A couple months ago, I previewed Total War: Three Kingdoms, with the initial reaction that the combat was worrisome and the strategy was on the right track. Around that time, Sega announced that it would be delay Three Kingdoms for two months. Sega PR approached me with a preview build recently to see how the game had been updated — particularly if the combat felt better. After they’ve worked with Three Kingdoms a bit more, I can say that it definitely seems like the delay has helped it play much more like what I hope for in a Total War game.

My key issue with the combat was that battles turned into chaotic, too-long scrums instead of tense tactical encounters with tight battle lines and brilliant manuevers. I had three theories as to why this was: first, that in the preview I played Liu Bei whose faction power was raising cheap peasant units; that I was playing in the Dynasty Warriors-like Romance mode instead of the more historical Records mode; and that hero units were ridiculously powerful.

New and slightly tweaked

I wasn’t able to get an answer to the first question, as unfortunately, this preview was 50 turns with either Yuan Shao or Gongsun Zan — no Liu Bei. However, I was able to test the other two theories.

As part of the first test, I tried playing as Gongsun Zan in the Records mode, and I definitely found that it’s less likely to have battles turn interminable … mostly because I lost them quickly. Which, fair enough! But losing that campaign let me give the other option a chance.

Above: Yuan Shao and Gongsun Zan battle for the north in Total War: Three Kingdoms

As Yuan Shao, I started a Romance game, so I could play the titular character and his heroes like Zhang He, Wen Chou, and Yan Liang. My initial phase was a decent bit of expansion against the local Han losers, but once I went against Gongsun Zan, I started struggling. A desperate peace left me without any place to go but against the local Yellow Turbans, the rebellious peasant army of the era.

This provided an ideal opportunity to test the new combat balance. I had smaller armies with better generals and units going up against much larger, less disciplined hordes. In my first major engagement, I was so outnumbered and didn’t react well, and was quickly routed. This was not good, but it was not good in a way that made tactical sense. The Yellow Turbans followed this up by splitting their forces and invading, in ways where I could attack them.

These battles worked like Total War should: heroes were powerful but not dominant, formations tended to hold for most of the battle, cavalry could dominate but only if they didn’t get stuck against spearmen. Having played these, I had my answer to the question of whether combat had been improved with an emphatic “yes!” It’s not quite at Shogun 2 levels — the peak of the series’ combat (without mods) — but it’s easily a match for Attila or early-game Total Warhammer battles. I look forward to whether the late-game fights, with stronger units, are even better as happened in Warhammer.

More and better

Another major question the local preview was able to answer for me: whether the game would actually run well on a PC that still uses some of the parts I used when I upgraded for Shogun 2, eight years ago. Shockingly, the game ran remarkably smoothly, especially with load screens not dominating the experience. (I did put it on my SSD, which was essentially mandatory with Total Warhammer.)

I do have long-term questions for the game still that I look forward to answering with the review build. There’s a clever system of colors and classes for characters and buildings matching the five elements of Chinese folklore, but trying to match all these things seems complex in a way I’m not sure is worth it for me to learn or to do. But that’s the sort of expertise that comes with long-term play — and with its most worrisome aspect resolved, I expect Total War: Three Kingdoms to deserve that kind of investment.