox, allowing the player to write their own stories and maneuver their armies as they wish. The outcome depends on the choices you make along the way.

The Battle of Xiapi

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

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

Image Credit: Sega

In my demo, I played as the leader Cao Cao, the minister of works for the powerful Han Dynasty and one of 11 warlords in the game. I controlled his forces in the Battle of Xiapi, one of the game’s historical battles, which took place in the spring of 199 AD in China’s eastern province of Xu.

The peerless warrior Lü Bu occupies Xiapi. His record is stained. He is trusted by few of China’s nobles, many of whom he allied with and later betrayed.

While Cao Cao is no match for Lü Bu in single combat, he is a gifted military commander, and his dominion is growing. Cao Cao spies an opportunity to expand his holdings, and his army now marches on Xiapi, where Lü Bu is bunkered with a force of his own. In the demo, the spear infantry can adopt a form of tortoise formation, protecting them from arrow fire. Cavalry also have wedge and diamond formations.

My forces surrounded the city in an epic siege. We had siege weapons (trebuchets) that hurled flaming rocks at the walled castle. When one of those rocks hit the castle’s tower, the game flashed to an animated cut scene showing the tower crumbling. Fortunately, there was already a big hole in the wall, ostensibly from a previous battle. So I sent my army of pikemen, archers, and swordsmen at the hole.

In-game footage from Total War: Three Kingdoms.

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

Image Credit: Sega

I also targeted the towers using the trebuchets, and I made sure that Cao Cao marched behind the troops. We met the enemy at the wall, and we stalled for a while there trying to get through. Eventually, the enemy gave way to my colorful red wave of soldiers, and we swarmed into the breach.

The battle showed off the Legendary Heroes, or the heroes, warlords, and warriors of the Three Kingdoms period. Once my troops were inside the fortress, they were wandering around, fighting various infantry formations that were defending the streets or the walls. I had to be wary of arrows coming from the defensive towers. I sent some troops to capture the center of the city, and they ran into Lü Bu.

He was running around in circles, attacking my ordinary troops. So I challenged him to single combat. Cao Cao went up against him, and they started engaging in Wushu hand-to-hand combat. A cut scene showed the action up close, but it was hard to see what was happening in the overhead view, as the characters were so small on the battlefield. I could zoom in some, but not as much as I liked. But I loved the overall 3D graphics, with everything from the skies to the individual soldiers rendered in realistic fashion.

Warlord Cao Cao in Total War: Three Kingdoms.

Above: Warlord Cao Cao in Total War: Three Kingdoms.

Image Credit: Sega

They fought for a while, and eventually Cao Cao wounded Lü Bu, who fled back to the city center. There, my forces closed in on him. In a cut scene, he went into panic and despair, and we captured him. It was quite satisfying, in comparison to the more anonymous nature of previous Total War conquests.

An army may contain up to three Heroes, each of which brings his own retinue of warriors to battle. Different generals have a different range of recruitment options, meaning your army͛’s versatility and unit differentiation rely on your choice of generals for that army, bringing a new sense of military organization to battles.

I like this blend of narrative drama, characters that you care about, and the epic battles. There are many history buffs who may be outraged about the departure from history, and they can be mollified by the Classic mode. But I think Total War: Three Kingdoms is going to be a big step up in the Total War series.